Home > Democracy, Politics, University Essays > Democratic Tyranny of the Majority

Democratic Tyranny of the Majority

Although the idea was originally mooted by Madison in the Federalist Papers 10 and 51, the term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America. It is supposed to portray the situation wherein a political majority imposes its will (like Rousseau’s “General Will”) on a minority whose interests are diametrically opposed.

It should be obvious that the nature of democratic politics requires that whichever party or politician gains a simple majority (50% + 1) gains the legitimacy to pursue both policies laid out in a pre-election manifesto and any others it deems necessary to increase public welfare (albeit debated and usually compromised upon). Democratic politics should not be compromised upon because some people disagree with a party or a policy because this would be lead to inaction and even possibly tyranny of the minority of even one (“Democracy is the worst from of government, except for all the others that have been tried”- Churchill blah blah). However, this does not mean that there is no need to watch out for majority tyranny.

I think the concept of tyranny of the majority needs to be understood and “compensated for” through various institutions and/ or voting systems because of the potential risks to public order, political stability and even to democracy itself. These risks would be high when there is a persistent (perpetual) minority(ies) on whom policies which they view to be opposed to their interests are constantly pursued, especially when their views are not sought or taken seriously in the policy debate. This can lead to feelings of injustice and a sense of powerlessness, despair, and mistrust of the political system and other groups (other minorities and/or the majority). These could then lead to rioting, violence against other groups and the authorities, breakdown of law and order (ending in martial law) and general political instability (if unrest is large enough and not effectively controlled) as the minority try to ‘claim their justice.’ It could also lead to anti-democratic laws and policies being passed and followed (think US Patriot Act and  UK 42-day Detention as the government strives to control dissidents/ destabilising influences)

An example of disorder caused by fear and mistrust would be the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, after the acquittal of four policemen for the video-documented beating of Rodney King (a black man) by a jury consisting of 10 Caucasians, a Latino and an Asian (funny that). Some of the attributed underlying causes combined with the long-held view in black communities of police abuse (NWA- F**k tha Police anyone) have included;

  1. Anger over the sentence given to a Korean-American shop owner for the shooting and killing of a black girl. There was some violence between Korean- and African-Americans (between minorities).
  2. The effects of the recession especially very high levels of unemployment and poverty in South-Central Los Angeles. This could lead to resentment especially when compared with other affluent (and arguably more Caucasian) parts of LA.
  3. (2) combined with cuts in public spending and lack of investment in the inner-city led to a lack of economic opportunities and “more than a decade of urban decay.”

I think a recent/ current example would be the US now (2009). The tea-parties and their vile rhetoric could be seen as a reaction to what they see as a majority (in government at least; although I suspect public opinion would be broadly pro-government <for instance, in the first poll at this link, 13% oppose it because it’s not liberal enough- this gives you 55:45 in favour of the proposed reform only varying by degree of reform> ) treading over their rights to be the only ones who have healthcare (for instance) and which they see is also trying to tread over their other rights to burn as much fuel as they want thus leading America into European/ Stalinist/ British heaven (all at once- this is aka Socialist Hell or Communist Abyss). (Sorry about this paragraph).


I think Majority Tyranny should be considered seriously because of the effects on public order and political stability of a persistent minority that is forced to bear constant injustice and has limited means of influencing policy in their favour.

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