Skip to main content

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

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

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

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

Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior.

This post originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issueofPacific Standard as "Minority Rule." For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.