Majority Rule vs. Minority Rights

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  • 0:03 The Tyranny of the Majority
  • 1:18 Majority Versus Minority
  • 2:28 Attempts to Protect…
  • 3:54 The Bill of Rights
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Most societies today agree in a democratic system of government, but there are still some major debates within this system. In this lesson, we'll talk about how majority rule and minority rights are balanced in a democracy.

The Tyranny of the Majority

At this point, most of us understand the basic history of democratic/representative governments. The world was full of monarchies and aristocracies where only a few people had political power, and this powerful minority oppressed the powerless majority. So, the majority rose up in protest.

In the United States, they dumped a bunch of tea into a harbor; in France, they cut off people's heads. The ultimate goal was to establish a republic, a government ruled by the democratic concept that the majority should make political decisions and, therefore, all people deserved political representation. Sounds great, right?

Why then, did the 19th century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville observe American democracy, in which the majority ruled, and warn against the tyranny of the majority? Like all political debates, even democracy is not as simple as it seems, leading to an enduring debate over the importance of majority rule versus the continued rights of the minority. The concept of majority rule is that a majority should make political decisions for the whole group. However, the idea of rights of the minority is that minorities have rights that cannot be taken away by elected majorities.

Majority Versus Minority

So, here's the debate. A democratic society is governed by the will of the people, but people have different opinions. So, you go with the most-commonly held opinion. Who should be president? Let's vote and see who the majority of people are comfortable giving political power to.

It sounds great, but imagine this scenario: a group of friends is ordering a pizza. They can only get one topping but can't agree on it, so they vote. Of the 7 friends, five want pepperoni and two want olives. By majority rule, the friends get pepperoni. That seems fair. However, this gives them power over the other friends. What if they decide that all pizzas in the future will only have pepperoni or that those two olive-lovers don't get to vote anymore? What if no one else changes their opinion and the olive-loving friends are stuck eating pepperoni forever?

Do you see how a majority rule can become oppressive of the minority? It's important to remember that when Tocqueville wrote his treatise on American democracy, slavery was still legal. A substantial minority was denied access to American democracy, giving the majority complete power to oppress them, even through democratic means.

Attempts to Protect Minority Rights

From the foundation of the American republic, this question of majority rule versus minority rights deeply troubled the founding figures. They recognized that a majority could be as tyrannical as a minority and sought to find ways to prevent this from happening. At the time, this debate rarely extended to the rights of slaves, but at least amongst free, white males, the American government was built upon a belief that minority rights must be respected.

So, how did they do this? The principle they went with was that although the minority's opinions may not make national decisions, the minority must still have two things. First, the minority must have the ability to become the majority. Secondly, the minority must reap the benefits of the majority decision.

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