Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Essential Principles

Essential Principles and History

“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 change 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.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, “Tyranny of the Majority,” Chapter XV, Book 1, Democracy in America

Majority Rule

Democracy is defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary as:

Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the
people and exercised by them either directly or through their elected agents . . . [A] state of society
characterized by nominal equality of rights and privileges.

What is left out of the dictionary definition of democracy is what constitutes “the people.” In practice, democracy is governed by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. Namely, when something is voted on, the side with the most votes wins, whether it is an election, a legislative bill, a union-management agreement, or a shareholder motion in a corporation. The majority vote (or sometimes a plurality when there are more than two choices) decides the election or the issue. Thus, when it is said that “the people have spoken” or the “people's will should be respected,” the people are generally expressed through its majority.

Alexis De Tocqueville

The principle of majority rule has several functions. For one, it establishes a clear mechanism for making decisions. A majority of 50 percent plus one decides an issue or question. This ensures that when decisions are made more people are in favor than against.  When decisions are made by slim majorities, the outcome may seem unfair to the “near-majority” that was on the other side, but that principle of majority rule is essential both in ensuring that decisions can be made and that minorities could not prevent the majority from deciding an issue or an election. Otherwise, a minority holding economic, social, and political power would use its power to dominate the majority of the citizens, thus instituting the antithesis of democracy: minority rule.

Minority Rights I: Protecting Against Political Tyranny

Yet, majority rule cannot be the only expression of “supreme power” in a democracy. If so, as Tocqueville notes above, the majority would too easily tyrannize the minority just as a single ruler is inclined to do. Thus, while it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority. For one, a defining characteristic of democracy is the people's right to change the majority — and the policies of government — through elections. This right is the people's supreme authority. The minority, therefore, must have the right to seek to become the majority and possess all the rights necessary to compete fairly in elections — speech, assembly, association, petition — since otherwise there would be perpetual rule and the majority would become a dictatorship. For the majority, ensuring the minority's rights is a matter of future self-interest, since it will have to utilize the same rights when it finds itself in the minority seeking again to become a majority. This holds equally true in a multiparty parliamentary democracy where no party gains a majority, since a government must still be formed in coalition by a majority of parliament members.

The Constant Threat

The American founders — Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike — considered rule by majority a troubling conundrum. Majority rule was necessary for expressing the popular will and the basis for establishing the republic. Since someone is bound to disagree on any issue, consensus cannot be the basis for making political or legislative decisions. And, by definition, minority rule is antithetical to democracy. On the other hand, the founders worried that the majority could abuse its powers to oppress a minority just as easily as a king could. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both warn in their letters about the dangers of the tyranny of the legislature and the executive. Madison, alluding to slavery, went further, writing, “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” . . as democracy is conceived today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated that minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning.

A half century after the United States was established, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the majority's tyranny over political and social minorities as “a constant threat” to American democracy. During his travels of 1831-33, he visited the state of Pennsylvania, which had passed the first abolition law among the United States (Vermont abolished slavery in its constitution in 1777 before it joined the union). Tocqueville, however, observed that no free blacks had come to vote in a local election he was observing. When asked why, he was told that “while free blacks had the legal right to vote, they feared the consequences of exercising it.” Tocqueville had discovered one of the most profound challenges to the functioning of a true democracy. “The majority,” he concluded, “not only makes the laws, but can break them as well.”

Democracy Requires Minority Rights

Democracy therefore requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. Indeed, as democracy is understood today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how alienated a minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning. In the United States, individual liberties, as well as the rights of groups and individual states, are protected through the Bill of Rights, which were drafted by James Madison and adopted as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution.

These enumerate the rights that may not be violated by the government, safeguarding in theory against majority tyranny. Today, such rights are considered the essential element of any liberal democracy and are embodied in international human rights conventions.

The British political philosopher John Stuart Mill took this principle further. In his essay On Liberty he wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” Mill's “no harm principle” aims to prevent government from becoming a vehicle for the “tyranny of the majority,” which he viewed as not just a political but also a social tyranny that stifled minority voices and imposed regimentation of thought and values. Mill's views became the basis for much of liberal political philosophy, whether it is economic liberalism or social liberalism.

How do majority rule and the protection of minority rights function in practice? Clearly, the two can easily collide when the assertion of Madisonian rights and Millian liberalism confront an immovable democratic majority. In part, this is achieved through consensus respect for individual rights: in between elections and during political campaigns, minority views are given fair play in legislatures, the media, and in the public square. Another basic protection of the minority, however, is the regularity of elections and the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, both of which make it difficult for majorities to achieve absolute power (see “Constitutional Limits“).

John Stuart Mill

Minority Rights II: Protecting Minority Groups in Society

Madisonian and Millian principles safeguard individual and political minorities. But, as de Tocqueville observed above, the danger of majority tyranny lies also in the oppression of minority groups in society based on criteria such as skin color, ethnicity or nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and other group characteristics. Throughout history, rulers have targeted minority religious and ethnic groups (oftentimes they are the same) for harsh repression, whether to protect the privileges of the majority (such as the persecution of Protestants in France) or simply out of discriminatory beliefs. Over two millennia, Jews, both in their homeland and in diaspora, have been frequently discriminated against and had little protection from persecution and pogroms. Even in places of refuge, like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, anti-Semitism remained persistent. Discrimination also happens even within the same group. In India, for example, the caste system relegated Harijans, also known as Dalits or “untouchables,” to discrimination and conditions of terrible poverty, also for millennia. Examples of persecution of minorities are unfortunately many.

The African American Experience

In the United States, the African American experience is clearly illustrative of the danger of systematic tyranny of one group by a majority. The US Constitution, adopted in 1789, flatly contradicted the principles of the Declaration of Independence that asserted “all men are created equal.” Although slavery was never specifically mentioned, many of the Constitution’s provisions effectively sanctioned the practice of ownership of persons as property and the terrible oppression of millions of Africans brought to America in chains for forced labor. In the end, a Civil War had to be fought before emancipation was achieved.  The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal rights and due process to “all persons,” and guaranteeing the right to vote “without regard of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” were in themselves great advances in freedom. But once federal troops were withdrawn and Reconstruction was ended, these amendments did not prevent a systematic regime of violence and intimidation against blacks in former states of the Confederacy and the adoption of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation in all facets of life. Nor did these amendments prevent the less systematic but still pervasive practice of discrimination against African Americans in the North. Just as the Supreme Court had earlier tolerated and then, in its infamous Dred Scot decision, legitimized slavery, its rulings in the 1880s and 1890s gave legal sanction to segregation and denial of voting rights. The most well-known is the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that established the discriminatory doctrine of “separate but equal.”

To overcome this new form of majority tyranny the African American minority had to confront the reality that nearly all political avenues were closed to it even though African Americans accounted for nearly 12 percent of the population. In the South the right to vote was effectively taken away and in the North it was mainly (although not always) ineffectual. Another strategy was needed. In 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois and other African American leaders formed the Niagara Movement and later, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Its stated purposes were to take the fullest advantage of the freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights in order to challenge American institutions to live up to the country’s democratic principles. Other black leaders, like A. Philip Randolph, struggled stubbornly over decades for worker rights and equal employment through trade union organizing and mobilizing citizens for mass action. In the strategy of these leaders, the rational answer to systematic denial of freedom was the persistent exercise of freedom in order to convince the majority to act according to the principles established in the country's own founding. The answer to systematic inequality was continuing to demand legal equality and justice in legislatures and courts as established in the 14th Amendment — despite the Supreme Court's legitimation of discrimination. The success of this strategy in fulfilling more the stated ideals of American democracy was found in the federal executive orders banning discrimination in defense industries and the armed forces in the 1940s; in the series of victories of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the Supreme Court that broke down the legal protection of segregation (especially in Brown v. Board of Education that fully overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine); and even more significantly in the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, which adopted civil disobedience and mass action to gain adoption and enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and other effective civil rights legislation and practices during the next two decades.

There is abundant evidence that full equality remains elusive. The history of slavery and institutional prejudice against minorities in America has a continuing legacy. Still, the methods adopted by the American Civil Rights Movement and its significant accomplishments in ending systemic discrimination have become an enduring international symbol in the struggle for world freedom and a much-used model for how an oppressed minority can seek freedom through the determined and peaceful exercise of democratic rights.

Piles of Bones Illustrating the Hutu Genocide

The Ultimate Denial of Minority Rights

The most extreme treatment of minorities in the 20th- and 21st-centuries has been found in dictatorships. The worst examples are those of totalitarian regimes that carried out genocide to eradicate unwanted groups in society. The Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews, one-third of the total world Jewish population and two-thirds of European Jewry. The Nazis also subjected to mass incarceration and extermination a significant portion of the Roma community, homosexuals, and other minority groups. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, carried out mass executions and deportations of dozens of nationalities, especially Caucasian and Central Asian ethnic groups. Some now face extinction (see also the section on Human Rights).

More recently, starting in 1999, the Russian Federation has waged a brutal war against its own republic of Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians and displacing more than half the population. Other recent examples of mass killings of a national or ethnic minority by a dictatorship include the Nigerian government’s campaign against Biafra in the late 1960s (see Nigeria Country Study in Freedom of Religion); Saddam Hussein's mass killing of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq in the 1980s and ‘90s; the mass murder of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda; and the Sudanese government's sponsorship of mass killing, raping, and deportation of the Darfur minority (see Sudan Country Study in this section). Slobodan Milosevic’s project to create an “ethnically pure” Greater Serbia in the 1990s resulted in the murder of 200,000 Bosnian Muslims and 10,000 Albanian Muslims in Kosovo by a killing machine that was stopped only by NATO military campaigns — one of the few effective international interventions to protect minorities from targeted slaughter. In 2015, President Obama ordered US forces to intervene to save the ancient monotheist Yazidi population from slaughter and enslavement by the terrorist group Islamic State, which has seized territory in Syria and Iraq. 

International Protection of Minority Rights

The 20th century’s history of targeted repression and killing of ethnic and national groups has made the protection of minorities from abuse by majorities one of the highest obligations of international law. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted after World War II in 1948, is the most widely recognized international treaty governing the practice of nation-states. The UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, defines not just individual rights but also minimum protections for minorities. Article 27 asserts:

[P]ersons belonging to [ethnic, religious, or linguistic] minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group to enjoy
their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.

The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, (issued in 1992 by the UN General Assembly) and the Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1989) further define protections for ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities to preserve their culture, languages, and beliefs and to protect themselves from discrimination. While these treaties establish clear international moral standards and have improved conditions for minorities in many places, the examples noted above make clear that the actual practice of the international community in protecting minorities from targeted repression is inconsistent, at best.

“Untouchables” or Harijans (Dalits) in India

The Persistence of Discrimination

In Europe, minority Muslim communities from former colonies in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia have struggled against pervasive discrimination and the denial of equal opportunities in education, jobs, and housing (see, for example, Country Study of France). Majority indigenous groups in several other Latin American countries have long been treated as “the minority” for most of their countries' constitutional histories (see Country Studies of Bolivia and Guatemala). Indeed, the issues of minorities seeking greater freedom, equality, autonomy, and protection against discrimination and unequal treatment remain at the heart of politics, protest and conflict in many parts of the world. Usually they are addressed through nonviolent means such as elections, protests, legislation, the courts, protection of native lands, education, and other efforts granting regional autonomy or specific rights and privileges. In some cases minorities have taken up arms to achieve their goals, but this strategy is usually less successful.

Minority rights in general often pose a difficult political choice within a democracy: assimilation versus separation. While assimilation of a minority into the broader society offers a minority greater opportunities and political influence, it does so often at the expense of minority cultures, beliefs, and practices. On the other hand, preserving cultures, beliefs, and practices by insulating the minority reduces its influence within the majority political culture. Often, there is a spiraling effect as insular minority communities face discrimination and lack of economic opportunity, which reinforces a sense of social alienation, especially among the young. It is not an easy balance (see, for example, Netherlands Country Study in this section).

 The Democratic Ideal

On a practical level, the application of majority rule and minority rights relies on a set of rules agreed to by everyone in a political community. How are majorities determined? What are the limits of debate and speech? How can members in a community propose a motion or law? Should a minority be allowed to prevent the majority's will? How can minority groups be guaranteed political and social representation within a democratic framework? There is no one answer to these (and many other) questions and they have been answered differently in many democracies. But for those countries that follow an Anglo-Saxon tradition, Robert's Rules of Order, the standard guide for running parliamentary and other meetings and discussions (see link in Resources), offers a concise statement of the democratic ideal:

American Parliamentary Law is built upon the principle that rights must be respected: the rights of the majority,
of the minority, of individuals, of absentees, and rights of all of these together.