The Tyranny of the Majority

Fear of democracy was strong as the founders of our nation debated how far the will of the people could be trusted. Democracy does not guarantee that minorities will be treated fairly if the majority makes the rules and enforces them. Republican forms of government in ancient Greece tried to overcome this problem, developing nations today struggle with it, and much of our dissatisfaction with government in the U.S. today may stem from it. Anywhere diverse ethnic, racial, or religious groups live together in one community, state or nation, the fear that the values of the majority will be imposed on minorities is powerful.


I'd like to discuss some questions about the limits and fears of democracy that came up for me during my recent 'round-the-world exploration with Semester at Sea. Many countries I visited justify their single party governments as necessary to protect the rights of minorities. Are they right? Why aren't constitutions in developing counties effective at guaranteeing rights of minorities? Limiting the power of minority factions that threaten to gain control over others has been one of the strongest arguments for the rise of single-party states and dictatorships in the modern world, but limiting the control of majority factions may be an even greater threat to human rights throughout the world. What do you think?

A good discussion of tyranny of the majority can be found in the first 10 pages of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" (1859).

Based on the interests of the group, our discussions could focus more on problems with democracy closer to home. How much of Congress' current refusal to compromise stems from fear of tyranny of the majority? Are the supermajority rules of the Senate a good thing? To gain some historic perspective, John Adams first used the expression "tyranny of the majority" in 1788, but the problem of oppressive popular rule was recognized in Hellenistic Greece. Fear of direct democracy and direct election of representatives led to republican governments that provided for unequal representation of factions. In "Federalist Paper No.9"  Alexander Hamilton defends the proposed Constitution as providing for a "firm Union as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection." In No. 10, James Madison begins with "Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction."

Our Constitution employs a number of processes intended to counter the threat of the tyranny of the majority, including supermajority rules, limits on legislative powers, separation of powers with checks and balances, and especially equal representation by state in the Senate instead of equal representation by population. Many provisions of our Constitution have been replicated throughout the world, but how are we doing at home?

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  • A former member
    A former member

    "Democracy does not guarantee that minorities will be treated fairly if the majority makes the rules and enforces them."

    (But that's what democracy is...the most who agree get to choose. If you want "fairness" I truly would like to see a discussion or ten about "Defining Fairness - All, Nothing or Some.")

    September 28, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      This ties directly to the current Washington debacle. In the name of liberty, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is justifying its current legislative tactics. In the name of fairness, the Democrats are justifying their approach.

      October 1, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Well of course. Else you'd have to participate in a different way.

      October 1, 2013

  • Will B.

    A really stimulating and well guided meeting, Nice job, Sandy. Everyone was respectful and informative. I was afraid it was too broad a topic, but it was presented in a fashion that facilitated discussion on separate topics well. Anyone who is interested in the economics issues of inequality and "economic tyranny" should go to www.inequalityforall.com and hear some short but informative observation about inequality of taxation, power and income distribution.
    Thanks again for the great morning.

    September 29, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      @ Will. Thanks for the reference to inequalityforall.com I recommend it to all if you want to understand just how much America has retreated from a middle class-dominated country. The Republicans deride the Democrats for waging class war. The irony is that the class war has been waged in the opposite direction since the 1970s. We are back to levels of inequality not seen since before FDR.

      October 1, 2013

  • Jean S.

    OMG! Those bad Republicans shut down the government... Is this the tyranny of the minority or tyranny of the majority? Great topic, Sandy...

    October 1, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Let's imagine a future Republican government that passes another capital gains tax cut. Given the fact that these kinds of tax cuts increase the deficit (supply side fantasies are empirically false). How would anyone react if the Democrats demanded the repeal of the tax cut as a prerequisite for funding the government or raising the debt ceiling?

      October 1, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Washington is broken. Policy debate on taxes, spending, debt, health insurance, etc., should result in votes and laws passed or rejected. Then move on. You cannot run a country on the basis of emergency measures and blackmail by one side and expect the public to retain faith in the government. If a married couple ran their affairs this way, they would end up divorced before too long.

      October 1, 2013

  • Patty

    Sandy, thank you for all the hard work you put into this. I'm sorry I had to leave early. Great meet-up!

    September 30, 2013

  • Sarah H.

    I wanted to apologize, my spot opened up but I did not see the email until after the fact. The email itself didn't come in until after 11am.

    September 29, 2013

    • Joe N.

      That's OK. We don't consider it a no-show if your spot doesn't open up until the morning of the event.

      September 29, 2013

  • Lori

    Hi. Sandy, I sent you a message. Guess you didn't get it. Afraid I can't come as I've to work. Please let someone else get to enjoy this.

    September 29, 2013

  • Charlotte W.

    Sorry made other plans.
    Did not hear back til Sunday am

    September 29, 2013

  • Jean S.

    Tyranny? How about "Everyone deserves to own a home." That scenario led to zero-money down loans and the bursting of the housing bubble. How about "Everyone should go to college." The college-loan bubble is upon us, thanks to the majority. I spoke to a guy the other day who has $200,000 in student loan debt with a theology degree. He told me that no one ever questioned him about how he was going to pay back the debt.

    How about the cell phone craze. It is all right to call anyone, from anywhere, at any time of the day... I have people walking by my house at 2 a.m. talking on their cell phone. The tyranny of the majority is hot on the indiscriminate use of cell phones.

    Just because the majority think it does not mean that it is not stupid. You can lead a man to knowledge but you can't make him think. Can society be protected from stupidity?

    September 28, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      "Can society be protected from stupidity?"

      Sure. Stop promoting free thinking and instead promote more rigid, tested, 'traditional' values.

      Teach character, not knowledge, in school. (They used to do that more... particularly in Parochial school.)

      September 28, 2013

  • Will B.

    Currently, in Congress, we are seeing the tyranny of the "minority" as the Republican Party seeks to placate (and retain) its more right wing minority groups. The current battle for the budget and the upcoming similar battle for the debt ceiling are good examples that the "Tyranny of the Majority" is not set in stone.
    Historically, as in the United States, it was a MINORITY of white, landowning males who favored rebellion against England. I would offer the example of British General Howe who was given a virtual heroes welcome in Philadelphia (cradle of liberty) by its residents. It is a good question as to whether social change comes from the majority or the minority as does social resistance or obstruction of change.

    September 28, 2013

  • Maija J.

    Hey, if there are 16 people attending and 15 people on the waitlist, would it make sense to pick another venue for everyone on the waitlist, and have two discussions?

    1 · September 28, 2013

  • Carole and Bill M.

    Simplistically speaking, I guess you could say the tyranny of the Majority, starts in Grade School...I see it as an educator...when the "cool kids" pick up the "weaker socially inept" kids who want to be cool, and become followers. It isn't something inbred that they have, but for some "learned behavior" not Genetic Behavior, they become leaders...for good or evil, and thus the beginning of society's Majority of "Cool Kids" who wreak havoc and tyranny on the "minority".

    Shown as a humanistic trait in both Nature (the animals) with survival of the Fittest (Darwin) which allows the species to survive. So although the tyranny is not pleasant for those "not in the majority" maybe it is the strong, with leadership qualities, that "make the world go around", and if the "weak" were in the leadership roll, maybe we'd just spin our wheels........

    September 23, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      I don't understand, Carole and Bill, why you say it's not genetic. That would seem to say there's no involuntary chemical reactions going on that inform decisions and personality. Surely nurture exists but is that also not in the domain of nature ruling the roost?

      September 28, 2013

    • Maija J.

      "Survival of the fittest" was not Darwin's term, but a term coined by eugenicist Herbert Spencer. In fact, evolution and adaption has as much to do with cooperation as competition in Darwin's theory, and much of the competition he described was very indirect and should not properly be called competition at all. Social cohesion and altruism have a strong adaptive, biological, and historical basis -- see Sussman, ed. "Origins of altruism." So protection of those less able to fend for themselves is not necessarily such a complicated social construction, but a deeply rooted and highly adaptive behavior.

      September 28, 2013

  • Sandy C.

    As usual, I have more questions than answers. Here are some I've been thinking about in preparing for Sunday's discussion: How well does our system of checks and balances protect us from the “tyranny of the majority”? Do constitutional separation of powers limit the influence of minority parties and factions, exposing them to the "tyranny of the majority" -- or are the rights of factions protected by the Supreme Court? Why has the record of the U.S. Supreme Court in protecting minority rights been so inconsistent throughout our history? Can we learn anything from a comparison to India, the world's largest democracy, where an activist supreme court has often exceeded its constitutional powers, contrary to the will of parliament?

    September 24, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Super-majaritarian rule should be assessed in its poitical-economic context. I will give you two examples: (1) The American Constitution and (2) the UN Security Council. (1) As pointed out in this meetup's introduction, the American constitution is rife with super-majoritarianism: States of unequal size with equal representation in the Senate. Filibuster in the Senate. Gerrymandering in the House (a majority of American voters selected Democratic candidates in the 2012 House elections. But gerrymandering preserves the House for the Republicans). Separation of powers leads to federal public policy by bargaining rather than by majority vote. Federalism between the center and the states. Etc.

    September 23, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      @Sandy. I think you will find that many instances of super-majoritarian protection of minority rights throughout the world boil done to preserving elite rights. Malaysia and Singapore come to mind in the domain of ethnic politics.

      September 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      I guess the other point worth making is this. The original issue regarding tyrannies of the majority was framed in very general terms. And my general response was that tyrannies of the majority and super-majoritarian protections against them cannot be assessed outside of the political-economic circumstances within which they manifest themselves. It seems that your and my substantive points reinforce that claim.

      September 24, 2013

  • Mark S.

    If you make, selectively enforce and ignore laws by executive action, at will, then what is the point of the legislative branch ?

    September 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      And finally, to take this out of the context of this Congress and this President, the executive has been use executive orders as a means of making policy without direct congressional approval since before FDR. This may be a problem. But it is one that has been going on for at least 80 years.

      September 24, 2013

    • Lee D.

      Calling the legislative branch paralyzed is giving them too much credit . When a group of "legislators" refuses to enter into meaningful discussion of complex issues, eschews negotiation, and obstructs the business of government in mindless lockstep, with the frequently stated goal of seeing that initiatives by those who are trying to govern fail, or to state it more clearly, that the wellbeing of their country not be allowed to improve if they are not in control at the time, I would call that a band of psychopathic traitors who are trying to please those who pay their bills at the expense of everyone else. I hope I'm not putting too fine a point on this shockingly stupid, despicable, self serving obstructionism.

      1 · September 24, 2013

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