When democracy isn’t democratic

Imagine you have an apple pie and there are six people who want a piece. It seems obvious that if you’re a fair person, you would go ahead and divide the pie in six equal pieces. This is how small groups of individuals make compromises which allow each person to have an equal opportunity, in this case, to have pie.

Now, imagine the pie was much bigger, and there were millions of people who wanted a piece of it. Assuming it’s large enough to feed them all, a decision is made to vote on who should have the pie, and how big each relative piece will be. If the votes had concluded only 52.4% of the population was entitled to a piece, and the remaining percentage were given nothing, would we consider this decision, even thought it was made democratically, to be fair?

Our intuition tells us such a vote, even though it is democratic, is terribly unfair, because we recognize there is no earthly reason why only 52.4% of the population should be entitled to eat it exclusively.

We refer to this kind of injustice as the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’. It is the idea that in a democracy, the majority’s interest can often resemble the tyranny of despots.

Most of the time, this form of tyranny is itself fairly benign. If a slim majority of citizens wants a park to be demolished in favor of more development, the results, although sad for those against the decision, generally causes little harm.

But on matters of civil rights – as was the case with Proposition 8 in California which wanted to repeal the rights of homosexuals to marry – the results are both dramatic and frightening. Here was a referendum designed to remove rights some individuals already possess. With the proposal having gone through during the presidential election, it will soon be impossible for any person to marry another of the same sex.

The reason so few people are outraged is because of their implicit trust in democracy. Surely, they ask, how can any decision made democratically be wrong? The answer is simple: any time a majority is asked to decide on the specific rights of a minority, the danger is they are in a position to deny the very rights they themselves may enjoy. In essence, it is not only tyrants who can suppress the rights of others. This can be done within a democracy as easily as a dictatorship. All you need is 51% of the population to agree.

The fact such a proposal could make it as far as the ballot box is a testament to how fragile the system really is. Added to that the fact a slim majority chose to trample on the civil rights of their fellow citizens is even more frightening.

It’s ironic that a big reason the proposal went through was due to the black vote, which overwhelmingly was for the proposal. Here is a minority that only 60 years ago was desperately fighting for the same rights as white people. One would think the scars of the civil rights movement would run deep enough in the black community to ensure they would feel sympathy towards this issue. However, as is so often the case, the personal prejudices of fallible human beings won out, and the result is both tragic and sad.

I don’t care if you personally feel homosexuality is a deviant lifestyle. It is irrelevant to the idea that each person in a republic should enjoy the freedoms and liberties that other citizens enjoy. To claim one group is allowed a special privilege is no different than assigning specific bathrooms for people of color, or banning interracial marriages.

We cannot make the blanket assumption that, in times of confusion, democracy will sort things out for us. Using the vote as a tool to force your beliefs on others does not do justice to the spirit of democracy. The ability to vote is the acknowledgment that every person is equal, but this does not mean collusion, even if unintended, cannot occur. It does, and often the results can be devastating.

Lastly, the fact this vote is considered democratic shows how little we now understand about the nature of democracies. As a society, we have all but eliminated civics from the education system, and there is no emphasis on teaching our population the spirit of democracy. Instead, we are merely taught the mechanism of democracy without the benefit of its spirit, and we should not be surprised when it is usurped and corrupted. The 52.5% citizens of California have all failed when they put their personal prejudices above their need to be good citizens. It’s a sad time for California, and a sad time for democracy.

Comments (9)

  • avatar


    Well, said Jake. I agree fully with your explanation….love the “apple pie” example.

  • avatar


    initiatives in CA have a very low bar to get on the ballot. democracy by the people…

  • avatar

    Reverend Clint

    Even though California is the best state in the nation it leaves a lot to desire.

  • avatar


    Yes, I can’t wait until the Asians finally get to take over and strip the rights of whichever minority is still left at the bottom.

    I’m so disappointed in my home.

  • avatar


    This is a comment about the podcast but I don’t know where else to put it. Can’t believe you ranted so long about it but got it so mixed up.
    Yes, this is the second time Californian’s voted on the issue, but it’s not a change from their previous vote. They banned gay marriages the first time by referendum.
    Then a gay couple tried to get married, were prevented, and sued the state. The California Supreme court ultimately said the ban (passed by popular vote) violated the California constitution.
    So the people of California (well, really the church in Utah) passed a new referendum, this one saying “change the constitution so a ban will be legal.”
    So twice the people have spoken and both times for banning gay marriage. The state did not apply to the US Supreme Court (or if they did the SCOTUS declined to take it).
    Now with the California constitution changed, there’s no more state court issues but the original couple says they will now appeal to SCOTUS saying the California constitution violates the US Constitution. Many state constitutions violate the US Constitution and are therefore unenforceable such as the Maryland prohibition against atheists holding public office.

    Oh, and separation of church and state is embodied in the FIRST Amendment. It’s the very first line of the First Amendment. When the founders decided they needed specific guarantees of rights, the very first one they thought needed protection was freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

  • avatar


    vincent, you’re wrong. The appeal is to the state court challenging the definition of the initiative as an amendment. they’re claiming it’s too substantial a change to be considered an amendment, thus requiring a simple majority, and must be called a revision, and require a 2/3rd majority.
    And the whole “the people have spoken” argument is vacuous at best. the people have spoken about tons of stuff, slavery, racism, anti-miscegenation, blah blah blah. one of the very biggest reasons we have a constitution is to PROTECT MINORITIES FROM THE MAJORITY.

    Also, don’t forget that the pro-hate voters are dying off. eventually we’ll have justice in CA, but man, is Prop 8 shameful in the interim.

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