Defining Democracy: Tyranny of the Majority

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch.”  

—Benjamin Franklin

Aristocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, Tyranny. From best to worst, this is the order in which regimes degrade, as described by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. You’re probably thinking: I thought democracy was good! Why did Socrates, arguably the most famous philosopher of all time, think it was so dangerous? Well, Socrates and Plato, in addition to many other prominent political philosophers that followed them, were concerned that democracies might lead to a tyranny of the majority, whereby the majority of citizens oppresses the minority in a democratic state. Typically, a tyrannical majority is led by a demagogue who ridicules the previous established power, appeals to popular sentiment, and launches attacks against minority groups—all to the delight of the demagogue’s supporters. 

The concept of a “superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,” as Madison calls it in Federalist Paper #10, has been an inherent flaw of democratic governments long before the founding of the United States. The early democracies of Athens and Rome experienced several moments where a popular tyrant would rise to power, appear to represent the sentiments of the poor, “left out” majority, and launch an aggressive campaign in the name of restoring power to the people. And in the French Revolution, after overthrowing the ruling elites, Robespierre and other revolutionaries clamoring for equality made the streets run red with blood during the Reign of Terror, before emperor Napoleon Bonaparte overtook power. 

Perhaps the most influential individual to write about the tyranny of the majority—and to articulate how this concept relates specifically to the United States—is French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled to the United States in 1831.  He asserted that, given every American’s roughly equal intellectual stature to his fellow citizens, “public opinion” (as he called it) would become an overwhelming force in American politics. Tocqueville questioned if public opinion was always motivated by the right reasons. “I regard as impious and detestable,” Tocqueville wrote, “the maxim that in matters of government the majority of a people has the right to do everything.” Tocqueville, like Plato before him, believed that justice can—and often must—reside outside of the immediate desires of the People. Democracy, however, is based on the majority’s voice. So if we’re to avoid a “tyranny of the majority,” we would essentially have to, in some way, temper pure democracy. You can learn more about this in our narrative about constitutional democracy, but in the meantime, let’s turn to the specific tactics the founders used to avoid what they would have considered “mob rule.” 

They established two houses of Congress: the House of Representatives, where each state is represented according to its population, and the Senate, where each state is afforded two representatives. The latter, which gives states equal power regardless of size, was intended to serve as a check on the former. In fact, before the 17th amendment, the Constitution called for senators to be appointed by their state legislatures, not elected by popular vote. Yes, the founders were that wary of popular majorities. 

Another check on tyrannical majorities is the judiciary. The founders believed that courts should be immune to popular demands, so that judges could impartially interpret questions of justice. So, justices on the Supreme Court and federal judiciary serve for life, without having to worry about re-election or public opinion when issuing rulings. Additionally, justices are nominated and appointed by the President and the Senate, not elected by popular vote. Representative democracy at play once again. 

Arguably the most important protection the founders instituted takes the form of the Constitution itself. Once ratified, the Founders made this document incredibly difficult to change, requiring not only a supermajority, but also the successful completion of a complex amendment process. The first ten of those amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, enumerate the sacred rights of all American citizens, regardless of whether they belong to the majority or the minority on any particular issue. 

With the recent rise of populist movements that target various minority groups while proclaiming to finally acknowledge the struggle of the forgotten, average working-class American, we might be tempted to ask ourselves if the Founding Fathers actually did enough to curtail the rise of a tyrannical majority. 

But is it really a tyrannical majority? Gerrymandering and voter suppression have led to gross misrepresentation in the legislature and the electoral college, leading some to believe that there is actually a tyranny of the minority. The United States must strive to protect democracy from its worst impulses, but this should never come at the expense of unjustifiably precluding citizens from participating in government. Whenever the government pursues policies that restrict specific groups’ ability to partake in democracy—whether by de jure or de facto means—that’s not a democratic check; that’s suppression. And it’s not something that the Founding Fathers would have endorsed. 

It is said that Socrates once likened democratic government to a sea vessel.“Who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel?” he asked, “just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” As the analogy goes, the greatest criticism of democracy will always be that the people are fundamentally incapable of ruling. But maybe there’s another way to think of this metaphor: what if—and bear with us—everyone on the ship knew how to sail? The best safeguard against tyranny of the majority, i.e. a pure democracy, will always be a virtuous constitutional democracy where there is a well-educated citizenry, and the majority assumes its power responsibly; where fundamental rights are protected; and where individuals understand their role in society as both free and independent thinkers, and members of society that is united by the majority and minority alike.