To What Extent is Democracy a Tyranny of the Majority?

17/11/2021

This is one of three mini essays submitted for a political science assessment. Given the limited word count and my struggles to adhere to “academic writing”, they’re likely not the best pieces, but ah well, uploading them for shits and giggles. This one basically just runs with the idea of the “tyranny of the majority” to suggest free association among equals from the ground up limits the potential of it taking place.

Democracy, meaning “rule of the people” in Ancient Greek, has taken many forms since its inception. Even Aristotle outlined different variations of both democracy and oligarchy, stating that “a particular form of government may be preferable for some people, but another form may be better for others.” (Aristotle 2020). For him, the polity was the best form of government, leaning towards democracy, although by contemporary standards this conception would be unacceptable.

Today, the most common form of democracy comes in the form of liberal, or representative, democracy, combining the values of liberal thought with the democratic ideals of cooperative and collective rule. Australia is one such liberal democracy, voting on semi-frequent occasions to elect representatives to Parliament to make decisions and carry out the functions of government on our behalf (Kefford et al 2018). This also includes a number of supporting institutions and systems, including the free market, trade unions, and a strong independent media. (Heywood 2021).

There are those, however, who contend that representative democracy is not really democracy because representation still implies a disconnect between the rulers and the governed (Hardt and Negri 2004: 244, cited in Kioupkiolis 2017: 35). Instead, true democracy is described as common, whereby individuals will have open and active participation in decision making and accountability (Kioupkiolis 2017: 58). While under severe external pressure, there are regions of the world, like Rojava under Kurdish control, that attempt to build a society on these grounds, following writings on the ideas of democratic confederalism (Scully 2020). This allows for local governing bodies to make decisions that affect their communities while also working upwards to handle matters involving wider regions and more complex issues.

John Stuart Mill, a prominent liberal philosopher from the 17th Century, believed that the ideal form of government was one in which the community, as an aggregate of individuals, not only had their voice heard, but undertook active participation when required (Mill 2020: 51). He concludes, however, that the only way to achieve this ideal is through representative government (Mill 2020: 55). But this brought with it other concerns, as such a system would become one where the majority of the people would have control of the government over the rest, including the power to oppress those outside that majority group (Mill 2001).

Mill referred to this as the “tyranny of the majority”, first starting through the actions of government authorities, the “inevitably elitist” rulers over the general population (Mill 2001; Kefford et al. 2018). Mill took this further, saying it was not just those in positions of authority, but majorities being the collective tyrants of society itself. Curtailing the abuses of rulers would not enough to prevent this tyranny, he contended, but “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” (Mill 2001). This would be done to limit the interference of the many on the individual and to ensure that nothing more than civil punishment would be imposed on detractors.

Mill is therefore correct that representativedemocracy can (but not necessarily) lead to a tyranny of the majority in certain respects, whether through overreach of elected officials or the authority of the majority groups over the minorities. The extent of this, however, is dependent on how much power groups, representatives, and the state itself actually holds. Limitations on the power and reach of institutions like the state on the affairs of communities and individuals are required, and societal rules and customs will decide where those limits lie.

But these rules are also a problem, Mill declares, saying that this “universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom” as the rules become “self-evident and self-justifying” (Mill 2001). They are accepted without reason, and then enforced upon others without reason, despite no two ages, countries, or even peoples coming to an agreement on this question. One solution is certainly political education and participation, as Mill advocates, but his deference to the state and representative democracy is misplaced (Mill 2020). The more direct and localised decisions of governance are enacted between free and equal individuals, the less risk larger majorities pose to individual liberties.

References

Aristotle 2020 ‘Democratic Judgement and the “Middling” Constitution’, in T Ball, R Dagger and D O’Neill eds. Ideals and Ideologies: A Reader 11th ed. New York: Routledge.

Heywood, Andrew 2021 Political Ideologies: An Introduction 7th ed. London: Red Globe Press.

Kefford, Glenn; Hannah Murphy-Gregory; Ian Ward; Stewart Jackson; Lloyd Cox and Andrea Carson 2018 Australian Politics in the Twenty-First Century: Old Institutions, New Challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kioupkiolis, Alexandros 2017 ‘Common Democracy: Political Representation beyond Representative Democracy’, Democratic Theory 4(1): 35-58.

Mill 2020 ‘Democratic Participation and Political Education’, in T Ball, R Dagger and D O’Neill eds. Ideals and Ideologies: A Reader 11th ed. New York: Routledge.

Mill 2001 On Liberty Batoche Books.

Scully, Jess 2020 Glimpses of Utopia: Real Ideas for A Fairer World Sydney: Pantera Press.

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