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Counting the Many Interview with Melissa Schwartzberg

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate (Senate Television via AP)

Melissa Schwartzberg, the Silver Professor of Politics at New York University, brings a sharp analytical lens to the study of democratic institutions and their philosophical underpinnings. By bridging democratic theory with the classical tradition, Professor Schwartzberg studies how historical principles shape our contemporary political landscape. At a recent Salvatori Center conference focusing on Civic Constitutionalism and Epistemic Democracy, Caroline Bullock (CM ‘24) and Henry Long (CM ‘25) sat down with Professor Schwartzberg to discuss her book, Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule.

Q: Could you start us off by describing your academic journey and how you ended up where you are today?

Melissa Schwartzberg: I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I was the editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school newspaper, my college newspaper. It was what I always wanted to do. I came from a family that did not have traditional educational pathways. And for me, I really wanted to have a traditional education. So I really wanted to study the classics, and I wanted to study Ancient Greek in particular. And then I got very involved in the presidential election in 1992, and got more and more interested in politics. So I thought, well, you know, maybe I'll also study political science. But then I took a course with a wonderful professor of political theory, Jack Knight, who now teaches at Duke. And then I thought, oh, I can actually bring my interest in politics with my interest in classics together.

Q: What’s the main thesis of your book, Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule?

Melissa Schwartzberg: Well, the book has two parts. The first part treats supermajority rule as an alternative to unanimity rule, and I argue that that was the circumstance under which it originally arose. And I think it solves certain problems with unanimous decision making—unanimous decision making, of course, means that everybody has to participate. But in the modern era, it serves as a remedy for some of the deficiencies of majoritarian decision making. And so I take up a bunch of the different reasons that are given for introducing supermajorities against majority rule and I show that they basically don't work including for what I take to be the most important reason why we might want them, that is, the protection of vulnerable minorities.

Q: What are some examples of supermajority rules?

Melissa Schwartzberg: The filibuster is the most notorious one right now. But you can also think about constitutional amendment rules. Sometimes people think that constitutions require them because they make change more difficult to make. And that keeps what's called the hierarchy of norms stable, by which I mean the distinction between higher law, like constitutional law, and ordinary laws, so that constitutions can enable ordinary laws to emerge from legislatures. And I suggest that you might need a slower, more complicated process. But, it doesn't necessarily require supermajoritarian decision making.

Q: Have supermajority rules ever been effective at stopping what you see as misguided legislation?

Melissa Schwartzberg: When legislation is likely to be thwarted by supermajorities, it never comes to the floor. There are probably all sorts of bad legislation that never came to the floor because of supermajority rules, because people knew that it wouldn't get a hearing. I am positive that supermajorities have blocked constitutional amendments that I would have been very sorry to see enacted and amendments that I think would have been very beneficial, including the Equal Rights Amendment. The supermajority rule means that there's a built-in strong status quo bias which is important for certain constitutional fundamentals. I think there are constitutional essentials, and I think there are constitutional inessentials. And I think we could imagine stratifying the vote threshold necessary to modify each type of norm. That's another thing that people could propose to do.

Q: You mentioned how We The People can institute different mechanisms to make majoritarianism more complex. Can you define complex majoritarianism and talk about the nuances that differentiate majoritarianism, complex majoritarianism, and supermajoritarianism?

Melissa Schwartzberg: I think people are worried that a majority acting immediately could change any norm. Complex majoritarianism is designed to say we can understand majority decision making just in terms of a decision rule, that 50% plus one needs to be the default norm—but that doesn't mean that that needs to happen immediately. There can be time delays for decision-making, you can require successive majorities to vote on a given matter. You could have different types of majorities: for instance, you can have a majority of the population, a majority of states, and a majority of both houses of Congress necessary to enact significant changes. When you're empowering the minority to block or to veto a particular decision that a majority wants to make, it is insensitive to who that minority is. That minority could be a really powerful one, or it could be a vulnerable minority. I think it is really important that vulnerable minorities have their say. If there are fundamental interests of a specific minority that you want to protect—let's say water rights for an Indigenous group—I think it's much more helpful to give them a targeted veto over some circumscribed set of decisions than to specify a supermajority threshold for decision-making that a vulnerable minority may not even be large enough to reach to exercise a veto.

Q: How can we ensure that under our increasingly polarized society that the minority still have a voice within majoritarian or complex majoritarian decisions? Especially when it seems like our legislators are ideologically and politically farther away from each other than ever?

Melissa Schwartzberg: It's a really hard, important question. I think that we tend to worry excessively about policy and stability. I think there is a live possibility that if we had had majoritarian decision making, we would have less stability: Congress would enact rules that would be repealed shortly thereafter. Think of Obamacare as an example. Enacting significant legislation now is so difficult, and rare, that the stakes seem extremely high. However, I think if it were less hard to revisit legislative decision making, in a way it would lower the stakes. And that itself might be a partial remedy for a degree of partisan polarization. Over time, I believe we would achieve a new equilibrium.

Q: You mentioned that equal epistemic respect is an important principle of democracy. Can you describe a little bit about what you mean by that when you say equal epistemic respect?

Melissa Schwartzberg: So that is part of the justification of majority rule. Majority rule weighs votes equally. That's a technical point about how it's formed. I think that we need to think about voting as a means of rendering judgment—that's a basic theme of my work. And the claim is that when we're voting, we're not merely expressing brute preferences or something like that: rather, we have judgments that need to be taken seriously, and that those judgments ought to be weighed equally. I think that gerrymandering and unequal districts are ways in which the promise of equal epistemic respect is undermined. I think equal voting weight is absolutely crucial for democratic decision making. And I think in the United States today, we fall very far short of that.

Q: Can you attribute some of these failures to the Constitutional Rot or the inability of Constitutions to function?

Melissa Schwartzberg: Oh, absolutely. Passing constitutional amendments is so extraordinarily difficult because of the supermajority threshold. This basically shifts who gets to make those changes away from The People and their Representatives and towards Judges. Judges do a lot of the work of bringing constitutions into line with contemporary needs. This is problematic because Judges are less accountable than Legislators by design. Another issue is that ordinary citizens are largely disempowered. If people just know about the Constitution, but they don't feel like they can do anything, they can't modify the Constitution, they can't engage with the Constitution, they just have to leave it up to Judges. That, if anything, is a recipe for feeling even more disempowered.

Q: You mentioned that Article V makes it pretty difficult to address at least the Constitutional amendment portion of supermajority rule. What would you suggest the best mechanism is to transition away from supermajority rules and practices since it's already so deeply saturated within our Constitution and political system?

Melissa Schwartzberg: Within our existing constitution, I think there's no way out except absent some type of Constitutional Convention, and even getting a Constitutional Convention would be quite difficult. So that's a very difficult challenge. One remedy for some of our problems would be to eliminate the filibuster. That said, there are lots of Senators who worry that their minority voice is going to be lost. So there are tradeoffs. We still will have bicameralism, it still is very difficult to pass a law under a bicameral system. It's not as if immediate majorities can do whatever they like.

Q: You've written this book that we've been talking about almost 10 years ago, how have you seen these theories play out in the past decade? And can we attribute anything that's going on currently, to these theories?

Melissa Schwartzberg: I think you can attribute absolutely nothing to the book itself. I was astonished to find Jamelle Bouie, who I think of as an absolutely brilliant opinion writer, found the book interesting and worthy of discussion in his column. However, I do think that there's been increasing suspicion of supermajority rules because of the filibuster and a real worry about tyranny of the minority as opposed to tyranny of the majority. There's a new book by Levitsky and Ziblatt taking up tyranny of the minority that is on the New York Times bestseller list right now. So I think there's a lot of interest in those questions. And I think the book is right now finding an audience because it seems to speak to some of those issues. It is a strange afterlife for this book. But I'm pleased to see it.


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