Tyranny of the majority

political concept

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses") is used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule. It involves a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.


  • Critic: Are you trying to say that majority tyranny is simply an illusion? If so, that is going to be small comfort to a minority whose fundamental rights are trampled on by an abusive majority. I think you need to consider seriously two possibilities; first, that a majority will infringe on the rights of a minority, and second, that a majority may oppose democracy itself.
    Advocate: Let's take up the first. The issue is sometimes presented as a paradox. If a majority is not entitled to do so, then it is thereby deprived of its rights; but if a majority is entitled to do so, then it can deprive the minority of its rights. The paradox is supposed to show that no solution can be both democratic and just. But the dilemma seems to be spurious.
    Of course a majority might have the power or strength to deprive a minority of its political rights. [...] The question is whether a majority may rightly use its primary political rights to deprive a minority of its primary political rights.
    The answer is clearly no. To put it another way, logically it can't be true that the members of an association ought to govern themselves by the democratic process, and at the same time a majority of the association may properly strip a minority of its primary political rights. For, by doing so the majority would deny the minority the rights necessary to the democratic process. In effect therefore the majority would affirm that the association ought not to govern itself by the democratic process. They can't have it both ways.
    Critic: Your argument may be perfectly logical. But majorities aren't always perfectly logical. They may believe in democracy to some extent and yet violate its principles. Even worse, they may not believe in democracy and yet they may cynically use the democratic process to destroy democracy. [...] Without some limits, both moral and constitutional, the democratic process becomes self-contradictory, doesn't it?
    Advocate: That's exactly what I've been trying to show. Of course democracy has limits. But my point is that these are built into the very nature of the process itself. If you exceed those limits, then you necessarily violate the democratic process.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 12 : Process and Substance
  • The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought. That this should be so terribly apparent in a country whose symbol is democracy, is very significant of the tremendous power of the majority. [...] Evidently we have not advanced very far from the condition that confronted Wendell Phillips. Today, as then, public opinion is the omnipresent tyrant; today, as then, the majority represents a mass of cowards, willing to accept him who mirrors its own soul and mind poverty. That accounts for the unprecedented rise of a man like Roosevelt. He embodies the very worst element of mob psychology. A politician, he knows that the majority cares little for ideals or integrity. What it craves is display. It matters not whether that be a dog show, a prize fight, the lynching of a "nigger," the rounding up of some petty offender, the marriage exposition of an heiress, or the acrobatic stunts of an ex-president. The more hideous the mental contortions, the greater the delight and bravos of the mass. Thus, poor in ideals and vulgar of soul, Roosevelt continues to be the man of the hour. On the other hand, men towering high above such political pygmies, men of refinement, of culture, of ability, are jeered into silence as mollycoddles. It is absurd to claim that ours is the era of individualism. Ours is merely a more poignant repetition of the phenomenon of all history: every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass. Today, as ever, the few are misunderstood, hounded, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
  • When an individual endeavors to lift himself above his fellows, he is dragged down by the mass, either by means of ridicule or of calumny. No one shall be more virtuous or more intellectually gifted than others. Whoever, by the irresistible force of genius, rises above the common herd is certain to be ostracized by society, which will pursue him with such merciless derision and detraction that at last he will be compelled to retreat into the solitude of his thoughts.
  • Even 51 per cent of a nation can establish a totalitarian and dictatorial règime, suppress minorities, and still remain democratic; there is, as we have said, little doubt that the American Congress and the French Chambre have a power over their respective nations which would rouse the envy of a Louis XIV or a George III were they alive today.
  • Men are not infallible; they err very often. It is not true that the masses are always right and know the means for attaining the ends aimed at. “Belief in the common man” is no better founded than was belief in the supernatural gifts of kings, priests, and noblemen. Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster. Majorities too may err and destroy our civilization.
  • The Indian National Congress' concept of nationalism is based on the establishment of a national state of the majority community in which other nationalities and communities have only secondary rights. The Muslims think that no tyranny can be [as] great as the tyranny of the majority.
    • Pirpur report. From the Report of the Enquiry Commission Appointed by the Council of the All-India Muslim League to Inquire into some Muslim Grievances in Congress Provinces, also known as the Pirpur report (1938)), cited in K.K. Aziz, Muslims under Congress rule 1937-1939, vol.1, p.311, also quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p.18-19
  • These pioneering codifiers of working liberal democracy — from James Madison to Mill — were all agreed on the three fundamental pillars standing in the way of either Caesarist domination or majoritarian tyranny. The first was the inviolable sovereign authority of an elected legislature, without whose consent no laws could be enacted or executed. The second was an independent judiciary committed to upholding the rule of law, from which no one including (and especially) the chief executive would be exempt. The third was the sanctity of freedom of the press and all forms of expressed opinion; a principle most majestically articulated in John Milton’s Areopagitica.
    • Simon Schama, "Simon Schama: who speaks for the people?", Financial Times (October 4, 2019)
  • To secure approval one must remain within the bounds of conventional mediocrity. Whatever lies beyond, whether it be greater insight and virtue, or greater stolidity and vice, is condemned. The noblest men, like the worst criminals, have been done to death.

See also

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