In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill separates concerns about the tyranny of the majority into two distinct challenges for democracy. The first of these can be considered an institutional problem. According to Mill, even in a system of majority rule, governance might still reflect the abuses associated with individual tyrants. There is nothing inherent in majority rule, Mill argues, that prevents unjust outcomes. The second challenge, raised first in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and further developed by Mill, can be considered a cultural problem. This problem refers to a distinct form of despotism created by the culture of self-government.
Mill outlines these two problems as follows:
[The] tyranny of the majority is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. . . . Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
Since the publication of On Liberty, the institutional problem and cultural problem have served as central dilemmas in liberal and democratic political theory. Political theorists Melissa Schwartzberg aptly labels the institutional problem one of “democratic autophagy,” declaring that democratic rule might possibly consume itself by allowing despotism to result from majoritarian procedures. The transformation of Weimar Germany, which had democratic institutions, into Nazi Germany dramatically illustrates this possibility.
The Institutional Problem
Three common responses to the institutional problem are prominent in the literature of contemporary democratic theory. First, precondition theorists distance the idea of democracy from that of majority rule. Because majority rule itself is not enough to ensure self-rule, the very definition of democracy must include some precautions against majority tyranny. For example, John Hart Ely argues that “democracy reinforcing” rights, or rights that are preconditions of democracy, should be secured by nonmajoritarian means. In particular, Ely contends that courts should invoke judicial review to overturn majoritarian legislation that threatens these most basic rights. Another advocate of precondition theory is Alexander Mieklejohn, who argued that free speech was a precondition to self-government. Precondition theorists thus attempt to resolve the problem of majority tyranny by defining democracy so that it denotes certain rights that protect individuals from majoritarian abuses.
In contrast to precondition theorists, pure proceduralist theorists have concede the tyranny of the majority as a risk that must be born by those who seek self-government. Jeremy Waldron postulates that majority rule is the only appropriate response to the justification of coercion. According to Waldron, majority rule is the only way to respect citizens’ equal capacity to decide for themselves how to make coercive law. For Waldorn, nothing inherent in democracy guarantees just outcomes, and this obstacle is a natural burden inextricable from self-rule.
A final set of democratic theorists attempt to resolve the problem of majority tyranny by resisting the tendency in the literature to define democracy exclusively in procedural rhetoric. In Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self Government, Corey Brettschneider asserts that democratic governments endeavor to respect the status of citizens as rulers. While such values require rights of participation, they also require substantive constraints concerning what qualifies as a democratic outcome. In Freedom’s Law, Ronald Dworkin also responds to the problem of majority tyranny by distinguishing democracy from majority rule.
The Cultural Problem
Distinct from the institutional issues that descend from the tyranny of the majority, Mill raises concerns about the potential tyranny of democratic culture. He draws from observations about self-government espoused by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. Mill worried that social norms might themselves become abusive even when democratic states were not institutionally tyrannical. For instance, even when all individuals are guaranteed freedom of expression, majorities might use social techniques, such as shunning, to suppress unpopular opinions.
One conundrum in Mill’s reasoning lies in resolving what to do when cultural norms oppose the foundational values of democratic institutions. For instance, Mill maintains that law should not ban polygamy, but that citizens should oppose polygamy because of its inegalatarain nature. Thus the question remains as to how the populace could oppose polygamy without ensnaring their democratic society in the cultural trap of majority tyranny. One solution is that reasoning and persuasion advance intrinsic values that do not risk tyranny. Unlike shunning, an active attempt by citizens to persuade their country to forfeit an illiberal practice does not amount to tyranny for while persuasive, reason itself is not coercive.
In sum, the tyranny of the majority raises two fundamental concerns regarding democratic political theory. The institutional problem centers on the possibility that majorities will have the ability to violate rights. In response, democratic theorists attempt to theorize democracy in a way that guarantees protection of rights. The cultural problem, in contrast, focuses on the tendency of democratic culture to socially coerce minorities. The problem here concerns how democracies can balance the need to promote democratic values without citizens engaging in social coercion.
- Brettschneider, Corey. Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self-Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
- Dworkin, Ronald. Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Ely, John Hart. Democracy and Distrust. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.
- Mieklejohn, Alexander. Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government. New York: Harper, 1948.
- Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, edited by D. Bromwich and G. Kateb. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Schwartzberg, Melissa. Democracy and Legal Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904.
- Waldron, Jeremy. Law and Disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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