Majorities are defined as proportions larger than 50 percent of the total. This concept is fundamental to the theory and practice of democracy because of the democratic principle of equal human worth. The moral equality of people suggests that deference often should be given to the opinions of the majority when political conflicts require a collective resolution.
Several rationales can be used to justify this partiality toward majorities (Dahl 1989). First, it maximizes selfdetermination by allowing more people to live under conditions they prefer. Second, it maximizes average utility by benefiting the largest number of individuals. Third, it is likely to produce beneficial decisions because people are well informed.
Majorities commonly are treated with special consideration in many areas of the democratic political process. They exert their strongest influence on decision-making activities. Majorities usually have primary control over decision-making institutions and are generally in a position to dictate outcomes. Consequently, forming and maintaining majorities is an important feature of democratic politics.
The attractiveness of majorities for democratic decision making was demonstrated formally in 1952 by Kenneth May, who showed that in choosing between two alternatives, only majority rule satisfies four reasonable conditions for a democratic process: It produces outcomes that are decisive, anonymous, neutral, and positively responsive.
When the choice set includes more than two alternatives, there may not be a naturally occurring majority winner. In these situations voting procedures can be used that still reflect the basic principles of majority rule. A runoff system, for example, involves a two-stage election. It begins with a preliminary election. If there is no majority winner, the two candidates with the highest vote totals advance to a head-to-head runoff in which majority rule can be used. An amendment procedure, which often is used in legislatures, also uses majority rule to choose among more than two alternatives. A winner is chosen through a series of pairwise votes decided by majority rule. At each stage the winning alternative advances to face a different competing option.
Variations of majority rule such as unanimity and supermajorities empower minorities in certain situations. The unanimity rule, which requires unanimous consent, effectively gives veto power to any individual voter. A supermajority rule, which requires a proportion greater than a simple majority, also leaves open the possibility of minority control over the outcome of a decision. Similarly, with the plurality rule a winner is chosen on the basis of receiving the largest proportion of votes. In this case an alternative can win with less than a majority.
The importance of the use of majorities for exerting political power in a democracy makes it a significant concern for political actors. Political institutions and conditions, however, can affect the way political power is pursued. Two-party political systems, for example, provide unique strategic environments for parties, candidates, and voters. Competing parties and candidates have an incentive to make their platforms more appealing to centrist voters to maximize their vote totals (Downs 1957). Consequently, voters typically are presented with two relatively moderate alternatives. People who support third-party or independent candidates have an incentive to cast ballots strategically for one of the two major parties to avoid “wasting” their votes.
In contrast, multiparty systems often require the formation of coalitions among competing political parties to establish ruling majorities. Consequently, parties and candidates can achieve political power without having broad-based support. They can concentrate their platforms to appeal to more narrow constituencies that are large enough to secure political representation. Once seated, they can negotiate with others to create a majority coalition. Therefore, voters in a multiparty system often have a wider range of alternatives from which to choose and less motivation to vote strategically.
Although majorities have certain normative advantages related to the principle of equal moral worth, they also present dangers in the form of majority tyranny. Political power in the hands of the majority leaves minorities susceptible to harm or exploitation. The criticism of democracy as a form of mob rule reflects the suspicion that an unconstrained majority will misuse its power.
The problem of majority tyranny often is addressed through political institutions in which majority rule is balanced with the protection of minorities. In the Federalist Papers the abuse perpetrated by majority factions is identified as a primary obstacle to political justice and the well-being of the American state. Consequently, certain institutional structures and principles were included in the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, including federalism, the division of powers, checks and balances, and the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment.
Majorities in a democracy can have an oppressive effect on private individuals in civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the thoughts and opinions of individuals in a democracy are susceptible to majority tyranny: “[A majority] uses no persuasion to forward its beliefs, but by some mighty pressure of the mind of all upon the intelligence of each it imposes its ideas and makes them penetrate men’s very souls” (Tocqueville 2000, p. 435). This power over public opinion is due in part to the influence of the principle of equality. When individuals are considered equal, there is an inclination to view the greater number in a majority as providing evidence of superior thought. There is also a propensity for individuals to be ostracized socially when they publicly disagree with the majority opinion. These tendencies make a democratic society vulnerable to uniformity of thought and a dearth of new ideas.
The concept of majorities plays a critical role in democratic thought and practice similar to that of freedom and equality. It provides a general standard for structuring democratic decision making. It also influences the behavior of political actors, who must keep in mind the political advantages of being in the majority. The power that democracies give majorities may be justified normatively. However, it should be viewed with caution. The power majorities have to exert control over the political process allows them to sacrifice the interests of minorities.
SEE ALSO Dahl, Robert Alan; Democracy; Majoritarianism; Majority Rule; Majority Voting; Minorities; Political Science; Politics; Tocqueville, Alexis de; Tyranny of the Majority
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.
May, Kenneth. 1952. A Set of Independent Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Simple Majority Decision. Econometrica 10: 680–684.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2000. Democracy in America. 1st ed. Trans. George Lawrence, ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: Perennial Classics. (Orig. pub. 1835–1840.)