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When the will of a majority population group exclusively prevails in a system of government, it results in the potential for tyranny over minority groups.

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What Does Tyranny of the Majority Mean?

Tyranny of the majority (or tyranny of the masses) is a situation that can result from a system of majority rule, wherein the majority group places its own interests above the interests of a minority group without consideration for the welfare or rights of the minority. In a direct democracy, for example, this form of oppression could involve the majority using the democratic process to shape public policy solely in their own interests, excluding the minority group from the distribution of benefits.

A Brief History of Tyranny of the Majority

Ancient Greek political thinkers realized the potential for a tyranny of the majority to occur in government. The Greeks called this type of government an ochlocracy, defined as government by mob rule, and they considered it one of the three unsuitable forms of government along with oligarchy and tyranny.

In the early years of the United States, John Adams and James Madison both recognized the danger of a potential tyranny of the majority and took action to prevent it from happening. In Adams' 1788 work A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, he wrote that a government ruled by a unicameral elected body would be dangerous, and he argued instead for a mixed government with three separate branches. In the Federalist Papers, Madison discussed how an overbearing majority faction could take control of the government.

In Europe, influential thinkers like French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville and British philosopher John Stuart Mill also promoted the dangers of a tyranny of the majority.

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Tyranny of the Majority and the US Constitution

To limit the possibility of a tyranny of the majority in the United States, the framers of the Constitution established a government with checks and balances designed, they claimed, to prevent any one part of the government from becoming too powerful. Additionally, they made it more difficult for Congress to easily ignore the needs of minority groups by requiring the support of a supermajority for major decisions. They also added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution to protect various individual rights of those in minority groups.

Further, the framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College system to theoretically prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the needs of less populous states in favor of highly-populated ones.

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