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How the use of minority rule is not limited to any one political party

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've heard examples of how Republicans have wielded disproportionate power compared to their share of the vote, so we were thinking, what about the Democrats? NPR's Ron Elving joins us to talk about ways they've enacted policies that were not necessarily supported by the majority of voters, and he's with us now. Ron Elving, thank you so much for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So the Affordable Care Act - or Obamacare, if you prefer - didn't have a clear consensus when it first passed, at least according to the polls. But now it does enjoy majority support. Is this common when it comes to this kind of legislation or legislation that's advanced by Democrats?

ELVING: Obamacare got more popular as people used it, of course, and got used to it and saw the worst things that were said about it were false or just overwrought - the stuff about death panels and all that. I don't think we can call that a common or typical scenario, but there are other examples, to be sure. Medicare was controversial. Even Social Security was called just socialism when FDR and big Democratic majorities passed it in the 1930s, but it has since become the most popular government program we have.

MARTIN: What about the other way? Are there examples of policies that were popular when they were passed, met with favorable support, but then it flipped once it was implemented?

ELVING: Yes, some of the measures taken during the pandemic, for example, both as health policy and economic policy, the enormous spending bills and the mandates. They were seen as necessary and supported by both parties in Congress in 2020, the pandemic panic year, and they have become convenient scapegoats for a lot of negative sentiment since. That's also been true of things in the past, such as wage and price controls in times of high inflation or various forms of regulation on banks and drug makers and so on. People like to see the government empowered and active when there's a crisis, but they soon resent the hangover of government action in power when the crisis has passed.

MARTIN: Just going back to the original question, is this the same as true minority rule? In the same that - I'm just thinking that maybe - these were policies that didn't poll majority support, but - at the time that they were adopted - but they were enacted by people who did, in fact, reflect the will of a majority of voters, which is what representative democracy is, which is to say, I am empowered to make these decisions because I represent you, even if you don't like every decision I make. Is this the same thing?

ELVING: You're quite right. The Constitution, of course, does not include anything about polling. We did not even begin conducting scientific polls until the middle of the 20th century. But we've been electing these people we call Congress for a lot longer than that. And so we have to take responsibility, as citizens, to vote and to elect people who, in fact, do reflect the will of the people, which necessarily means the will of the majority, with some protections for the rights of those who are not the majority. Now, the way our government is set up, the constitutional presumptions we've had for more than two centuries, that all gives great deference to the rights of minority parties.

The founders - or framers, as we call them - had a lot of concern about preserving the right to dissent. But the downside of that ideal is that it's been possible, at times, for as few as a third of the senators, representing a minor fraction of the national population, to block the will of the majority on civil rights, for example, and many other issues as well by using the filibuster.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the state level, though. Are there states where Democrats have exercised minority rule?

ELVING: Historically, in the South, there were many state legislatures that were dominated by conservative white Democrats who were elected over Republicans in their state and elected with little or no support at all from African Americans, whose voting was severely restricted or suppressed altogether. In our current politics, there are states where Democrats have used gerrymandering to gain disproportionate power in state government, but it's hard to think of one where you'd call it outright minority rule.

MARTIN: But this is, again, where I think Republicans point to the courts and say that Democrats have exercised minority rule through court action. What's your assessment? Is that a fair statement?

ELVING: That has been a huge historic fact, whether it was actually engineered by Democrats or not. The court has made big social policy changes that are now seen as primarily democratic policies - part of the Democratic platform - civil rights, voting rights, abortion rights, same-sex marriage. Although the irony here is that those court decisions were often written and supported by Supreme Court justices who were appointed by Republican presidents - presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thank you so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.