the republic, for which it misunderstands

I’d been planning to write this post since the passage of California’s Proposition 8 last Tuesday eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, but because I procrastinated, as usual, others, including Jeff, have beat me to the punch. Nevertheless, here’s my own take on the matter.

Two issues that have often distressed me, and that especially concern me in the aftermath of Prop. 8 are the claims like those of its supporters that 1) we live in a “democracy,” which they define as “majority rule,” and that 2) judges are “activists” who overstep their bounds when they overrule a majority vote directed at eliminating or restricting rights for a minority group.

First, it’s shameful that so many Americans, perhaps even a majority, have such a fundamental misunderstanding of their country’s government. Yes, America is a democracy, but the word “democracy” does not necessarily mean that “majority rules.” There are many types of democracies. The US is, of course, a constitutional republic, a particular form of democracy that constrains the ability of the majority, or of any one person, entity or governmental branch, to have unchecked power, especially over minorities, and especially concerning individual rights:

A constitutional republic is a state where the head of state and other officials are elected as representatives of the people, and must govern according to existing constitutional law that limits the government’s power over citizens. In a constitutional republic, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are separated into distinct branches and the will of the majority of the population is tempered by protections for individual rights so that no individual or group has absolute power. The fact that a constitution exists that limits the government’s power makes the state constitutional. That the head(s) of state and other officials are chosen by election, rather than inheriting their positions, and that their decisions are subject to judicial review makes a state republican… (Wikipedia)

Moreover, America was founded as such a constitutional republic in large part specifically to safeguard the rights of minorities against the “tyranny of the majority.” Claiming that a majority vote is sufficient to remove a right from a minority group, then, is about as un-American an idea as possible and by definition un-republican (lower case).

And this means that the judges who make unpopular decisions upholding minority rights, whether it be the right of interracial marriage or in California of same-sex marriage, are not creating law, they are not usurping the right of the majority, for in fact the majority is constitutionally not intended to have the ability to restrict the civil rights of a minority. Rather, these courts are doing what they were created and are constitutionally obligated to do. And in doing so, they remain significantly more true to the founders’ ideals than do those who would establish a mobocracy in America. For that is what the philosophy of “majority rules” is, in its purest form, nothing more than an angry, ugly mob.

You’d think that with their veneration (almost to the point of fetishization) of the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes “and to the Republic, for which it stands,” the right especially would have a little better understanding of U.S. government, and would at least learn what a republic really is, if they’re pledging allegiance to it. Apparently, not so. On the other hand, it’s a wonder that the right loves the Pledge of Allegiance so much in the first place, given that it clearly states, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” Not “all except blacks,” or “all except women,” or “all except gays and Lesbians,” even though there were times in our history when “all” or “we the people” was believed to mean only “all white men”; it was just as wrong then as it is now, and the courts were just as correct in their duty to rule against excluding gay folk from “all” in California earlier this year as they were in ruling against noninclusive forms of “all” for people of color and for women in the past. And the 52% majority was wrong to believe that they should have any say in it, or that having voted to deny civil rights that the case should be closed.

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