But it was the discussion afterwards that showed our desire to protect minority rights in opposition to majority opinion. One student wanted to know why the moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t press each candidate to defend their support for the death penalty, especially considering the racial biases in its enforcement.
Dumm explained that analysis of the death penalty constituted an elite social issue that few groups beyond the ivory towers would care about. So how are we to go about making meaningful social change democratically if most people in this country disagree with us? At least two contemporary debates illuminate the problem of protecting minority rights in a democracy: gay rights and the death penalty.
First, gay rights. It’s hard to think of a compelling, non-homophobic reason why gay people shouldn’t be able to get married. Who is the government to pass judgment on whether an intimate relationship is justified or not? Does the commitment of two consenting adults endanger the health and well-being of anyone else? Is the institution of marriage so weak that it is made vulnerable by diversity?
Yet, neither Bush or Gore supported gay marriages during their campaigns. Why? Because most Americans don’t approve of same-sex relationships. Most Americans would prefer that their government
not offer institutionalized recognition of gay relationships through a marriage certificate.
At Dartmouth College last month, a conservative student explained to me his own take on gay marriages. If a woman is able to call her lover a “wife,” he said, then she denigrates the meaning of marriage for heterosexuals. We live in a shared culture and use terms from the same language; if we interpret their meanings differently, some Americans-indeed, most Americans-feel that their well-being is, in fact, threatened. To this student, gay marriage was not about civil rights, it was about preserving American morality.
Second, the death penalty. Careful analysis by independent organizations of the implementation of the death penalty in the U.S. shows that it discriminates against black men. They are more likely to be killed for committing the same crime as a white person. Furthermore, the death penalty appeals process often falls short of administering justice. As we saw in the second presidential debate, killing people easily becomes political-Bush emphasized the fact that his state was going to kill the men who murdered James Byrd-and the appeals process had not even been completed yet.
Despite these inequities, most Americans support the death penalty, and so did both of the candidates. There are two options to dealing with the problem of protecting minority rights in a democracy. Our first option is supporting social reform through the judicial system, the only non-democratic branch of government. But this top-down approach is anti-democratic and elitist; it assumes a select few people are better governors than the collective people. Our second option is changing people’s minds and having faith in Americans to realize what’s right.
Our government is based on the assumption that people know what is best for our country. So what do we do when “the people” seem wrong? We embrace our rights, as citizens, as “the people,” to change our fellow Americans’ minds. Let us begin with the First Amendment. We can change people’s minds with words.
Kimberly Palmer ’01 is a regular columnist for The Amherst Student.