Liberal Democracy - Issues and Criticism - Majoritarianism


The tyranny of the majority is the fear that a direct democratic government, reflecting the majority view, can take action that oppresses a particular minority; for instance a minority holding wealth, property ownership, or power (see Federalist No. 10). Theoretically, the majority is a majority of all citizens. If citizens are not compelled by law to vote it is usually a majority of those who choose to vote. If such of group constitutes a minority then it is possible that a minority could, in theory, oppress another minority in the name of the majority. However, such an argument could apply to both direct democracy or representative democracy. In comparison to a direct democracy where every citizen is forced to vote, under liberal democracies the wealth and power is usually concentrated in the hands of a small privileged class who have significant power over the political process (See inverted totalitarianism). It is argued by some that in representative democracies this minority makes the majority of the policies and potentially oppresses the minority or even the majority in the name of the majority (see Silent majority). Several de facto dictatorships also have compulsory, but not "free and fair", voting in order to try to increase the legitimacy of the regime.

Possible examples of a minority being oppressed by or in the name of the majority:

  • Those potentially subject to conscription are a minority possibly because of socioeconomic reasons.
  • The minority who are wealthy often use their money and influence to manipulate the political process against the interests of the rest of the population, who are the minority in terms of income and access.
  • Several European countries have introduced bans on personal religious symbols in state schools. Opponents see this as a violation of rights to freedom of religion. Supporters see it as following from the separation of state and religious activities.
  • Prohibition of pornography is typically determined by what the majority is prepared to accept.
  • Recreational drug, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol use is too often criminalized or otherwise suppressed by majorities, originally for racist, classist, religious or paternalistic motives.
  • Society's treatment of homosexuals is also cited in this context. Homosexual acts were widely criminalised in democracies until several decades ago; in some democracies they still are, reflecting the religious or sexual mores of the majority.
  • The Athenian democracy and the early United States had slavery.
  • The majority often taxes the minority who are wealthy at progressively higher rates, with the intention that the wealthy will incur a larger tax burden for social purposes.
  • In prosperous western representative democracies, the poor form a minority of the population, and may not have the power to use the state to initiate redistribution when a majority of the electorate opposes such designs. When the poor form a distinct underclass, the majority may use the democratic process to, in effect, withdraw the protection of the state.
  • An often quoted example of the 'tyranny of the majority' is that Adolf Hitler came to power by legitimate democratic procedures. The Nazi party gained the largest share of votes in the democratic Weimar republic in 1933. Some might consider this an example of "tyranny of a minority" since he never gained a majority vote, but it is common for a plurality to exercise power in democracies, so the rise of Hitler cannot be considered irrelevant. However, his regime's large-scale human rights violations took place after the democratic system had been abolished. Also, the Weimar constitution in an "emergency" allowed dictatorial powers and suspension of the essentials of the constitution itself without any vote or election.

Proponents of democracy make a number of defenses concerning 'tyranny of the majority'. One is to argue that the presence of a constitution protecting the rights of all citizens in many democratic countries acts as a safeguard. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a supermajority of the elected representatives, or require a judge and jury to agree that evidentiary and procedural standards have been fulfilled by the state, or two different votes by the representatives separated by an election, or, sometimes, a referendum. These requirements are often combined. The separation of powers into legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch also makes it more difficult for a small majority to impose their will. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but such a minority would be very small and, as a practical matter, it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions.

Another argument is that majorities and minorities can take a markedly different shape on different issues. People often agree with the majority view on some issues and agree with a minority view on other issues. One's view may also change. Thus, the members of a majority may limit oppression of a minority since they may well in the future themselves be in a minority.

A third common argument is that, despite the risks, majority rule is preferable to other systems, and the tyranny of the majority is in any case an improvement on a tyranny of a minority. All the possible problems mentioned above can also occur in nondemocracies with the added problem that a minority can oppress the majority. Proponents of democracy argue that empirical statistical evidence strongly shows that more democracy leads to less internal violence and mass murder by the government. This is sometimes formulated as Rummel's Law, which states that the less democratic freedom a people have, the more likely their rulers are to murder them.

Read more about this topic:  Liberal Democracy, Issues and Criticism

Other articles related to "majoritarianism":

Majoritarianism - Reform and Backlash
... I, Chapter XV (1835) In recent times—especially beginning in the 1960s—some forms of majoritarianism have been countered by liberal reformers in many countries in the 1963 ... This has provoked a backlash from some advocates of majoritarianism, who lament the Balkanization of society they claim has resulted from the gains made ...
Two-round System - Majoritarianism
... Critics argue that the absolute majority obtained by the winner of runoff voting is an artificial one ... As seen above, instant-runoff voting and the exhaustive ballot are two other voting systems that create an absolute majority for one candidate by eliminating weaker candidates over multiple rounds ...