What is the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’? | History Hit

What is the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’?

Laura McMillen

24 Nov 2020
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The ‘tyranny of the majority’ occurs when the will of a majority population group exclusively prevails in a system of democratic government, resulting ipotential oppression of minority groups. 

Historical origins of the political concept ‘tyranny of the majority’ 

The threat of an unwise and unrestrained majority has existed in the democratic imagination since the trial of Socrates in Ancient Greece, but was solidified and articulated in the age of democratic revolutions.

Throughout the English Civil War in the mid 17th century, large groups of individuals from the lower classes emerged as political actors. This provoked philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) to present the first conception of majority rule in his Two Treatise of Government (1690).

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In the following century, the prospect of ‘rule by the people’ was cast in a more threatening light by the experiences of the American and French Revolutions which started in 1776 and 1789 respectively.

French historian and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) first coined the term ‘tyranny of the majority’ in his seminal Democracy in America (1835-1840). English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) highlighted the concept in his classic 1859 treatise On LibertyThis generation deeply distrusted rule by an uneducated democratic mob.

Alexis de Tocqueville, portrait by Théodore Chassériau (1850) (Public Domain)

The main danger that worried these thinkers, along with many others from classical philosopher Aristotle to American founding father Madison, was that the majority poor citizenry would vote for confiscatory legislation at the expense of the rich minority.  

Two distinct types of majority tyranny

Democracies were thought vulnerable to majority tyranny in two distinct forms. Firstly, tyranny that operates through the formal procedures of government. Tocqueville drew attention to this scenario, wherein “politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything”.

Alternatively, the majority might exercise moral or social tyranny through the power of public opinion and custom. Tocqueville lamented this new form of “democratic despotism”. He was concerned about the potential abandonment of rationality if a claim to rule is based upon numbers, and “not upon rightness or excellence”. 

Political theorists proposed structures to remedy ‘the tyranny of the majority’

As far as Tocqueville could see, there were no clear barriers against the absolute sovereignty of the majority, but precautions should nevertheless be pursued. He believed that some elements of society, such as townships, municipal bodies, and counties were outside its reach, and placed particular emphasis on the lawyer class to offer a bulwark to majority opinion through their rigorous legal training and notion of right.

Mill advocated reforms like educational qualifications, proportional representation, plural voting, and an open ballotEssentially, the rich and well educated would receive extra votes.

As the second type of majority tyranny is an affair of the mind, the political theorists of the period struggled to articulate such clear remedies. Nevertheless, Mill sought, to address the deficiency of “personal impulses and preferences” by fostering an environment of diverse, conflicting opinions where more robust individual characters could grow.  

John Stuart Mill circa 1870, by London Stereoscopic Company (Public Domain)

Influence on the Constitution of the United States

The political philosophers writing about the ‘tyranny of the majority’ were hugely influential in their contemporary context.

For instance, James Madison (1751-1836), one of the founding fathers and 4th president of the United States, was particularly concerned with the first, political, type of majority tyranny. 

Madison made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing The Federalist Papers (1788), along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

In The Federalist Papers, he famously sought to quell anxieties that a majority “faction” would impose its biddings on an enlightened minority by foregrounding the natural obstacle of the diversity of opinions in a large republic. In a country as varied as the United States there would not be one national majority which could tyrannize over a national minority. 

This view formed the basis of his argument that the US must have a federal structure. If a majority were to emerge, his theory went, the powers that the states retained would bulwark against it. The separation of powers among legislature, executive, and judiciary at federal level would be a further protection. 

Foundation of the American Government by Henry Hintermeister (1925) Gouverneur Morris signs the Constitution before George Washington. Madison sits next to Robert Morris, in front of Benjamin Franklin. (Public Domain)

Critics of Madison would argue that minorities which do not form a local majority anywhere are left without protection. For instance, the Madisonian constitution gave no effective protection to black Americans until the 1960s. The ‘states’ rights’ which Madison advocated were used by the white majorities in the Southern states to oppress the local black minorities. 

Ongoing influence

Even beyond the historical context of the Age of Revolutions and nation building wherein the term ‘tyranny of the majority’ originatedits implications are manifold 

Debate surrounding the current First Past the Post electoral system in the UK, for instance, questions whether FPTP may increase the ‘tyranny of the majority’ by rewarding the first and second largest parties disproportionately to any third party, as seen in the 2010 general election.  

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Laura McMillen