The term democracy has been given various meanings over the centuries. Perhaps most influentially, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America (1835, 1840), used the term to refer to American society as one characterized by great social, economic, and political equality, an attachment to equal rights, and a relative lack of class-based privileges. But democracy generally has been associated with political rule by the majority of citizens.
Majority rule, as a decision-making principle, has posed serious concerns for conservatives over the decades. These concerns have been central to major conservative works on American institutions and practices, such as John Adams’s A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) and John C. Calhoun’s A Disquisition on Government (1851). James Madison in The Federalist 10 (1787) deals directly and openly with a perplexity surrounding majority rule that has preoccupied many conservatives, namely, how can republican governments, based on the principle of political equality and majority rule, avoid rule by oppressive majorities—or, as Madison put it, majorities that would rule in a manner “adverse to rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”?
Conservatives, on the whole, oppose a plebiscitary democracy because its foundations rest on a view of society as merely an undifferentiated collection of individuals. In this form of democracy, often associated with the underlying values and assumptions that guided the French Revolution, majorities rule directly on matters, both great and small, through electoral processes designed to register their “will.” Conservatives, by contrast, fearing that such direct rule would result in rash, oppressive, or ill-considered decisions that would only serve the immediate interests of the ruling majorities, are decidedly inclined to favor institutional arrangements that provide for delay and deliberation in decision-making processes. For this reason, most conservatives, quite unlike the proponents of plebiscitary democracy, see merit in representation of the people by qualified and informed individuals who should not necessarily be bound by their constituents’ wishes. They also see merit in and defend bicameralism, the separation of powers, and other institutional processes often charged with producing “gridlock.” These views stem, in turn, from the tendency of conservatives to view society as a complex hierarchical organism comprising a multitude of institutions, associations, and groups such as church, family, communities, voluntary associations, and the like. For this reason, they are prone to support processes and institutions that are designed to achieve a consensus among the relevant parties when there is conflict or disagreement, rather than submitting matters to an up-or-down vote. Moreover, virtually all conservatives draw a distinction between state and society. Though this distinction at times may be blurred, it recognizes that individuals as well as varied social institutions, groups, and associations have spheres of authority that limit the reach of political majorities.
Conservatives have often wrestled with other problems associated with majority rule. A perennial question has been, who should be allowed to participate in constituting a majority? While universal suffrage is now the norm in the Western world, some conservatives would favor limitations, ranging from literacy tests to property qualifications, on who should be allowed to vote. On this score, still other questions arise: Is a people justified in denying the vote to those whose allegiances are to another country? What crimes, if any, should serve as a basis for disenfranchisement? Should individuals have to demonstrate a basic knowledge of their constitutional institutions and processes in order to vote? Should those unwilling to abide by the decision of a majority, if it should turn out to be unfavorable to their position or interest, be allowed to vote?
The most basic concerns surround the notion of limited majoritarianism. Virtually all conservatives subscribe to the proposition that majorities should not possess unlimited authority; that, simply put, there are things majorities ought not to do. But baffling questions arise in this connection. What kind of limitations should be imposed and how should these limitations be enforced? In the American context, some conservatives see these questions answered with the Bill of Rights combined with judicial enforcement. Others, looking to the historical record, maintain that bills of rights are really parchment barriers and that institutions designed to curb majorities either fail in their mission or assume authoritarian powers destructive of republican self-government. Conservatives of this persuasion maintain that the recognition of limitations depends upon the virtue and good sense of the people, which, in turn, are informed by religion, tradition, and received wisdom.
Finally, most conservatives recognize that a stable and just majoritarian system must make accommodations to the rule of law that require the equal, uniform, and predictable application of the laws. The rule of law constrains majorities from passing ex post facto laws or bills of attainder. Similarly the rule of law enjoins legislators from administering the laws that they pass, lest they show partiality to their family, friends, and political allies. Nor, by the same token, should legislators or administrators serve as judges in settling disputes that arise from the laws and their application. In sum, the requirements of the rule of law impose limitations on the functions and powers of both institutions and majorities.