Majoritarianism is a stark philosophical position defended explicitly by nearly no one but which many debates invoke rhetorically. Majoritarianism is more fundamental than majority rule, which is simply one of many possible political decision rules. Any democratic system obliges the government to respond to the desires of citizens. Any republican system requires that the people understand their obligations to each other and to the larger nation. Majority rule bridges the gap between the two systems of obligation in a particular way. Leaders and policies are selected by majority rule, and citizens have a duty of participation to ensure that choices are not made by minority factions of the population.
Majoritarianism, by contrast, if it were to be implemented fully, would require something closer to what Plato has Thracymachus tell us in The Republic : “Justice is the interest of the strongest.” Any policy that thwarts or frustrates “the majority,” by this notion, is inherently and intrinsically undemocratic and destroys the moral fiber of the nation.
In policy debates majoritarianism is most commonly invoked as a counterclaim to arguments for increased diversity or multicultural policies. The claims take the form of an identification of what “we,” the majority, stand for: “we are a Christian nation” or “we are an English-speaking nation” are common majoritarian appeals. Other examples of asserted majoritarianism include Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” for whom he claimed to speak, or Wilmot Robertson’s book The Dispossessed Majority (1972). Robertson’s is perhaps the most extreme and tendentious version of majoritarianism in the U.S. context, with its concern for the separation of ethnic groups because of the impossibility of true assimilation.
Though majority rule is not the same as majoritarianism, they are closely related. There are a variety of formal results regarding the potential for purely majoritarian institutions to produce just outcomes. On the negative side, Kenneth Arrow (1963) generalized the Marquis de Condorcet’s finding, rediscovered by Duncan Black (1958), that purely majoritarian choice will generally produce results that are either arbitrary (indeterminate) or imposed (dictatorial, so control of the agenda is tantamount to choosing the outcome). On the positive side, May’s Theorem demonstrates that even simple majority rule has several desirable properties and can avoid the chaos of Arrow’s result when there are only two alternatives.
Many political theorists point to John Rawls’s Political Liberalism as the most important counterpoint to a philosophical majoritarian perspective. Rawls argues that no one conception of identity should dominate and so no one majority can be said have primacy. Instead, Rawls advances a conception of “overlapping consensus,” with each individual committed to fair and respectful treatment of citizens who hold different conceptions of the good, whether it be political or religious.
SEE ALSO Arrow, Kenneth J.; Condorcet, Marquis de; Democracy; Dictatorship; Majority Rule; Majority Voting; Nixon, Richard M.; Plato; Rawls, John; Separatism; Tyranny of the Majority
Arrow, Kenneth.  1963. Social Choice and Individual Values. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.
May, Kenneth O. 1952. A Set of Independent Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Simple Majority Decisions. Econometrica 20: 680–684.
Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Robertson, Wilmot. 1972. The Dispossessed Majority. Cape Canaveral, FL: H. Allen.