SODOM & GOMORRAH: The supermajority is a concept that defies all logic.
The supermajority is the practice of requiring more than 51% to enact a law, statute, or rule. In modern government, the supermajority requirement is generally reserved for very important decisions: constitutional changes, overturning an executive veto, etc. On face value, it seems to make sense – it shouldn’t be easy to change really important things.
Yet there is no logic to the supermajority.
First, the supermajority destroys the legitimacy of the government that uses it. In modern government, the will of the people as expressed through democratic processes is said to be supreme. Even in a representative institution such as a congress, the members are elected through a popular vote and each member is supposed to make decisions based on the needs and interests of their constituency. Yet at what point during the voting process is the will of the people achieved? It certainly can’t be disputed that a unanimous vote represents the will of the people; if everyone votes for something, literally everyone wants that something. Is 51% the will of the people? Presumably. Democracy rests on the assumption of a demos, or a unified people that have come together to agree on a certain form of political procedure and way of life. When a majority of that unity decides on something, that must be its will. In Hobbesian terms, if my stomach is hungry but my mind wants to continue writing this article and I write the article, my self has expressed its will if I continue writing. Since the body politic has been employed as a metaphor by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who contributed greatly to our idea of the modern state, it stands to reason that this 51% is the expression of an actual will (Rousseau has a nuanced take on this, but his views haven’t been adopted wholesale – different article for a different time). So democracy is fulfilled with this 51%.
To demand something more than 51% is to suggest that 51% is not really the will of the people. If the modern state constitutions are accurate when they say the people form the government, then 51% should be ample to make any change whatsoever. If a unanimous vote is required, then the assumption is that the people’s will exists only when everyone is in agreement – thus nullifying the legitimacy of all laws passed with anything less than 100% of the vote. If a supermajority of two thirds or three fourths of the vote is required, then the entire system of voting is called into question. If I can pass a law with 51 people, but can pass larger laws with 67 people, the rule requiring 67 is only democratically legitimate if these extra votes are qualitatively different than the first 51. The fact is, any legislator or citizen can find themselves counted in the additional percentage, so it is only numerically different. And if voting only satisfies an arbitrary numerical requirement (why 67 and not 83?), it doesn’t have much of a claim to justice. Yes, more people support an idea, but there’s no justification as to why a larger number of supporters adds legitimacy to the idea. I have numbers and support, not necessarily truth – and a greater proximity to the truth has been the sole justification for liberalism’s insistence on free speech and press. These things too, potentially, lose their legitimacy.
Once this legitimacy has failed, voting is just a matter of numbers and the state experiences factionalism. It’s just a matter of groups forming alliances of numbers to seize political control of the state to pass what laws they wish through legal means. In other words, voting is no longer an expression of the will of a unified people but the will of disparate, self-interested groups. Democracy has ceded to pluralism.
Second, supermajorities strengthen tyranny instead of preventing it. If the justification for requiring a supermajority was to make important laws more difficult to change so that a strong group couldn’t easily oppress a weaker one, then the supermajorities fail miserably. When 51% tyrannize 49%, it is much easier for the smaller group to defend itself. When 67% tyrannize 33%, the smaller group has a much more difficult time resisting tyranny. Equally, when 99% decide to persecute the 1%, the 1% has no chance of survival.
To say that oppression has been averted through the use of supermajorities is false; supermajorities only guarantee stronger forms of tyranny down the road. To say that decisions made by a supermajority hold more weight is also false; they erode the only source of legitimacy that the state has claim to.