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Tyranny of the majority

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The tyranny of the majority (or tyranny of the masses) is an inherent weakness to majority rule in which the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority factions. This results in oppression of minority groups comparable to that of a tyrant or despot, argued John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book On Liberty.[1]

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

In both cases, in the context of a nation, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, laws requiring supermajorities and the introduction of a Bill of Rights have been used to counter the problem. A separation of powers (for example 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.[4]

One of the earliest occurrences of this concept can be found in Plato's dialogue Gorgias, where Callicles argues that "the makers of laws are the majority who are weak; and they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and to their own interests; and they terrify the stronger sort of men, and those who are able to get the better of them, in order that they may not get the better of them" (Gorgias 483).

Origin of the term[edit]

The origin of the term "tyranny of the majority" is commonly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, who used it in his book Democracy in America. It appears in Part 2 of the book in the title of Chapter 8, "What Moderates the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States' Absence of Administrative Centralization" (French: De ce qui tempère aux États-Unis la tyrannie de la majorité[5]) and in the previous chapter in the names of sections such as "The Tyranny of the Majority" and "Effects of the Tyranny of the Majority on American National Character; the Courtier Spirit in the United States".[6]

While the specific phrase "tyranny of the majority" is frequently attributed to various Founding Fathers of the United States, only John Adams is known to have used it, arguing against government by a single unicameral elected body. Writing in defense of the Constitution in March 1788,[7] Adams referred to "a single sovereign assembly, each member…only accountable to his constituents; and the majority of members who have been of one party" as a "tyranny of the majority", attempting to highlight the need instead for "a mixed government, consisting of three branches". Constitutional author James Madison presented a similar idea in Federalist 10, citing the destabilizing effect of "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority" on a government, though the essay as a whole focuses on the Constitution's efforts to mitigate factionalism generally.

Later users include Edmund Burke, who wrote in a 1790 letter that "The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny."[8] It was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, influenced by Tocqueville, in On Liberty (1859). Friedrich Nietzsche used the phrase in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human (1879).[9] 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".[10] 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".[11] In 1994, legal scholar Lani Guinier used the phrase as the title for a collection of law review articles.[12]

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

Abandonment of rationality[edit]

Herbert Spencer, in "The Right to Ignore the State" (1851), pointed the problem with the following example:[13]

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[edit]

A collective decision of 13 voters in a deliberative assembly. Result: 8 votes for X (purple) and 5 votes for Y (brown). X option wins, because it has a majority (more than half).

Suppose a deliberative assembly of a building condominium with 13 voters, deciding, with majority rule, about "X or Y",

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

Suppose that the final result is "8 votes for X and 5 votes for Y", so 8, as a majority, purple 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 a wholesale purchase of one color paint for all rooms is better.

Federated centralization excess[edit]

Centralization excess is the most usual case. Suppose that each floor has some kind of local governance, so in some aspects the condominium is a "federation of floors". Suppose that only on the third floor the majority of residents manifested some preference to "each floor with different color" style, and all of the third floor residents likes the red color. The cost difference, to purchase another color for one floor, is not significant when compared with the condominium contributions.

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

Tyranny emerging[edit]

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 is a "community" of regulars, there is a grouping of voters by its activity as speed-cyclists (illustrated as spiked hair), that have the gym room key for some activities on Sundays. They are acting collectively to preserve the gym room for a local cyclists group.

In this situation the following facts hold:

  • There is a subset of voters and some collective action, uniting them, making them a cohesive group.
  • There is some centralization (a general assembly) and some central decision (over local decision): there is no choice of "each room decision" or "each regulars' community decision". So it is a central decision.
  • The subsidiarity principle can be applied: there is an "embryonic local governance" connecting the cyclists, and the other people (voters) of the condominium recognise the group, transferring some (little) responsibility to them (the keys of the gym room and right to advocate their cycling activities to other residents).

There is no "enforced minoritarianism"; it seems a legitimate characterization of a relevant (and not dominant) minority. This is a tyranny of the majority situation because:

  • there is a little "global gain" in a global decision (where X wins), and a good "local gain" in local decision (local Y preference);
  • there is relevant voting for a local decision: 6 voters (46%) are gym room regulars, 5 that voted Y. The majority of them (83%) voted Y.

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

Concurrent majority[edit]

Secession of the Confederate States of America from the United States 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.[2]


James Madison[edit]

Federalist No. 10 "The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection" (November 23, 1787):[14]

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS. If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed...By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.

Alexis de Tocqueville[edit]

With respect to American democracy, Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, says:

So what is a majority taken as a whole, if not an individual who has opinions and, most often, interests contrary to another individual called the minority. Now, if you admit that an individual vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why would you not admit the same thing for the majority? Have men, by gathering together, changed character? By becoming stronger, have they become more patient in the face of obstacles? As for me, I cannot believe it; and the power to do everything that I refuse to any one of my fellows, I will never grant to several. [15]

So when I see the right and the ability to do everything granted to whatever power, whether called people or king, democracy or aristocracy, whether exercised in a monarchy or a republic, I say: the seed of tyranny is there and I try to go and live under other laws.[16]

When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. To the police? The police are nothing other than the majority under arms. To the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to deliver judgments. The judges themselves, in certain states, are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or unreasonable the measure that strikes you may be, you must therefore submit to it or flee. What is that if not the very soul of tyranny under the forms of liberty[17]

Critique by Robert A. Dahl[edit]

Robert A. Dahl argues that the tyranny of the majority is a spurious dilemma (p. 171):[18]

Critic: Are you trying to say that majority tyranny is simply an illusion? If so, that is going to be small comfort to a minority whose fundamental rights are trampled on by an abusive majority. I think you need to consider seriously two possibilities; first, that a majority will infringe on the rights of a minority, and second, that a majority may oppose democracy itself.
Advocate: Let's take up the first. The issue is sometimes presented as a paradox. If a majority is not entitled to do so, then it is thereby deprived of its rights; but if a majority is entitled to do so, then it can deprive the minority of its rights. The paradox is supposed to show that no solution can be both democratic and just. But the dilemma seems to be spurious.
Of course a majority might have the power or strength to deprive a minority of its political rights. […] The question is whether a majority may rightly use its primary political rights to deprive a minority of its primary political rights.
The answer is clearly no. To put it another way, logically it can't be true that the members of an association ought to govern themselves by the democratic process, and at the same time a majority of the association may properly strip a minority of its primary political rights. For, by doing so the majority would deny the minority the rights necessary to the democratic process. In effect therefore the majority would affirm that the association ought not to govern itself by the democratic process. They can't have it both ways.
Critic: Your argument may be perfectly logical. But majorities aren't always perfectly logical. They may believe in democracy to some extent and yet violate its principles. Even worse, they may not believe in democracy and yet they may cynically use the democratic process to destroy democracy. […] Without some limits, both moral and constitutional, the democratic process becomes self-contradictory, doesn't it?
Advocate: That's exactly what I've been trying to show. Of course democracy has limits. But my point is that these are built into the very nature of the process itself. If you exceed those limits, then you necessarily violate the democratic process.

Trampling the rights of minorities[edit]

Regarding recent American politics (specifically initiatives), 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.[19]

Public choice theory[edit]

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.

Class studies

Tyranny of the majority has also been prevalent in some class studies. Rahim Baizidi uses the concept of "democratic suppression" to analyze the tyranny of the majority in economic classes. According to this, the majority of the upper and middle classes, together with a small portion of the lower class, form the majority coalition of conservative forces in the society.[20]

Vote trading[edit]

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

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[edit]


  1. ^ John Stuart Mill. [1]
  2. ^ a b 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
  3. ^ P. J. Deneen (2015) "Equality, Tyranny, and Despotism in Democracy: Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville", 2015s theimaginativeconservative.org article.
  4. ^ A Przeworski, JM Maravall, I NetLibrary Democracy and the Rule of Law (2003) p. 223
  5. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis (2012). De la démocratie en Amérique. Institut Coppet.
  6. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (2003). Democracy in America : and Two essays on America. Gerald E. Bevan, Isaac Kramnick, Alexis de Tocqueville. London. ISBN 0-14-044760-1. OCLC 51528434.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  7. ^ John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Vol. 3 (London: 1788), p. 290-291, 310.
  8. ^ Burke, Edmund (1844). Correspondence of Edmund Burke between the year 1774 - 1797. Rivington.
  9. ^ See for example maxim 89 of Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: First Sequel: Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 1879
  10. ^ Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.
  11. ^ The Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse
  12. ^ Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)
  13. ^ "Herbert Spencer, The Right to Ignore the State (1851)". www.panarchy.org. Retrieved 2019-11-18.
  14. ^ Madison, James; Hamilton, Alexander. "Federalist Nos. 51-60". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  15. ^ Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2.Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2| Online Library of Liberty
  16. ^ Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2. Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2| Online Library of Liberty
  17. ^ Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2. Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2| Online Library of Liberty
  18. ^ Dahl, Robert (1989). Democracy and Its Critics.
  19. ^ Todd Donovan; et al. (2014). State and Local Politics. Cengage Learning. p. 131. ISBN 9781285441405.
  20. ^ Baizidi, Rahim (2019-09-02). "Paradoxical class: paradox of interest and political conservatism in middle class". Asian Journal of Political Science. 27 (3): 272–285. doi:10.1080/02185377.2019.1642772. ISSN 0218-5377. S2CID 199308683.

Further reading[edit]