Minority of the Opulent

When one is attempting to explain our very anti-democratic electoral college to someone from outside the US, there is usually a strong desire to explain it away, to claim it is a safeguard on Democracy. We are told it is to protect minorities. As DJ said in an earlier comment thread:

“The very premise of democracy is respect for minority opinions, especially when those opinions are concentrated in geographic regions.”

Anyone serious about democracy would agree that protection for minorities is crucial. But when thinking of this we must consider what minority is protected. Our nation, according to James Madison,  at the Constitutional convention,  should “be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” When you consider American history it is this minority that has been protected. It is for this minority that we attack and invade other nations to open up new markets to their capital. It is for this minority that we maintain military bases across the planet in nearly every single nation for the sole purpose of protecting this minorities interests. When workers strike or take other actions to protect their interests, the police step in on the side of the owning class to protect them. The constitution was not set up to protect an abstract minority. It was set up to protect the minority of the opulent. That basic thrust has not changed much over the past 235 years.

In the Federalist Paper #10 James Madison makes his argument for protecting against democracy. He tells us all the innumerable ways that we fall into factions: religious differences, different leaders, race, just about anything really. Our propensity toward falling into different factions is an innate part of our human nature, he claims. Madison goes on to explain:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society (emphasis added).

We’re all so frivolous, he tells us. We’ll fight over just about anything. But he admits that the most common source of faction is the “uneven and unequal distribution of property.” The minority of the opulent who own everything and leave us the scraps. All the nonsense about frivolity aside, Madison understood the real cause of trouble was that a few owned it all while the rest did without. He warned against the  leveling impulse of the masses and the need to protect the minority of the opulent.

Just look around. How are minorities doing in this country? Blacks continue to face hostile repression from homicidal police in their neighborhoods to the institutional racism of the Prison Industrial Complex that incarcerates blacks disproportionately. Native Americans have a life expectancy comparable to people in a Third World Country. Most of the work women do in our society is not valued at all. When we do value their work we pay them less than their male counterparts. Japanese Americans during World War II could have used some protection.

This nation protects one minority. The minority of the opulent. Democracy is the only cure for such a minority.


  1. Indeed, the founding fathers may have liked democracy as an ideal but weren’t real keen about letting the Great Unwashed participate.

    Hmmm. That hasn’t changed much, has it?

  2. “Men desire not to be rich, but to be richer than other men.” — John Stuart Mill

    That leveling instinct you mention generally does not exist. Rather, our instinct is to take away from those who have, in favor of those who have not – namely ourselves. The Soviets started with the philosophy of leveling, yet created a society as imbalanced as the one it replaced, but with a new group at the top. Our nation did the same.

    And while I agree that minorities in this country are not doing as well as the opulent – well, neither is the majority – but compare the state of our minorities with Sri Lanka, Sudan, Rwanda, or Mexico.

    I think we all know that Madison was a conservative. There have always been both conservative and liberal voices in this country. To claim that Madison is representative of the principles on which this nation was founded is comparable to saying George W. Bush is representative of our modern politics – it’s at best 48% true.

    I really wish that you could shake the rubber hand of an 11-year-old boy – a minority by the way – and track the root of the violence back to a decision made 50 years earlier that majority rule should be absolute. Perhaps you would find it as ironic as I do that the majority is as controlled by the opulent in that system as in ours – but the minorities are without any say, and have in practice lost the right to due process and even life.

    Then decide if the majority is as equanimous as you seem to think.

  3. DJ, I’m not sure what would lead you to believe I think the majority of people are equanimous. Madison wasn’t just one of the framers; he was The Framer. His ideas dominated the discussions at the Convention and it is this guiding principle of protecting the minority of the opulent that is still found today. J. Edgar Hoover once explained that the primary aim of law, and by this he meant state power, was order, not justice. Justice is a secondary consideration. Adam Smith, in his second Treatise on Government, pointed out that the chief end of men uniting into common wealth (the state) was the protection of property. And we see it right up to the present in Sam Huntington’s “Crisis of Democracy” which lays bare the real fear of Democracy. Huntington points out that in the days of FDR, the president was able to run the country with the aid of a few Wall Street Lawyers. But the 1960s changed that and meddlesome minorities, women, blacks, labor, were making their voices heard within the political framework. The “Crisis” of Democracy is precisely that the minorities are being heard and making a change.

    As far as “majority rule” being absolute, that’s your straw-man and you can keep it. The guiding principal of democracy is that we should have a say in decision in proportion to how we are affected by those decisions. I’ve done a six part video series on Democracy that addresses most of what you’ve said so far: http://www.youtube.com/user/buddhagem?feature=mhum

  4. If as you say “The guiding principal of democracy is that we should have a say in decision in proportion to how we are affected by those decisions,” then the central government (regardless of its form) is the problem, not the solution. Democracy demands that decisions be made at the lowest possible level – which suggests that power ought not to be concentrated in the hands of – well, anyone. It is the opposite of a unitary state. Power rests firstly with the people and secondly with their communities. Lastly and only where necessary should it rest with the central government.

    We have the opposite, with increasing power at the center, and the power of communities granted by the states (not the other way around).

    Ironically, people call me a Libertarian because I favor devolution of State power. I am not against government, but I am in favor of empowering it the most appropriate level.

    As for that straw man you refer to, I saw the violence first-hand and spent 14 years seeking to understand it. Once you get past the misunderstandings and disinformation of the media, things become much clearer: when a minority has no say in their own governance, they will eventually turn to violence. An overly-powerful central state coupled with a unitary system left 1/3 of the country out of the decision-making process. In this instance, nonviolence (however flawed) had been tried and brutally repressed. Violence became inevitable, unless power was devolved to a federal or confederal system. The majority refused. The rest is (quite literally) history. And the story isn’t over. The rebellion was quelled, a hundred thousand people died, but the causes remain unaddressed.

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