Guest columnist Jon McCabe: Yes to minority rights but no to minority rule 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Democracy is always rooted in the assumption that the majority should generally have its way, with some important exceptions. In the American context, majority rule is limited by an essential set of protections laid out in the Bill of Rights for individuals and for groups that fall under what the Supreme Court has labeled “suspect classifications,” such as race, national origin, religion, or alienage.

The point here is that government should reflect the will of the people, as long as it pursues “compelling state interests” and does not violate individual rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection under the law.

Given the tortured history of this country, reasonable people have come to recognize that minority rights (and here I mean racial, ethnic and religious minorities) must be carefully safeguarded, and majorities who behave tyrannically should be held in check. That said, legitimate majority rule remains the cornerstone of our government at all levels – federal, state and local.

Along with centuries of failure to protect minority rights in this country, our history is replete with examples of special interests attempting to game our constitutional and governmental systems to impose minority rule and thwart legitimate democratic processes (and here I mean numerical minorities). The protection of minority rights is essential to a healthy democracy. The imposition of minority rule is generally a corruption of democratic processes.

As we consider our path forward here in Amherst, let’s make sure we understand this important distinction, and keep those folks honest who wish to conflate the two.

For years in Amherst, we saw an entrenched numerical minority use Town Meeting, its easy standard for winning a seat and its byzantine rules, to impose minority rule on the town. Ever since Amherst voters replaced Town Meeting with a more accountable Town Council, those who wish to maintain power via minority rule have aggressively sought new ways to obstruct the majority here in Amherst who want better schools, a renovated library, and decent work accommodations for our valued town first responders and workers.

And now comes the claim by some obstructionists that they are the victims of an autocratic ruling majority. Town Meeting members had little accountability for their voting records on issues facing the town, given that so many of them did not face anything like a real election to win and retain their seats. The same ruling minority returned year after year to thwart the will of a growing new majority in town who want to see sensible investment in better services.

In contrast, the 10 town councilors who represent the town’s five districts were elected in highly competitive races, and will hopefully be subject to another set of competitive races this year.

The fact that each district councilor represents specific sets of contiguous neighborhoods makes them directly accountable to the citizens in their area, and it is very likely they will be held accountable for their voting records by the majority of district voters. That’s democracy, folks.

The three at-large councilors are elected to represent the town as a whole. They too will be subject to the verdict of a majority of voters across the town. That makes them accountable to all of us, North Amherst, South Amherst, and downtown.

Other built-in checks on Town Council include the state law requiring a super majority over-ride for property tax increases greater than 2.5%. This generally limits town taxing and spending except for extraordinary needs like schools and other essential capital projects.

There is also the upcoming townwide referendum on the Jones Library renovation. Yet another check on council power. Given the relatively small number of petition signatures calling for this referendum relative to the overall voting population of the town, it will be interesting to see how the vote turns out. It will be even more interesting to see what the former ruling minority will do if they lose once again. I would hope they abide by the will of the majority in town this time if that’s the way the vote turns out.

Jon McCabe of Amherst is an adjunct professor of political science and philosophy at Holyoke Community College.