One thing I really hated about Karl Rove was his “50 percent of the votes, plus one” doctrine. I don’t go for that precisely because I believe in democracy and not in mob rule. Of course, it is all the worse in the United States where very few people vote. So getting 50% of the vote almost never means 50% of the people are in favor of a particular policy or candidate. And the conservative approach is always the same: get as few people to vote as possible.
There are some things that are not open to a vote, however. This is what the Bill of Rights is all about. This is why it is so frustrating to hear libertarians, who I think are totally wrong but usually fairly smart, say that if slavery were what the people wanted it would be okay. Wrong! And in a small defense of libertarians, the smart ones understand this very clearly. There are some rights that are not open to a vote. What’s more, we have rightly decided as a people that there are some rights you cannot even give up. If you want to be a slave, you can’t be. That is a freedom you do not have.
So even though I still believe that Scottish independence is a good idea if done properly, I find the vote quite questionable. What if the “yes” vote had received “50 percent of the votes, plus one”? Would that really have made it okay to upset the current reasonable state of things on the basis of a single vote? I don’t think it would be. And that brings up an interesting question: what level of support would justify independence? I wish there were an easy answer to that question.
There are two parts of it. First, I think there should be a very clear majority. I think some kind of supermajority would be appropriate — perhaps 60%, although maybe just 55% would be more appropriate given that it isn’t the only requirement. Second, I think there should be a high level of homogeneity in that majority. This is similar to the decision of the Second Continental Congress that all the colonies be on board before they decided on declaring independence. Clearly, this creates all kinds of problems of definitions. You wouldn’t want Scotland divided up by households so that some old crank is the only thing that is stopping Scotland from getting its independence. But Scotland is divided into 32 council areas and I think majorities (or maybe even submajorities) in all of those ought to do.
I’m sure this is the kind of proposal that is likely to make me hated by everyone on all sides of the issue. But the truth is that I don’t much care how Scotland wants to organize its affairs. I’m just using it as an example. When it comes to very important and disruptive things, I think more than a simple majority ought to be needed. Of course, here in the United States, we have a conservative movement that is the worst of all worlds. At the same time that they believe that they ought to be able to turn America into a theocracy with “50 percent of the votes, plus one,” they stubbornly obstruct the government on things they even agree on. See, for example, how the Republicans in the Senate use the filibuster against nominations that they later vote unanimously for.
The truth is that creating a governmental structure that works is really hard. My hat is off to Mr Madison. But it is also true that there is literally no free system that can work if the vast majority of the people don’t abide by social norms. That means that nothing works if we don’t treat each other with shared humanity. And I think this is why America is at such a dangerous point in its history. The leadership of a major political party does not accept the legitimacy of the other political party. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Supreme Court had canceled the Florida recount and anointed Al Gore president? The same people who concocted the Brooks Brothers riot, would have started a revolution. Liberals didn’t like how George Bush became president, but they accepted it because they accepted the system. I think most conservatives accept the system. But the people leading the movement do not. And things could go south quickly if “50 percent of the votes, plus one” ever worked in the liberals’ favor.