By Vexen Crabtree 2018
The 'tyranny of the majority' refers to the unfortunate occasion where a majority of a population come to care mostly about their own concerns at the expense of others, and often support policies and actions that suppress minorities1. This can be accident through ignorance of issues, or, on purpose, through malice and intolerance. The solution is that 'majority rules' are not enough to ensure good governance and fair society2. There are "circumstances where the idea of majority rule has to be modified"3. The result of unchecked popularism is the loss of democracy and human rights followed by social instability, strife, sectarianism and national developmental degradation4,5. Additional checks and balances are needed in any democracy to ensure that popularist ideas that are short-sighted or biased cannot simply be shouted through by the loudest voices1,4. In history, human rights have proven to be the surest and strongest bulwark against such 'mob rule'.1,6 Other strong factors are good general education, a liberal culture of tolerance and the strong rule of law with limited powers for the executive.
Most of us share a feeling that if enough people support an action, then, it is 'good'. In moral theory, this 'greatest good principle' or 'greatest happiness principle' defines the almost-universal agreement that you should follow the path that makes more people happy, rather than follow one that only makes some happy7. However, this is often incorrect. What makes many happy in the short term (tax cuts!) can easily be seen in the long-run, in many situations, to actually do more harm than good (loss of government services). And what of those many occasions where a popular mob, representing the majority want to actively suppress and harm those with which they disagree? In this case, the 'majority rule' turns into 'tyranny of the majority'.
“In his glowing assessment of the young American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned that the "main evil" he found in this new system was not the "excessive liberty" that most Europeans feared, but the "inadequate securities... against tyranny". The tyranny of which he spoke was the "tyranny of the majority."8 His concern was the ability of the majority to impose its will without regard to the sovereignty of all people.”
“Democracy thus comes down to the rule of the 51 per cent, a prospect that the French politician and social commentator, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), famously described as 'the tyranny of the majority'. Individual liberty and minority rights can thus be crushed in the name of the people.”
Political theorists such as Edmund Burke (18th century, UK), James Madison (19th century USA), John Stuart Mill (19th century, UK) and Joseph Schumpeter (20th century, Austria & USA) all argued that it is best to elect knowledgeable and wise representatives who work for the people. But they don't blindly trust the opinions of the masses directly because they are given the job of deliberation over issues and that those representatives have a duty to do what is right even when the majority opinion goes in a wayward direction.2
These theorists knew they were not addressing a new problem: In the 4th century BCE, the people voted to execute Socrates, their greatest thinker, because they didn't like some of his teachings9. Slavery and racial segregation was only finally abolished in the American South when legislators overruled democratic votes and popular opinion10.
“In politics, popularism is the effect of uninformed mass opinion on governance. It can transpire through the government being too sensitive to the loudest voices of the masses, through grassroots movements that are too narrow in scope to represent the entire population, through nasty forms of nationalism and jingoism. Popularist slogans are often catchy policies based on simple one-line policies that do not have a proper depth of research or meaning; hence, they appeal to 'the masses' and it is the job of politicians to convince the populace to pursue wiser courses of action than they would if left to their own devices. In the modern world, Internet-based and social media campaigns are becoming the most important source of public pressure on governments12 and this is giving enemies of democracy powerful new tools of interference13. The worst aspects of popularism are a disregard for minorities1 and any unpopular subcultures (wherein popularism becomes 'the tyranny of the majority') and the other main disadvantage is the pursuit of shallow and short-sighted policies that harm the nation in the long-run2,4,5. The solution to popularism is to ensure the politicians are professional, well-trained, well-educated, and who are not afraid to engage in long-term strategy that is unpopular in the short term.”
It is often the case the troubles with mob rule lead to the loss of democratic systems. For example, democracies in Central Asia have led to dictatorships, and in Yugoslavia and Indonesia the people have voted for policies far more restrictive than those of the previous non-democratic era4. In the 1930s, the National Socialists (Nazis)'s nationalist rhetoric against foreigners saw them do exceedingly well in a series of elections, before winning power in 1933. "The Nazi Party made full use of the democratic process... the more extreme Hitler's rhetoric, the more popular he got"14.
“In some places, such as Central Asia, democracies have paved the way for dictatorships. In others, they have exacerbated group conflict and ethnic tensions. Both Yugoslavia and Indonesia, for example, were far more tolerant and secular when they were ruled by strongmen (Tito and Suharto, respectively) than they are now as democracies.”
Politics is not simple. Answers to political problems are not simple. Populations are difficult to manage; most issues have multiple sides, and, require expert opinion and extended study in order to make sure that freedoms are upheld, the country is managed well, and that democracy is not damaged through short-term thinking. Knee-jerk reactions to current events often result in unnecessary harm. But in a world beset by migration issues (that are very complicated) and globalisation issues (that are also very complicated), a cast of loud-mouthed illiberals have been gaining a lot of political ground. They are propounding solutions that are simplistic, that sound good to the majority and that are expressible in nifty slogans like 'take back control' or 'build a wall'. The main feature that these emotional reactions share is that they are all wrong, all short-sighted, and all too simple. The result is a new era of tyranny by the majority.
Some of those who have risen to take up the loudspeakers of the mob include Trump's presidency of the USA5, the anti-globalist Brexit decision, and a few far-right nationalist parties scattered around the Western world. If these types of people get their way, the modern era of the powerful and connected Western world will end.
“[P]eople and forces that stand for distinctly unWestern ideas, chief among them Donald Trump, have risen to prominence and power. Those ideas could, if allowed to prevail and become entrenched, destroy the West and much of what it has achieved.”
“Today in our debates there is far less emphasis on setting out alternatives than on articulating people's anger and on a political narrative that reduces complex arguments to over-simplified binary choices that suggest there are only ever two points on the spectrum.”
"Britain: Leading, Not Leaving: The Patriotic Case for Remaining in Europe" by Gordon Brown (2016)15
“Democracy is rule for the people16. The democratic process is designed to avoid dictatorships and totalitarianism by making government accountable for its actions through voting and legal sanctions. There are different ways to implement democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis. The separation of powers means that no particular government organ has unfettered control. The rule of law applies to all: politicians from the ruling party and from other parties, rich businessmen, and poor citizens, are all subject to the same equalities and restrictions. Human rights are protected by allowing reporters, watchdogs and civilian concern groups to scrutinize government. The principal of secularism requires that Government must not come to represent a sole ethnic or religious group (i.e., it should be secular and unbiased), and there should be no laws that grant particular freedoms to particular ethnic or religious groups, and likewise, no laws that specifically prohibit them.
Democracy faces many challenges. Large multinational companies can outmanoeuvre and ignore local governments, which sometimes places them above-the-law. Therefore regional and international agreements are now an essential part of maintaining the rule of law - bodies such as the UN and EU answer this call. Special interest groups and single-issue lobbies (as well as parties) can, through their hearty activism, undermine democracy. Mass stupidity and voter apathy means that the people normally vote (if they vote at all) on short-sighted, shallow and unimportant issues, hindering the ability of government to overcome long-term problems. Nationalism, ethnic divides, religious impulses and mass intolerance can all pressurize a democratic government into allow the 'tyranny of the masses' to overcome human dignity and freedom: new ways of curbing populism need to be tested and implemented.
Democracy needs to be actively watched and defended against these challenges. Despite weaknesses, its democracy has proven itself to be the superior method of governance and facilitates personal freedom, human development (technological and moral) and human rights. Good national governance is not a simple affair, and those in power should be dedicated to their job, highly educated and capable.”
Current edition: 2018 Jan 13
Last Modified: 2018 Aug 04
Parent page: The Internal Challenges Facing Democracy
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Brown, Gordon. Prime Minister of the UK 2007-2010 for the Labour Party.
(2016) Britain: Leading, Not Leaving: The Patriotic Case for Remaining in Europe. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Deerpark Press, Selkirk, UK. An e-book.
Grim & Finke. Dr Grim is senior researcher in religion and world affairs at the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C, USA. Finke is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
(2011) The Price of Freedom Denied. Subtitled: "Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Cambridge University Press, UK. An e-book.
House of Commons (UK Government)
(2018) Disinformation and 'fake news´: Interim Report. Published by House of Commons (UK Government). Fifth Report of Session 2017–19 together with formal minutes relating to the report. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 24 July 2018. A briefing paper.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co. An e-book.