A real threat to democracy


Our modern concept of democracy developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. A major problem for the developing democracies was identified by Alexis de Tocqueville as the tyranny of the majority (1835). This problem, under slightly different names, was a concern of early American political writers such as James Madison (1787) and John Adams (1788). English writers such as Edmond Burke (1790) and John Stuart Mill (1859) also expressed concerns about the tyranny of the fifty-one percent. These thinkers and others recognized that the majority posed a threat to the minority. The solutions proposed included a government with more than one chamber, and a declaration of universal rights that could not be overwritten by any legislature.

These checks against the “tyranny of the majority” have had some success despite the current political atmosphere of populism and segmentation. However, there is a more serious problem that can be illustrated by the recent election in Quebec. The National Assembly of Quebec is composed of 125 elected members who are responsible for legislation in the province. The results (as percentages) of the last election are given in the following table:

Political Party % of Votes % of Seats
Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). 41.0 72.0
Quebec Liberal Party 14.4 16.8
Quebec Solidaire 15.4 8.8
Parti Quebecois 14.6 2.4
Conservative Party of Quebec 12.9 0.0

What this table demonstrates is something beyond the tyranny of the majority. It illustrates a tyranny of the minority. A party that has the approval of less than half of the voters has absolute control of the legislature.

In a political milieu that favours absolute ideologies, this misalignment between votes and seats poses a most ­­serious threat to real democracy. With its absolute control, the CAQ can modify any charter of rights or other legislation introduced to protect minority rights.

The most obvious solution would be to move to an electoral system where elected representatives more closely match the voting results. In a multi-party system, this could result in cases where no party has a clear majority. So, what is needed are legislative members who are more interested in a well functioning government rather than narrow political ideologies.

This implies a willingness to compromise and cooperate – features that are missing in today’s political environment. Politicians would be required to form policies that match real needs and not just clever attacks on opponents.

An educated well-informed electorate is the next requirement for a move to a more representative democracy.

And what happens if these changes are not made?

Our society degenerates into a real tyranny. If this is to be avoided individuals and society must act now.

Reform of the current system of elections must be implemented. We are faced with many issues: economic, environmental, health care, social, and many other categories. But if these problems are to be tackled by the people, a solid democratic foundation is essential. Our current system of choosing our legislative representatives does not meet these requirements.