16th Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Kapelner

Zsolt Kapelner, Central European University.

Persistent Minorities and the Democratic Boundary Problem


Persistent minorities are groups that always lose in democratic decision making. Most authors agree that such groups pose a problem: their presence seems to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. However, it is not quite clear how. If franchise is universal, each vote counts the same, no citizen is discriminated against in public deliberation, and there are constitutional measures ensuring that the majority cannot treat the minority unjustly, then why is it a problem that democratic decisions never reflect the preferences of persistent minorities? In a democratic society, shouldn’t we all be prepared to be outvoted? It seems that persistent minorities can only object to their unjust treatment by the majority, but if all democratic decisions are within the confines of justice, then democratic legitimacy is not threatened simply by the presence of persistent minorities. I argue, however, that the presence of persistent minorities can in itself undermine democratic legitimacy. Democracy is supposed to affirm the equal moral standing of all citizens by providing them with an equal say in political decisions. Persistent minorities indeed cannot complain that their say is unequal (it is not), but they can complain that having an equal say is insufficient to affirm their equal moral standing in the particular arrangement in which they find themselves. That is because they are grouped together with others in a democratic decision making body in such a way that precludes the affirmation of their equal standing through democratic institutions. That is, while they indeed cannot object that the arrangements within the established boundaries of the decision making body are undemocratic, they can object that the boundaries themselves are, i.e. the boundaries in question inhibit the realization of the goal of democracy. This suggests that the problem of persistent minorities has a deep connection with the so-called democratic boundary problem.