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Going with the Flow: Thoreau’s Problem with Majorities
A “majority” is a group whose large amount of supporters buttresses its power. In their minds, humans rationalize “popular” to mean “best.” Despite the transient thoughts of change and reform that roam around their brains, individuals largely repress these feelings in favor of the majority opinion. Henry David Thoreau declares in his essay “Civil Disobedience” that a majority rules “not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest” (4). Thoreau condemns the “thousands who…will wait, well disposed, for other[s] to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret” (10). These thousands of silent supporters create issues within the dynamics of the majority and often prevent the minorities, who they actually support, from advancing.
One reason why following the majority proves problematic is that the majority typically fails to adapt to modern times, and a healthy, functioning government changes with the people. Many overlook the need for change because they prefer to belong to a winning party and fear alienation for displaying a radical thought. In addition, people’s natural obstinacy causes them to resist change. Take, for example, the events at Gettysburg during the Civil War. Robert E. Lee, the Southern general, stubbornly held onto his belief in the Southern forces’ invincibility and pushed his reluctant officers to follow his command to attack the Union forces at an unwise time. Though many disagreed with Lee, they submitted to his power and the bloody Southern defeat set the tone for the rest of the war. Lee’s obduracy at the Battle of Gettysburg led, arguably, to the South losing the Civil War (“America’s”). When many people like Lee gather together, their decisions defeat all proposals and lead to unsavory consequences. Now, reflect upon the tumultuous history of political groups in early America—with every new idea that evolved, a group came to fruition. Federalists met their demise with Anti-Federalists; Anti-Federalists became Democrat-Republicans; Democrat-Republicans abridged their name to Democrats; Democrats opposed Whigs; Whigs faded into obscurity; Democrats split in two, forming the Democratic Party and the minority Free-soil Party; the Free-soil party later gained power and became the Republican Party—all of these transformations occurred within a century (Berg-Andersson). When contrasted with the current major parties’ stagnant state of nearly two centuries, a discrepancy clearly exists.
Furthermore, the majorities’ intimidating size poses another problem, as they draw power away from minorities, the “other” whom the thousands expect to “remedy the evil” (10). Third parties owe their minority status to the phenomenon of two-party domination. Consider that the two major political parties contain the majority of Americans. The major political parties often gain votes because voters refuse to “waste their vote” on third-party candidates. In other words, though they may prefer the third party’s platform and candidate, they will not vote for them, fearing that their vote will only diminish the votes of another, likelier possibility whose policies they tolerate better than the other major candidate’s platform. This is a miserable occurrence, as third parties manifest the people’s unfulfilled needs (“Duverger’s”).
Some critics argue that if a third party were in power, they would achieve nothing. Nevertheless, how much do the major parties really achieve? Due to the magnitude of both of the parties, each houses conflicting values that indicate the current problems in society, which the major parties refuse to address. The major parties, to prevent division, will attempt to accommodate everyone—these accommodations prove temporary, since separation is often inevitable. For instance, in the Compromise of 1850, the North jeopardized their morals by allowing a strict fugitive slave law to pass and the South spoiled their own beliefs by allowing the North to gain the upper hand with California’s admission as a free state. The Civil War occurred because these concessions left both sides more and more unsatisfied until they split; in the end, one side’s beliefs quashed the other’s practices (“Compromise”). With conflict comes compromise and with compromise comes the corruption of morals. Therefore, separation is the only way for the parties to “be based on justice,” and since third parties result from separation within the major parties, third parties are the solution (Thoreau 4).
To conclude, those who believe in the principles of third parties exist in the thousands and many of these believers are the very same who mimic and support the majority.
Third parties result from a lack of reform within the major parties and require a revival—the problems with the government will never vanish if the people of this nation continue to vote with the majorities. Only by casting an individual, moral-based vote will the government begin to reflect what the people truly want. Silent supporters of dissent and reform must not fear leaving the security of the majority, but they must rather relish in the change.
“America’s Civil War: Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet at Odds at Gettysburg.” Historynet.
Weider History Group, 12 June 2006. Web. 20 December 2012.
Berg-Andersson, Richard E.“A Brief History of American ‘Major Parties’.” The Green Papers.
The Green Papers, 21 May 2001. Web. 15 December 2012.
“The Compromise of 1850.”U.S. History Online Textbook. Independence Hall Association, n.d.
Web. 20 December 2012.
“Duverger's law of 2-party domination.” Rangevoting. The Center for Range Voting, n.d. Web.
9 December 2012.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” American Transcendentalism Web. Texas A&M
University, n.d. Web. 9 December 2012.