Tyranny of the Majority: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Tyranny of…
  • 0:40 Ancient History
  • 1:53 Early America
  • 3:12 Past 100 Years
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

The idea of a tyranny of the majority goes back centuries, but for the past 200 years it has been a byword in American politics. This lesson explains the concept.

What Is a Tyranny of the Majority?

In many societies today, the idea of a voting and going with the desire of the majority is largely taken for granted. However, what would happen if the majority began to outlaw all thought that went against it? What if a majority suddenly took the rights away from the minority, or even ordered them killed? A tyranny of the majority occurs when a majority takes action to thoroughly subjugate the minority. In history, this has gone as far as to include killing them, but can be as simple as acting only in the interests of the majority, not the people as a whole.

Ancient History

The Greeks were among the first to recognize the real potential for a tyranny of the majority, although they would never call it that, preferring instead the name ochlocracy. Measures were taken against it, namely in comparing a government by the majority, ochlocracy, with a government by everyone, democracy. Philosophers at the time stated that even if a majority must rule, it must act in the best interests of the people as a whole, not just itself.

In Rome, the majority rarely acted in the interests of the people as a whole. While Greek, especially Athenian, political debates could be lively, Roman debates often ended up being fought with mobs. Few societies demonstrate the idea of an ochlocracy better than the ancient Romans - the majority of citizens governed often in such a way to punish minority groups. Newly conquered peoples were often used as gladiators, while members of minority religious sects could find themselves fed to the lions for public amusement. Both acts served to remind the spectators that Romans were the true civilized majority and should not bother themselves with the fate of the vanquished.

Early America

The Founding Fathers of the United States had serious concerns about the possibility of a tyranny of the majority and took several steps to limit its likelihood. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville, an early observer of the United States, wrote at length about the possibility of such a tyranny developing in the nascent country. Most notably, they established a system of checks and balances that helped keep any one part of government from gaining too much power too quickly. One of these methods was the idea of a supermajority, which meant that Congress could only ignore the minority voice if an overwhelming number of lawmakers agreed. As the hot-button issue of the day - slavery - divided the country almost exactly in half, by Senate seats at least, this method was successful, if for the short-term.

Also recognizing the ability of a majority to infringe on the rights of a minority, the Constitution included a Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments to the Constitution served to mandate individual and minority protections, ranging from freedom of speech and assembly to how a trial by law should be carried out. It is important to note that many of the amendments passed in the intervening two centuries have been expansions of these rights.

Past 100 Years

The 20th century saw the idea of a tyranny of the majority play out many times in a variety of different circumstances. Most notably, the rise of nationalistic governments, especially that of Nazi Germany, meant that the rights of minorities were trampled by a numerically superior vote. Other movements of note include the Rwandan Genocide and the Khmer Rouge, where minority groups were not only deprived of their rights but often killed.

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