Tyranny of the Majority

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Tyranny of the Majority


Although the specter of an unwise and unrestrained majority has haunted the democratic imagination since the trial of Socrates (c. 470399 BCE) in ancient Greece, the concept of majority tyranny dates to the modern age of democratic revolutions. The emergence of large groups of individuals from the lower classes of society as political actors in the English civil wars of the seventeenth century prompted philosopher John Locke (16321704) to articulate the first conception of majority rule in his Two Treatises of Government (1690). A century later, the revolutionary experiences in America in 1776 and France in 1789 cast the prospect of rule by the people in a new, more threatening, light. The phrase tyranny of the majority, first coined by French historian and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) in his seminal two-volume study Democracy in America (18351840) and memorialized by John Stuart Mill (18061873) in his classic 1859 treatise On Liberty, represented to this generation the fear and deep distrust of rule by an uneducated democratic mob.

Democracies were thought vulnerable to two distinct forms of majority tyranny. The first is political or legal tyranny that operates through the formal procedures of majoritarian rule. Where all aspects of government, from public opinion and juries to the legislature, the executive, and even some judges, are a function of the majority, its power is absolute. As Tocqueville put it in the first volume of Democracy in America (1835), politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything ([18351840] 1990, p. 259). This political tyranny was the primary concern of American founder James Madison (17511836) in The Federalist Papers (1788), especially No. 10, in which he famously sought to quell anxieties that a majority faction would impose its biddings on an enlightened minority by calling attention to the natural obstacle of the diversity of opinions in a large republic.

The second type is the moral or social tyranny the majority exercises through custom and the power of public opinion. As long as the majority is still silent, Tocqueville observed, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent. More insidious than the overt tyranny long practiced by monarchs and despots, which was physically brutal but powerless to inhibit the exercise of thought, under this new form of democratic despotism, as Tocqueville would come to call it, the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved ([18351840] 1990, pp. 263264).

In On Liberty (1859), his famous defense of individual freedom, Mill deepened Tocquevilles diagnosis of this second type of tyranny by warning against the despotism of custom and collective mediocrity endemic to egalitarian societies, while defending expressions of individuality not in harmony with the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling ([1859] 1982, pp. 136, 131, 63). Yet Mill had reviewed each volume of Democracy in America as they appeared in English translation two decades earlier, and he emendated Tocquevilles account in important ways. While very sympathetic on the whole, in his review of volume two Mill suggested that Tocqueville had over-generalized by associating all the causes of this new form of majority tyranny with the rise of democracy. Drawing on insights from his own 1836 essay Civilization, composed after reviewing Tocquevilles first volume the year before, Mill argued that the growing insignificance of individuals in comparison with the mass was less the result of a transition from aristocracy to democracy than of the progressive growth of wealth and industry he termed Civilization. The ills identified by Tocqueville emanated not from an omnipotent democratic majority per se but from an emergent commercial class. The most serious danger to the future prospects of mankind, Mill concluded, is in the unbalanced influence of the commercial spirit ([1840] 1962, p. 155).

As far as Tocqueville could see, there were no barriers against the absolute sovereignty of the majority. None, at least, that naturally would attend it; precautions needed to be actively pursued. Still, despite the omnipresence of majority power, Tocqueville believed the secondary affairs of society in the townships, municipal bodies, and counties were outside its reach. More specifically, the class of lawyers, rendered very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitude by the rigors of their legal training, are offered as a bulwark to the tyranny of majority opinion, along with the educating influence of jury service, which cultivated in citizens a capacity for judgment and a notion of right ([18351840] 1990, vol. 1, pp. 271273). In his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Mill advocated reforms like educational qualifications, proportional representation, plural voting, and an open ballot to preempt majority political tyranny.

Against tyranny of the second type, which was entirely an affair of the mind, remedies were more complicated. Here the problem was less one of political procedure than a question of the formation of individual character. Dropping the language both of majority and tyranny, Tocqueville despaired in volume two of Democracy in America of not having an appropriate term to describe the new species of oppression. In chapter 6 of book 4, he wrote powerfully of an immense and tutelary power that compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies rather than tyrannizes, reducing each nation to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. The rare and brief exercise of free choice offered by periodic elections would not be enough to prevent citizens from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity ([18351840] 1990, pp. 318321). Sharing this diagnosis, Mill sought, most memorably in On Liberty, to remedy the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences by fostering an environment of diverse, conflicting opinions where more robust individual characters could grow. In addition, he insisted upon support for a contrary spirit to check the dominant commercialism, which he found in the agricultural, leisured, and learned classes of society.

Because they perceived that in the United States the majority did not, as European aristocrats had feared, use their political sovereignty to make laws against the rich, Tocqueville and Mill saw the second kind of tyranny as the far greater threat. Other than the wealthy, they believed, all other political minorities were fluctuating; therefore, he who is in the majority today is in the minority tomorrow, ([1835] 1962, p. 205) as Mill put it, though he did point out that the antipathies of race and religion were an exception. The racially divided society of twentieth-century America has given the first type of tyranny of majority a renewed relevance. Legal scholar Lani Guinier (1994) has written eloquently about the problem of permanent and fixed minorities. Though fair in principle, the procedures of winner-take-all majority rule ensure in practice that ethnic or racial minorities will be perpetually powerless. Guinier has outlined a more cooperative style of decision making based on the principle of taking turns, which alleviates political tyranny by compelling majorities to confer with minority groups in the hope of generating a more inclusionary politics that is not a zero-sum game.

SEE ALSO Civil Liberties; Freedom; Liberty; Mill, John Stuart; Pluralism; Society; Tocqueville, Alexis de


Guinier, Lani. 1994. The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy . New York: Free Press.

Locke, John. [1690] 1964. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. [1788] 1982. The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills. New York: Bantam.

Mill, John Stuart. [1835] 1962. Tocqueville on Democracy in America, Vol. I. In Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Mill, John Stuart. [1836] 1962. Civilization. In Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Mill, John Stuart. [1840] 1962. Tocqueville on Democracy in America, Vol. II. In Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Mill, John Stuart. [1859] 1982. On Liberty, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Penguin.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. [18351840] 1990. Democracy in America . 2 vols., ed. Phillips Bradley. New York: Vintage.

Christopher Voparil