Tyranny of the majority
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Tyranny of the majority

October 12, 2019


The phrase “tyranny of the majority” is
used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule. It involves a
scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those
of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression
comparable to that of a tyrant or despot. In many cases a disliked ethnic,
religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority
element acting through the democratic process.
Supermajority rules, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative
body, and the introduction of a Bill of Rights have been used to counter the
problem. A separation of powers may also be implemented to prevent the problem
from happening internally in a government.
Term A term used in Classical and Hellenistic
Greece for oppressive popular rule was ochlocracy. Tyranny meant rule by one
man whether undesirable or not. The phrase “tyranny of the majority” was
used by John Adams in 1788. 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. It was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, who
cites Tocqueville, in On Liberty. The Federalist Papers refer to the broad
concept, as in Federalist 10, first published in 1787, which speaks of “the
superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
The term was widely employed in mid-nineteenth-century America in
conjunction with a series of moral questions that gave rise to organized
minority groups in American political life.
Lord Acton also used this term, saying: The one pervading evil of democracy is
the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority,
that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
The concept itself was popular with Friedrich Nietzsche and the phrase is
used at least once in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human. Ayn Rand,
Objectivist philosopher and novelist, wrote against such tyranny, saying 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. In 1965, Herbert Marcuse referred to the
tyranny of the majority in his essay “Repressive Tolerance” on the idea of
tolerance in advanced industrial society. He affirmed that “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.” In 1994, legal scholar Lani Guinier used
the phrase as the title for a collection of law review articles.
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 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, also known as logrolling, 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 .
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. See also
Administrative law An Enemy of the People
Argumentum ad populum Authoritarian personality
Consensus Conformity
Consociationalism Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Elective dictatorship Enabling Act of 1933
General will Individual anarchism
Majoritarianism Minoritarianism
Minority rights Social anarchism
Tragedy of the commons Utilitarianism
References Further reading
Volk, Kyle G.. Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York:
Oxford University Press. Alexis de Tocqueville on Tyranny of the
Majority from EDSITEment from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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  1. This is a brilliant explanation of the issue, although the digital voice is annoying! It would be realky helpful if you would have provided links to the sources cited. My political philosophy professor in College referred to John C. Calhoun as the "evil genius" of Constitutional & political thought. His writings are quite facinating.

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