There are different words to describe a system of minority-ruled government.
When a minority of one holds power, it is a dictatorship. Sometimes the dictator is clothed in the ritual garments of monarchy. Sometimes he or she must accommodate other power centers, as the British kings did when they allowed Parliament a gradually larger say.
Sometimes the dictator forms alliances with economic interests. Fascism as pioneered in Italy under Mussolini was an unholy alliance of favored businesses and Mussolini’s dictatorship. The dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt remained in power because he had forged a corrupt alliance with the military.
Oligarchy is the rule of a narrow elite. Latin America has a long history of rule by the wealthy few, who strive to hold power against the claims of the majority. If majority rule is a fundamental tenet of democracy, oligarchies tend to find ways to subvert the power of the majority and to ensure a continuation of minority rule.
In the United States the bastion of oligarchy is the U.S. Senate. That’s because the rules of the Senate provide for minority rule. It is anti-democratic, but it’s the way it is.
The pillar upholding the system of minority rule is the filibuster. Because of the filibuster rule, a minority of 41 can stand in the way of the majority 59. The filibuster is the delaying tactic that allows any senator to talk a bill to death by refusing to yield the floor unless the majority can summon 60 votes.
In the last four years the Republican minority has abused the filibuster rule as no other minority ever has. But now a rare opportunity awaits Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. At the beginning of a new session, a simple majority of 51 can vote to change the Senate rules, and Reid has let it be known that the Democrats intend to change the filibuster rules.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders must back efforts to limit the power of the minority to rule the day. In the past Democrats have been reluctant to do so because they wanted to reserve the filibuster power for the day when they were in the minority. But the Republicans have overplayed their hand, abusing the filibuster to such an extent that action is required.
Senators have made it easy to filibuster. They don’t have to stand up and talk. They just need to declare their intention to do so. That immediately subjects further action to the power of the minority. One of the changes the Democrats are contemplating is to end the so-called virtual filibuster, which would force senators who intend to block action actually to stand up and blather on. Let the nation see what they are doing. If they believe it is more useful to read the phone book aloud than to allow the majority to carry out its democratic responsibilities, let the nation decide whether it agrees.
For many decades, the filibuster was the preferred weapon of Southern segregationists intent on blocking progress on civil rights. The forces of racial oppression had always been led by an elite of Southern property holders, and the filibuster allowed them overweening power in the Senate. More recently, the filibuster has been deployed to serve an economic elite and Republican efforts to do its bidding.
But in a democracy the majority is supposed to rule. If we are afraid of what the majority might do, then we are afraid of democracy. Rather than thwarting the majority, democracy ought to empower the majority to carry out its program, and then let the voters judge. A majority that fails to serve the public interest will eventually and inevitably become a minority.
Now is the time to put democracy back in the hands of the majority. If the Republicans had not abused the filibuster in such brazen fashion, the Democrats might be less inclined to challenge the status quo. But the Republicans have given the Democrats every justification to take steps to curb the power of the oligarchs holding sway in the U.S. Senate.