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?