DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Honoring the Losing Majority

By David Brin, Ph.D.

As we launch into another Presidential campaign, get ready for the same tiresome metaphors relating politics to sports, to war and even to revenge. In this race the front-runner will fight to maintain his lead over the underdog in key battleground states. The contest will be determined by clumps of electors that are awarded by winner-takes-all. Those on the victorious side will gather all the marbles, leaving the losers bitterly muttering about getting even next time.

It's all quite vivid, but is this way of seeing things accurate or helpful at making national policy? Are we really on such clearcut teams -- or opposing armies -- bent on total victory over our neighbors? Yes, there should be rules for making decisions and choosing leaders. Elections and majority rule constitute a vast improvement over the coercive aristocracies who dominated in ages past -- the rich or mighty few, lording it over peasants.

Still, even majority rule isn't perfect. A nation that treats the losing minority with contempt is just asking for trouble.

Fortunately, majority rule is already tempered in American political life -- when it comes to legislation. Congress seldom passes a law supported by just 51% of the people, while vigorously opposed by nearly half. Minority objections are eased by negotiation and tradeoffs. Small but intensely passionate lobbies may effectively veto measures that are desired only tepidly by much greater majorities. This dance of factions can be frustrating when popular measures get sidetracked by vigorous advocacy groups like, say, the National Rifle Association. But in a way, we also respect political minorities who stand up and get noticed.

Yes, this is still a far cry from consensus. (Especially in recent years, when decorum in the US Congress has plummetted.) Still, it is on the whole a better way than simple tyranny by the majority.

Things are different in the Executive Branch. Consider Ronald Reagan's "landslide" victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, or Lyndon Johnson's over Barry Goldwater in 1964. If your candidate wins by a 60/40 vote margin, you can legitimately call it a ringing victory, in modern political terms. But it still means that four in ten voting citizens did not want your guy in office. To that forty percent, the word "mandate" translates as -- drop dead!

All the more so after a close election, or -- as we all saw in 2000 -- one in which a dozen odd (some say suspicious) electoral quirks put in office the man with fewer popular votes. Even if Al Gore had come out ahead in the Florida recounts, eking Electoral College victory to accompany his popular vote win, would that razor-thin endorsement have entitled him to claim a clearcut mantle of history?

Can 50.1 percent legitimately ignore the wishes of 49.9 percent who disagreed?

[image from JonathanRosenbaum.com]

The European model of coalition parliamentary government offers little to America. We've seen benefits to letting a president appoint loyal officers, governing without undue interference from within. Still, George Washington understood the temptations of human nature, which can transform well-meaning leaders into lonely monarchs, broody, isolated, and paranoid. It is disturbing to witness our top elected official insulate himself (as has happened often in living memory) with all access to the inner sanctum barred by an ideologically-driven staff, justified by a sense of entitlement, cultural mandate and narrow-minded mission.

An inquiring press can help to moderate this trend, as do Constitutional checks and balances. Yet, more is clearly needed. Some way to honor the millions of Americans who lose each election -- whether by squeaker or landslide -- ensuring that their concerns will at least be heard.

There is precedent for this notion. Originally, the Constitution awarded a prize for second place -- the Vice Presidency. If little else, at least the electoral runner-up got a bully pulpit. But after near-disaster in the flawed election of 1804, the system was amended to make the Vice President more of a deputy, chosen by the winning party. Nevertheless, this precedent does show what the founders had in mind. They always intended for the losing side to get something.

Might there be some way to acknowledge the losing minority in a presidential election, without grinding their face in humiliation, making them determined to do the same thing, when their turn comes around?

As the champion anointed by millions of our countrymen, a defeated presidential candidate should get something. Especially after a tight election, when the losing side feels indignant and robbed. In fact some wonderful crackpot suggestions have been offered... plus a reasonable one.

First, here's an idea that may seem a bit silly. Imagine how it might have mollified millions of Democrats, and created a more collegial atmosphere after the bitter election of 2000, if just one of George W. Bush's electors had switched sides when it came to the vote for Vice President. By helping install Joe Lieberman as VP, they could have made a gesture toward government by negotiation, consensus and respect, while still handing the reins of actual power to their chosen man. Even staunch Republicans I know smile when they think of this -- comparing the respected Lieberman to the reviled Cheney -- shaking their heads and saying "If only..."

All right, that suggestion is far-fetched (if thought provoking.)

But here's another modest recommendation.... one that's actually plausible. This suggestion requires no meddling in the Constitution, or with legitimate powers of the chief executive. Yet, it is so reasonable that only a churl could possibly refuse.

Imagine a candidate or new President Elect making the following pledge:

"If I become president, I promise to ask my honorable opponent to pick a panel of Americans who will have control over my appointment calendar one afternoon per month. And I expect my opponent to serve on that panel. On that afternoon, I shall meet with -- and listen to -- any individuals or delegations that panel may choose. Millions of Americans will then know that I do not live in a tower of ideological isolation. I will answer questions and hear dissenting points of view."

Such a pledge would cost a candidate and president little to make or to fulfill. There is no obligation to act on what the delegations say, only to be accessible, listening occasionally to more than one ideology. More than one brain trust of cloned advisors.

Indeed, the legitimacy of any administration will be enhanced if we see the president receive articulate, passionate emissaries, representing diverse opinions and walks of life.

During the first era of our republic, private citizens used to knock on the door of the White House and ask to see their nation's leader. As recently as the time of Harry Truman, there was a slim chance of seeing the president somewhere in public, buying socks for real, not as a publicity stunt. Not thronged by photographers and Secret Service agents. There is genuine peril in losing this connection between power and everyday life.

If today's president cannot safely venture among us, representatives of sundry outlooks should have a route to him or her. Not just public figures, but individuals from the ranks of the poor and dispossessed might win a chance to plead their case before the highest official in the land. (Ronald Reagan showed how anecdotes can tug the heart more than a thousand statistics.) Even if such meetings don't benefit multitudes, at least a few worthy petitioners might get hearings, and possibly some justice.

Moreover, this would give those tens of millions who lost the election something. A token -- or perhaps more. A vow to listen.

If a nominee's goal is to live as a potentate, insulated from his or her countrymen, this is one pledge to avoid. But if the aim is to be president of all Americans, then what harm could such a promise do?