Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Five Studies

minority-rule

Anti-Obamacare protesters in front of the Capitol last fall. (Photo: Mark Tenally/Demotix/Corbis)

Minority Rule: How Labor Unions and Civil Rights Activists Beat the Big Guys

• January 09, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Anti-Obamacare protesters in front of the Capitol last fall. (Photo: Mark Tenally/Demotix/Corbis)

The whole idea of a democracy is that the majority is generally supposed to get its way. But time and again, it’s not the majority but a potent minority that drives—or prevents—progress.

In the weeks before last fall’s government shutdown, a Gallup poll found only 22 percent of Americans considered themselves Tea Party supporters; twice that many held “unfavorable” views of the anti-Obama protest movement. Barely one in 10 members of Congress called themselves Tea Party members at the time. Nonetheless, they were able to grind the federal government to a halt—a trick they might just perform in the next round of budget battles.

How could such an unpopular, outnumbered group have such an outsized influence on American politics? It’s a question that goes far beyond the Tea Party’s brief, meteoric career. History is filled with examples of relatively small, weak groups somehow overcoming a much larger opposition to achieve their goals.

Labor unions, civil rights activists, suffragettes, and gays and lesbians have all won major battles against numerically superior opponents. On the flip side of the same coin, groups like the Tea Party, or Southern Democrats a couple of generations ago, have prevented majorities from accomplishing their objectives. The whole idea of a democracy is that the majority is generally supposed to get its way. But time and again, it’s not the majority but a potent minority that drives—or prevents—progress. The key is not persuasion, but organization. If one side is better organized, it can defeat a larger opposing side without ever needing to persuade anyone of anything.

So how exactly does an organized minority go about defeating a disorganized majority?

1. By Learning the Lesson of the Boys Club

In 1942, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider laid out the logic behind political parties, offering lessons that still elude many political observers today. A key metaphor Schattschneider offers early in his book is that of a boys club, consisting of, say, a dozen boys who are trying to elect a leader from among their ranks. Typically, every boy will vote for himself, leaving no leader after the election. All it takes to break this stalemate is a conspiracy of two boys: one who votes for the other, and in return is promised some special favors by the future leader. Thus are two boys, properly organized, able to control the fates of the disorganized other 10. This is the essence of all political organization.

—E. E. Schattschneider, Party Government, Praeger, 1942

2. By Staying Unified Around a Single, Powerful Issue

For much of the 20th century, America’s southern states were a stalwart component of the Democratic Party—but also the most politically conservative region of the country. Time and again, this minority blocked measures most Democrats supported: anti-lynching bills, civil rights bills, bills ensuring African Americans’ access to the ballot.

One key issue kept the South working together: race. “Nowadays,” wrote political scientist V. O. Key in his 1949 book Southern Politics in State and Nation, “about all that remains to promote Southern solidarity is the Negro.” Examining that claim in 1993, political scientist Ira Katznelson made the case that the South also often broke with the majority of Democrats on labor issues, but ultimately agreed that “race [was] at the center of the distinctive regional interest of the South.” Like the South of that time, today’s Tea Party has a central, clear-cut opponent: the president and the government he heads.

—Ira Katznelson, Kim Geider, and Daniel Kryder, “Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933 1950,” Political Science Quarterly 108 (2): 283 306, 1993

3. By Developing a Common Identity

While the Tea Party movement comprises many different grassroots organizations only loosely connected to each other, it is united by a shared set of beliefs that have been codified and spread by conservative media outlets, argue sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. Polls show that most Tea Party supporters watch Fox News. “This key outlet,” the scholars write, “helped to create and sustain the Tea Party mobilization.” Central to that mobilization is a shared sensibility: “Many Tea Partiers are deeply concerned that the country they live in is not the country of their youth—and that they themselves are no longer represented by the U.S. government.” For these Tea Partiers, the problem in Washington is not gridlock; it is submission to Obama. The more of his agenda that passes, the further we are from what America is supposed to be.

—Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9 (1), 2011

4. By Forming Interest Groups

How are gun rights activists able to defeat even the most modest gun control bills when a majority of Americans claim to want such legislation? The answer has to do with organized groups: Gun activists have them; gun control advocates don’t. “Gun owners have shared social activities that facilitate collective action; they hunt, target shoot, and go to gun shows. An industry caters to them and has a financial stake in gun rights,” notes political scientist David Karol. “By contrast, gun control supporters have no shared identity or activities that bring them together.” Similarly, the loose confederation of hundreds of Tea Party groups across the country gives a voice and organizational direction to millions of Americans frustrated by the federal government. Moneyed interests like the Koch brothers support them. On the other side, while there may be large numbers of Americans who are, say, willing to pay higher taxes, you don’t see a lot of them forming groups to demand it.

—David Karol, “Depolarization? Party Coalitions and the Politics of Gun Control: 2000 2012,” presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association

5. By Clever Use of the Rules

Minorities have thwarted majorities by exploiting the rules of American democracy practically since Independence. House members in the 19th century used the “disappearing quorum” tactic—representatives would simply leave the chamber until there was no longer the minimum number required to conduct business. In recent years, impassioned groups like Colorado’s gun lobby have mounted recall campaigns that have put pressure on the targeted politicians to modify their views. Then there’s the famous filibuster. As political scientist Gregory Koger explains, the practice was abolished in the House in the late 19th century. But, despite recent reforms, it lives on in the Senate, where minority Republicans routinely deploy it to stymie virtually any legislation that can’t muster three-fifths of the chamber’s votes. Conservatives aren’t the only filibuster-ers, either: Texas State Senator Wendy Davis talked for more than 12 hours to block an abortion restriction bill last year. Her stunt was hailed by liberals—despite the fact that the democratically elected Texas Senate favored the bill by a two-to-one margin.

—Gregory Koger, Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate, University of Chicago Press, 2010


This post originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Minority Rule.” For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.