Tyranny of the majority

For the form of democracy, see Ochlocracy. For the Flesh Field album, see Tyranny of the Majority (album).

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses") is used in discussing an inherent weakness in the system of pure direct democracy and majority rule. Tyranny of the majority involves a scenario in which a majority of an electorate places its own interests above, and at the expense and to the detriment of, those in the minority, where by that detriment constitutes active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.[1]

Potentially, through tyranny of the majority, a disliked or unfavored ethnic, religious, political, or racial group may be deliberately targeted for oppression by the majority element acting through the democratic process.[2]

American founding father Alexander Hamilton writing to Jefferson from the Constitutional Convention argued the same fears regarding the use of pure direct democracy by the majority to elect a demagogue set out to harm the minority rather than work for the benefit of all citizens. The Electoral College mechanism present in the indirect United States presidential election system, and the phenomenon of faithless electors allowed for within it, was, in part, created as a safety measure not only to prevent such a scenario, but also to prevent the use of democracy to overthrow democracy for an authoritarian, dictatorial or other system of oppressive government.[3] As articulated by Hamilton, one reason the Electoral College was created was so "that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications."[4]

The scenarios in which tyranny perception occurs are very specific, involving a sort of distortion of democracy preconditions:

In both cases, in a context of a nation, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, and the introduction of a Bill of Rights have been used to counter the problem.[7] A separation of powers (for example a legislative and executive majority actions subject to review by the judiciary) may also be implemented to prevent the problem from happening internally in a government.[7]


A term used in Classical and Hellenistic Greece for oppressive popular rule was ochlocracy ("mob rule"). Tyranny meant rule by one man whether undesirable or not.

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" was used by John Adams in 1788.[8] The phrase gained prominence after its appearance in 1835 in Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, where it is the title of a section.[9] It was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, who cites Tocqueville, in On Liberty (1859). The Federalist Parich Nietzsche and the phrase (in translation) is used at least once in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human (1879).[10] Ayn Rand wrote that individual rights are not subject to a public vote, and that the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities and "the smallest minority on earth is the individual".[11]

In Herbert Marcuse's 1965 essay "Repressive Tolerance", he said "tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery" and that "this sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested."[12]

In 1994, legal scholar Lani Guinier used the phrase as the title for a collection of law review articles.[13]


Trample the rights of minorities

Regarding recent American politics, Donovan et al. argue that:

One of the original concerns about direct democracy is the potential it has to allow a majority of voters to trample the rights of minorities. Many still worry that the process can be used to harm gays and lesbians as well as ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities....Recent scholarly research shows that the initiative process is sometimes prone to produce laws that disadvantage relatively powerless minorities...State and local ballot initiatives have been used to undo policies – such as school desegregation, protections against job and housing discrimination, and affirmative action – that minorities have secured from legislatures.[14]

Public choice theory

The notion that, in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannise and exploit diverse smaller interests, has been criticised by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action, who argues instead that narrow and well organised minorities are more likely to assert their interests over those of the majority. Olson argues that when the benefits of political action (e.g., lobbying) are spread over fewer agents, there is a stronger individual incentive to contribute to that political activity. Narrow groups, especially those who can reward active participation to their group goals, might therefore be able to dominate or distort political process, a process studied in public choice theory.

Vote trading

Anti-federalists of public choice theory point out that vote trading, can protect minority interests from majorities in representative democratic bodies such as legislatures. They continue that direct democracy, such as statewide propositions on ballots, does not offer such protections.

Illustrating scenarios

A collective decision of 13 voters in a deliberative assembly. Result: 8 votes for X (blue) and 5 votes for Y (red). X option wins, because it has majority (50%+1).

The "no tyranny" and "tyranny" situations can be characterizated in any simple democratic decision-making context, as a deliberative assembly.

Abandonment of the rationality

Suppose a shareholder in a joint-stock company proposes to invest in a perpetual motion machine. The proposal is submitted for a vote at the company's deliberative assembly, and 50%+1 of the voters are persuaded, the machine wins. Some of the voters, the minority, argue that the company can't violate the laws of thermodynamics, but the company's lawyer (the judiciary's role in this scenario) replicate that kind of law is not part of company's bylaws.

Herbert Spencer in "The Right to Ignore the State" (1851), pointed the problem with the following example[15]

« Suppose, for the sake of argument, that, struck by some Malthusian panic, a legislature duly representing public opinion were to enact that all children born during the next ten years should be drowned. Does anyone think such an enactment would be warrantable? If not, there is evidently a limit to the power of a majority. »

Usual no-tyranny scenario

Suppose a deliberative assembly of a building condominium with 13 voters, deciding, with "50%+1" rule, about "X or Y",

X: to paint some common rooms (as game room, lobby and each floor's hall) with blue color.
Y: to paint with red color.

Suppose that the final result is "8 votes for X and 5 votes for Y", so 8, as 50%+1, blue wins. As collectively (13 voters) the decision is legitimate.

It is a centralized decision about all common use rooms, "one color for all rooms", and it is also legitimate. Voters have some arguments against "each room with its color", rationalizing the centralization: some say that common rooms need uniform decisions; some prefer the homogeneous color style, and all other voters have no style preference; an economic analysis demonstrates (and all agree) that is better a wholesale purchase of one color wall-ink for all rooms.

Federated centralisation excess

Centralisation excess is the most usual case. Suppose that each floor have some kind of local governance, so in some aspects the condominium is a "federation of floors". Suppose that only in 3'rd floor the majority of residents manifested some preference to "each floor with different color" style, and all of the 3'rd floor residents likes the red color. The cost-difference, to purchase a "other color to a floor", is not significative when compared with the condominium contributions.

In this conditions some tyranny perception arrives, and the subsidiarity principle can be used to contest the central decision.

Tyranny emerging

Minority and tyranny characterized: a coherent subset of voters with some collective action; a central decision; the subsidiarity principle can be used by minority group decision.

In the above no-tyranny scenario, suppose no floor federation, but (only) a room with some local governance. Suppose that the gym room is not used by all, but there are a "community" of regulars, there are some grouping of voters by its activity as velocity-cyclists (illustrated as spiked hair), that have the gym room key for some activities on Sundays... They were acting collectively to preserve the gym room for a local cyclists group.

Let's check some evidences and fundamentals in that situation:

There are no "enforced minoritarianism", it seems a legitimate characterization of a relevant (and not dominant) minority. Let's check why it is a tyranny of the majority situation:

In this situation, even with no formal federation structure, the minority and a potential local governance emerged: the tyranny perception arrive with it.

Concurrent majority

Main article: Concurrent majority

American Confederate Secession was anchored by a version of Subsidiarity, found within the doctrines of John C. Calhoun. Antebellum South Carolina utilized Calhoun's doctrines in the Old South as public policy, adopted from his theory of concurrent majority. This "localism" strategy was presented as a mechanism to circumvent Calhoun's perceived tyranny of the majority in the United States. Each state presumptively held the Sovereign power to block federal laws that infringed upon states' rights, autonomously. Calhoun's policies directly influenced Southern public policy regarding slavery, and undermined the Supremacy Clause power granted to the federal government. The subsequent creation of the Confederate States of America catalyzed the American Civil War.

19th century concurrent majority theories held logical counterbalances to standard tyranny of the majority harms originating from Antiquity and onward. Essentially, illegitimate or temporary coalitions that held majority volume could disproportionately outweigh and hurt any significant minority, by nature and sheer volume. Calhoun's contemporary doctrine was presented as one of limitation within American democracy to prevent traditional tyranny, whether actual or imagined.[5]

The global voting shows a precedent to use of concurrent majority for the "one color for all rooms" central tyrannized decision. Majority color (blue) is used at one room, and the concurrent majority at its correlated room (red).

See also


  1. John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p. 7
  2. https://publius2013.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/tyranny-of-the-minority/
  3. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-electoral-college-is-anti-democraticand-thats-a-good-thing-2016-09-12
  4. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp
  5. 1 2 Lacy K. Ford Jr., "Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought", The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 19–58 in JSTOR
  6. P. J. Deneen (2015) comenting Democracy in America, at "Equality, Tyranny, and Despotism in Democracy: Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville", 2015s theimaginativeconservative.org article.
  7. 1 2 A Przeworski, JM Maravall, I NetLibrary Democracy and the Rule of Law (2003) p.223
  8. John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Vol. 3 (London: 1788), p. 291.
  9. Vol. 1, chap. 15. Earlier, Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), said that "The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny."
  10. See for example maxim 89 of Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: First Sequel: Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 1879
  11. Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.
  12. The Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse
  13. Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)
  14. Todd Donovan et al, (2014). State and Local Politics. Cengage Learning. p. 131.
  15. Herbert Spencer (1851), http://www.panarchy.org/spencer/ignore.state.1851.html

Further reading

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