By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze how a country’s political culture affects which civil rights it recognizes and defends.
- Describe the relationship between minority and majority groups.
- Discuss the role the majority plays in determining how civil rights function in a society.
Persons with physical and mental disabilities are an example of a group that has experienced widespread discrimination, in part due to a lack of adequate government protections. Absent public policy forbidding it, governments have denied these individuals access to public accommodations, including access to public buildings and programs, while private businesses and other social and educational institutions have also limited opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Challenging these discriminatory policies is now a key focus among civil rights movements around the world. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) has compiled a massive list of constitutions that provide protections for those with disabilities.14 This list includes the constitutions of dozens of developed and developing countries ranging from Zimbabwe and the Gambia to Cambodia and Turkey. The DREDF contains the text of Zimbabwe’s constitution, which specifically references “physical disability” as one of the protected characteristics of its citizens. In other words, the constitution clearly states that it is illegal and unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of physical disability.
The United States Constitution does not include any explicit protections for individuals with disabilities. Instead, the United States has sought to address disability rights through federal laws like the Rehabilitation Act (1973), which created affirmative action in government hiring for people with disabilities,15 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), a landmark legislative act that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of ability and offered sweeping changes that made it easier for people with disabilities to access services, transportation, buildings, and employment.16 The United Kingdom, China, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, and Qatar have handled disability rights in a similar fashion: they have used congressional or parliamentary legislation to create national standards and provisions to protect the rights of those with disabilities.
People with disabilities are one example of a political minority. A minority can be a group of people or a single person, and its definition changes based on how it is used in different countries.17 The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities as, “any group of persons which constitutes less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language, or a combination of any of these.”18 According to Arizona State University professor Michael Hechter and Indiana Univeristy professor and director of the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society (CRRES) Dina Okamoto, most countries “contain several culturally distinct groups whose language, religion, tradition, and historical experiences are not shared and often are at odds with one another.”19
Civil rights function in society based on how the majority interacts with the minority—who gets to decide whose rights are protected, and how those protections are enforced? These determinations shape which freedoms and opportunities are reserved for the majority and which are also granted to and protected for the minority. The reality is that those in the political majority use their power to secure the best outcomes for themselves. Those enjoying majority group membership often use their influence on elections to define the parameters of the majority group—who will lead, and how will they use the power they have been given?
Majority and Minority Political Cultures
As discussed in Chapter 6: The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity, each country, along with the subnational states within it, has its own unique political culture—the ways in which traditions and cultural values create that country’s specific political system. A country’s particular combination of history, geography, religious practices, conflict, and other identities contributes to creating its specific political culture. Political culture plays an important role in determining which civil rights the country protects and how well it protects them, and those with the most power are most able to influence the culture.
Consider Qatar, a Muslim-majority, petroleum-exporting gulf monarchy known for providing the majority of its citizens with a high standard of living (but providing far less for the millions from mostly Asian and African countries who work in Qatar). Consistent with the country’s majority political culture, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and punishment for sodomy can range from flogging and imprisonment to death.20 There are no legal protections for LGBTQ+ people. Qatar now faces the challenge of balancing its conservative political culture with its role as the 2022 host of the FIFA World Cup, during which thousands of people with cultural values that differ from the majority values in Qatar will visit the country. The Qatari government has released statements welcoming gay fans and ensuring their safety but explicitly discouraging public displays of affection and/or having sex.21
While many of the people visiting Qatar for the World Cup will be coming from countries where the political culture is very different from the political culture in Qatar, attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals in those countries—like Germany, England, Croatia, and South Korea—were not always so tolerant. Political cultures can change, often through a combination of the work of people in nongovernment groups and movements within government institutions, and this change can affect civil rights protections.
Political Culture and Civil Rights Change
One of the biggest changes in civil rights policy in the United States came in 2015 when, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. The ruling came after decades of hard work to change the political culture of the United States to one that would recognize and protect the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. For most of American history, same-sex couples were denied the right to marry. The Supreme Court ruling that effectively secured the right to marry for same-sex couples was the culmination of over 50 years of organizing, protests, and lobbying.
According to John Kowal of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, the push to change federal denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples began in earnest during the 1996 presidential campaign in response to a court case in Hawaii where, in 1993, the state supreme court had ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was in violation of the state constitution.22
The sharing of power between states and a national government, known as federalism, creates a unique culture that sets the United States apart from most of the world (for more on federalism, see Chapter 13: Governing Regimes). While many other countries are organized along federal lines, including Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, and Russia, among others, only the United States Constitution includes provisions that clarify states’ rights compared to the national government (9th and 10th Amendments). Since states can create their own statutes and policies as long as they are not in conflict with the US Constitution or congressional law, each of the United States can, theoretically, enact policies that are in direct contrast with a bordering state’s policies. That each state and region of the country has a different political culture and different people in power became all too clear in the 2000s and 2010s, when most states passed their own laws on same-sex marriage, resulting in a hodge-podge of laws and policies where, for example, same-sex marriage was banned in Texas but legal in neighboring Oklahoma.23
Though the issue of sex-based discrimination and marriage rose to public prominence in Hawaii, LGBTQ+ and civil rights–related interest groups and lobbying were rippling across the country, resulting in citizen referenda, ballot propositions, legislation, and court decisions. Much of the momentum was driven by a combination of public and private advocacy work to change the national conversation on LGBTQ+ inclusion. Attitudes on the topic dovetailed generally with how people viewed homosexuality.24 In a 2004 national poll of Americans, less than 40 percent of respondents approved of same-sex marriage, but by 2019 that percentage had grown to more than 60 percent.25 The AIDS epidemic moved from the margins to mainstream American life during the 1980s and 1990s, and media coverage of the epidemic was partially responsible for the shift in attitudes toward homosexuality. Representation in popular culture also played a role, with popular films and television shows like Philadelphia, Queer Eye, The L-Word, and Will & Grace featuring gay and lesbian characters and personalities. According to California State University professor Jeremiah Garretson, one major reason for the shift in acceptance of gay culture is that more Americans than ever know someone who identifies as lesbian or gay; “that increase in interpersonal contact is the major part of the reason attitude change has been so rapid,” Garretson said.26
In November 2003, Massachusetts became the first US state to legalize same-sex marriage after the state supreme court found that prohibiting same-sex couples from being able to marry violated the state constitution.27 In its landmark 2015 decision, the United States Supreme Court declared that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person . . . couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. Same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.”28
The violation of a group’s civil rights demands action to ensure equal treatment. In the case of same-sex marriage in the United States, it was only after years of people engaging in activism and bringing lawsuits that public opinion and government policies changed. Wherever political minorities lack adequate representation in elected office, they must live with the decisions of the majority, which may not take into account minority concerns.
Majority theory, or majoritarianism, describes the roles and responsibilities of the majority and who has the power to shape the rules of government and society.29 Those who have the power to shape society can use that power to help recognize and protect minority rights; however, those who have power tend to use the tools at their disposal to keep it, and keeping it may mean suppressing minorities. For example, when the majority elects legislators who represent them, those legislators tend to enact policies that secure the majority’s status and often deny opportunities to minority group members. These policies can make it difficult for those in the minority to participate in the political process itself—for example, by voting or running for public office. In this way, the majority ensures its ongoing power.