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The death knell for minority rights in the postwar South wasn’t democracy or majority rule or political equality but a counterrevolution of property and hierarchy, led by the remnants of the planter elite. It took decades of violence and fraud — including assassinations, massacres and rigged elections — for the reactionary opposition to Reconstruction to succeed.

The United States saw a burst of democratization at the start of the 20th century, particularly with the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women (meaning those who could exercise it) the right to vote. And the broad public gained even more influence through reforms like recall elections, initiatives and referendums. The immediate threat to minority rights, however, came from opponents of a more open and democratic society. And rather than protect those minorities, the much-vaunted countermajoritarian institutions of the American system either stymied efforts to protect them (as was the case with anti-lynching laws) or helped politicians to exclude them (as was the case with the Immigration Act of 1924).

It would not be until the next great burst of democratization in the 1950s and 1960s, with the civil rights movement, that the American system would move to extend any serious protection to the rights of minorities and other excluded or marginalized groups. And it took the expansion of political rights and the triumph of majority rule over our countermajoritarian institutions — and the Senate, in particular — to do so.

The enduring belief that majority rule and democratization threaten the rights of minorities runs headfirst into the simple reality that, in the United States at least, the fundamental liberties of all Americans grew stronger and more secure as political rights spread from a narrow minority to an outright majority and as our institutions have grown more responsive to that majority.

The typical American’s ability to exercise his or her rights is greater now than it was a century ago, and it was greater a century ago than it was a century before. Against the conventional wisdom, the United States has become more free as it has become more democratic. And on the flip side, the liberties of all Americans have been at their most vulnerable when democracy and majority rule were at their weakest.

With all of this said, there are minorities whose interests are harmed by democracy, majority rule and political equality. But they are not minorities as we tend to think of them; they are elites. The holders of wealth, the owners of capital and the servants of hierarchy are a minority of sorts. And their “rights” — to dominate and to control — are threatened whenever the majority can act on its preferences.

Many of the framers said as much during the making of the Constitution, and the fact that it took a catastrophically destructive war to end the legal protection of human property lends credence to the view that these are the “minority rights” at stake when majority rule is on the table.

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