Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.


7 thoughts on “Tyranny of the Majority

  1. Wow! Much to think about here. That the rule of majority can be … or is … as tyrannical as rule by a despot is something I have never considered before, but I believe, looking not only at our own nation but others as well, that it is so. In more than two centuries, we have done some things right, but we still have not arrived at the right answer, a system that provides true equality, true voice in decision-making, for all. Will we ever get it right? I have my doubts. But I firmly agree with your final paragraph … the answer is not to evict all who do not look or think the same … that is not the country I want to live in.

    I am destined to fail the mid-term, by the way, as I do well to remember one simple name. 🙂

    Excellent post, Hugh! You made me think, as you always do!

  2. Excellent and thought provoking as always. I am rubbish (thought a colloquialism thrown in here would help my case for being excluded from the test as being unqualified!) at remembering anything I read in political philosophy or thought and have never read anything by Acton. His views as described here are fascinating. I am interested that the ‘majority’ has become so suddenly resurgent… The referendum is its tool, it seems. We here in Britain are now living under the tyranny of a majority of the skimpiest nature while we dismember our limb from the body of the EU and in Turkey another referendum seems to have produced an even more skimpy excuse to make radical changes to the whole population’s likely future. Interesting times – we are cursed.

    • Your man, John Stuart Mill, was very aware off the tyranny of the majority and he became fast friends with deTocqueville after they exchanged notes on the subject.

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