Since the eruption of news about same-sex marriage in the past week, I have seen an increasing use of national polling data as evidence that the practice should be legalized. And on its face, it makes sense: there has been a precipitous rise in support for same-sex marriage in the last several years, and recent polls show more support than opposition. If it’s what the American people want, shouldn’t it be put in place?
Despite its elegance, that reasoning is the direct opposite of how our government was intended to function. In The Federalist #10—one of the most important theoretical foundations of American democracy, and a personal dorky obsession—James Madison warns against the dangers of “faction” in democratic society. In his words, a faction is a group of people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion”; in modern terms, this could be anything from a political party or major interest group to a handful of people interested in protecting a forest. Madison isn’t terribly concerned about factions that are in the minority, simply because a vote should stop their views from becoming law if they are abhorrent. But a faction in the majority is a completely different issue:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
If a faction is in the majority, it can potentially dominate the minority and work against the public good. “The great object”—in other words, the plan for government, which we now call the U.S. Constitution—of the Founders was to stop that from happening. Our government was designed for the purpose of preventing majorities in support of single issues from imposing its will over the public. Slight national support for same-sex marriage is a perfect example of this.
Now, before you tear me apart, I want to note that I am pleased to see support for same-sex marriage gaining traction. But before we start screaming about injustice and how the country is “calling” for same-sex marriage, let’s remember that our government is supposed to be slow and deliberate in order to prevent the periodic roiling passions of the majority to change our laws. Nobody said it was supposed to be convenient.