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Majority Rule Minority Rights Essay Format

This page gives the syllabus for a course I taught at Haverford College in spring 2016: "Majority Rule, Minority Rights, and Social Choice: Ethics & Economics." The course seeks comprehensively to answer one question: How should we balance between following the will of the people, governing in the people's interests, and respecting minorities' rights? What are the advantages, disadvantages, and possibilities of majority rule, consensus, dictatorship, rule by experts, and other group decision rules, considering that they are attempts to strike that balance? Feel free to e-mail me with questions about the course at tjdonahueAThaverford.edu.

How to Balance the Rights of Minority Cultures against the Rights of Disadvantaged Groups within those Minority Cultures?

Woman Wearing Niqab, Monterey, California

Ainu Women and Man, Hokkaido, Japan (Wikimedia Commons)

Are Majority Rule or Consensus Rule Even Possible? Is It Inevitable that All Rule Will Be In the Special Interests of an Elite Minority?

The Ruling Class in the Capitalist State?
Representatives of the Ruling Class in the Theocratic State?
Shia clerics Ali Khamenei, current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the late Hussein-Ali Montazeri, sometime Deputy Supreme Leader
(Wikimedia Commons)

Is It Safer to Assume that Market Societies Like Ours Are Composed of Self-Serving Atomistic Individuals, Rather Than Virtuous Public-Spirited Citizens?

(Brownian Motion of Atoms; Wikimedia Commons)

 An Open Cabildo (Town Meeting) during Argentine Independence

(Wikimedia Commons)

If the Majority Should Rule, then Since Females Are a Majority in Most Countries, Why Shouldn't Females Rule those Countries? And if Males Are a Majority, Why Shouldn't They Rule?

World Sex Ratios, early 2000s
(CIA World Factbook 2006; Wikimedia Commons)
Pink = More females than males
Blue = More males than females

Gaps between Women's and Men's Power, as Measured by World Economic Forum

(Wikimedia Commons; explained here)

Should the Social Choice Avoid Taking from the Rich and Giving to the Poor Because It's Inefficient? The Pareto Principle

Emiliano Zapata with his slogan for land redistribution
From Diego Rivera, History of Mexico (1931; Wikimedia Commons)

One-Party Rule: Absolute Rule by the Majority?

Members of the Communist Party of China (Wikimedia Commons)

Is "Majority Rule" Just a Nice Name for Mob Politics?

Henry de Groux, Zola Faces the Mob (1898; Wikimedia Commons)

Minority Rulers Who Are Expert Protectors of Minority Rights?

The United States Supreme Court, October 2009 Term
(Wikimedia Commons; click to enlarge)
Haverford College, Spring 2016
Office Hours: W 2-4, CPGC Café, or by appointment
Mailbox:  Hall Building Faculty Mailroom
E-mail: tjdonahueAThaverford.edu

We are all democrats now. From Moscow to Melbourne, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Havana to Harare, political elites and ordinary people everywhere proclaim their commitment to democracy. And democracy, as Lincoln famously said, is rule of, by, and for the people. Rule by the people requires majority rule or consensus, for those are the best ways of discovering the people’s will. Yet pure majority rule is also majority tyranny, and pure consensus slows government to a snail’s pace. Hence both in practice usually amount to a shifting compromise between (super-)majority rule and minority rights. Rule for the people requires ruling in the best interests of all the people. Yet majorities are often oblivious to the basic rights of minorities, or to their own best interests--Hitler was democratically elected. Rule of the people requires effective government. Yet effective government in the modern state requires a governing elite, and such elites may favor the special interests of themselves and those like them. But this creates a ruling class, which flouts majority rule. (U.S. or Japanese political elites are still almost all men, while their populations are majority female.)
This course asks what we should do about these tensions in the democratic form of social choice. Hence the course pivots around one basic problem: How should we balance among following the will of the people, governing in the people's interests, and respecting minorities' rights? What should we make of majority rule, consensus, rule by experts, elite rule, and other group decision rules, considered as attempts to strike that balance? What are the advantages, disadvantages, and possibilities of those decision rules?
The course aims to give students the tools to produce their own well-constructed solutions to that problem. To achieve this aim, we examine famous inquiries into some of the problem's component questions. What is so great about consensus or majority rule? Why shouldn’t we let a minority of experts rule? Or a minority of the highly informed? Or a minority of the highly interested? Is there any reasonable basis for claiming that a society chooses this over that? Should we aim for a democracy in which all citizens actively participate, or are we better off when the people only have a say during periodic elections? What decision rules should we use to organize our common life, and why? How do we balance the rights of minority groups against the rights of disadvantaged minorities within those minorities? Should consensus or majority rule be the default rule of political decision-making, or should some other rule--supermajority or elite rule or rule by experts or dictatorship--be preferred in certain circumstances? If so, which ones? Should all citizens' preferences carry equal weight in political decision-making? Are political organizations inevitably ruled in the special interests of a minority group? We also address, among other questions, whether consensus is inherently biased against activist government, the problem of protecting minority rights, the problem of permanent minorities, the problem of unreasoning majorities, whether majority rule is possible even in principle, whether there is a ruling class, whether there is any way to aggregate all citizens’ preferences into a genuine social choice, and what to do about immoral and unjust preferences entering political decision-making. These are the central questions of the political morality of social choice. By the end of the course, students will be familiar with the application of economic models of rational decision-making to questions of social choice. We shall examine answers given to these questions by leading political theorists like Lani Guinier, James Madison, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Gustave Le Bon, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Dahl, Ronald Dworkin, and Brian Barry; and by the Economics Nobelists Kenneth Arrow and James Buchanan.
The course aims to hone students’ skills in analysis and argument. Much attention will be given to structures of reasoning and the shape of models and theories. The goal is to strengthen skills of theory-building, reasoning, analysis, and synthesis that are highly valued in public life, in the professions, and in graduate school.
Pre-requisites. No pre-requisite courses. Only a desire to understand how to use theories and arguments. However, to do a good job in this course, you need to have a handle on the key concepts and problems of at least one of ethics, political theory, or economics. If you haven't had a course in any of the three, then I recommend reading a primer on that will give you such a handle. Here are some good ones:

Course Requirements. To earn full credit, you must:
(1) Participate in class discussion. I know many people find this daunting. Nevertheless, try. One main aim of the course is to help you improve in argument.
(2) Submit 6 weekly response papers. Each week, you may submit a paper, of not more than 350 words, that examines some thesis that that week’s reading has argued. The paper may criticize the argument by which the reading defends the thesis, mount its own argument to refute the thesis, or mount its own argument to defend the thesis. For full credit, you need only submit 6 such papers.
(3) Submit a paper proposal. You are required to submit, in Week 8, a proposal for your final paper. The proposal should state a question concerning one of the topics covered in the course, say why the question is important, state your answer to the question (i.e., your thesis), give the key reasons by which you will defend the thesis, state two serious objections to your thesis, and state how you will respond to the objections. The proposal should be not more than 800 words long.
(4) Submit a final paper. You are required to submit, on the last day of exams, a final paper. The paper should state a question concerning one of the topics covered in the course, say why the question is important, state your answer to the question (i.e., your thesis), defend the thesis with argument, state two serious objections to your thesis, and respond to the objections. The paper should be not more than 5,000 words long.

Course Assessment. Course marks will be computed on the following distribution: Class Participation: 20%; Response Papers: 30% (5% each); Paper Proposal: 15%; Argumentative Paper: 35%

Course format. The course will be discussion oriented. In weeks where we are discussing formal proofs, I will walk through the steps of the proof, asking questions and inviting comment. In weeks where we discuss natural-language arguments, I will usually begin sessions by presenting a thesis advanced in the week’s reading. I will discuss its implications. I will then ask one or many of you whether you think the thesis true or false, and why. We shall then examine the reasons you offer for your view. We shall then turn to the reasons the text offers in defense of the thesis. I will ask you what you think of those reasons, and so forth. The course in part aims to improve your skill in reasoned argument.

Course Objectives. By the end of the course, students should
(1) Have become familiar with the key concepts of the theories and arguments about democracy and collective choice covered in the course;
(2) Have strengthened their skills in applying these concepts to current debate about the problems of democracy;
(3) Have honed their ability to specify how and why specific values clash when dealing with problems of democratic decision-making;
(4) Have improved their skills in specifying the disagreement over the relevant facts involved in disagreement over problems of democracy.
(5)Have learned how to accurately describe the structure of a theory, specifying its key concepts, its main claims, the basic model underlying it, and the question to which it is an answer;

(6) Have honed their skills in specifying the structures of arguments, breaking them into premises-axioms, middle premises-lemmas, and conclusions-theorems;
(7) Have improved their ability in distinguishing between similar concepts denoted by the same word and spotting equivocations;
(8) Have honed their skills in evaluating And challenging the premises of an argument with rational and well-ordered arguments of their own;
(9) Have improved their ability to evaluate the deductive validity or inductive strength of an argument’s progress from premises to conclusions;
(10) Have worked out for themselves a detailed and developed argument arguing a thesis about one of the questions covered in the course.

E-mail policy. You are welcome to e-mail me with questions about the course. I try to answer e-mails within 48 hours of receipt. Don’t expect an answer before then. Fast generally means shoddy.
Academic Dishonesty: Don’t do it! Here is Haverford College's official language on the subject:
"A Note from Your Professor on Academic Integrity at Haverford:

"In a community that thrives on relationships between students and faculty that are based on trust and respect, it is crucial that students understand a professor’s expectations and what it means to do academic work with integrity. Plagiarism and cheating, even if unintentional, undermine the values of the Honor Code and the ability of all students to benefit from the academic freedom and relationships of trust the Code facilitates. Plagiarism is using someone else's work or ideas and presenting them as your own without attribution. Plagiarism can also occur in more subtle forms, such as inadequate paraphrasing, failure to cite another person’s idea even if not directly quoted, failure to attribute the synthesis of various sources in a review article to that author, or accidental incorporation of another’s words into your own paper as a result of careless note-taking. Cheating is another form of academic dishonesty, and it includes not only copying, but also inappropriate collaboration, exceeding the time allowed, and discussion of the form, content, or degree of difficulty of an exam. Please be conscientious about your work, and check with me if anything is unclear."

I may, at any time, use tools like turnitin.com to detect plagiarism.

Students with Disabilities, Special Needs, or Having Difficulties: Here is the Haverford Office of Disability Services' Statement, which I affirm:
"Haverford College is committed to supporting the learning process for all students. Please contact me as soon as possible if you having difficulties in the course. There are also many resources on campus available to you as a student, including the Office of Academic Resources, and the Office of Disability Services. If you think you may need accommodation because of a disability, please contact Gabriela Moats, Coordinator of Accommodations, Office of Disabilities Services at he-odsAThaverford.edu. If you have already been approved to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me privately at the beginning of the semester with your verification letter."

How to do political philosophy: The approach used in this course is political philosophy. For some tips on how to do it, click here:



[1] Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (Yale UP, 1989)

[2] James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent (Liberty Fund, 200x)

[3] John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, ed. C. Gordon Post and Shannon Stimson (Hackett, 1995)

[4] Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (Yale UP, 1963)
[1] Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy (Free Press, 1994)

[3] Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments (Hackett, 2008)


[1] Richard Lanham's Paramedic Method.

It transforms slow-starting sentences with obscure subjects into sentences with clear actors and actions.

[2] The Bennett rules for writing decent prose in theoretical papers

Jonathan Bennett says: Prefer verbs to nouns. Prefer adverbs to adjectives. Avoid intensifiers ( like "very" or "extremely"). Use sparingly the abstract nouns--big words from Latin and Greek ending with "--ation," "--ity," "-ism," "-ology," "-nomy," etc.--; don't cram a sentence full of them. 

[3] Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Longman, 2010).

      Explains why and when to use Lanham's Method and Strunk and White's rules; and when to break them. Explains how to organize information in a sentence: put the familiar at the front, and the new at the end. Also explains how to make paragraphs coherent: each paragraph should have a point sentence articulating its main point, and this should come either at the end of the paragraph's introductory sentence, or at the paragraph's end.

[4] "From Questions to Problems," Section II.4 of Wayne Booth et al., The Craft of Research.

Crucial for writing research papers. You need more than a topic. You need more than a research question. You need more than a thesis. You need a research problem, which tells a definite audience what is the bigger question they can't fully answer until they've followed your answering of your research question.

[5] Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments (Hackett, 2008).


Session 1. (1) Introduction: Benefits, Dangers, and Alternatives to Majority Rule. (2) Two Traditions of Thinking about Majority Rule and Democracy: the Rousseauian and the Lockeian. (3) History of Majority Rule.

Optional readings:

Herbert Gans, "We Won’t End the Urban Crisis Until We End 'Majority Rule'," in Prejudice and Race Relations, ed. Raymond W. Mack (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971):126-141.

George H. Sabine, "The Two Democratic Traditions," Philosophical Review 61 (1952): 451-474.

John Gilbert Heinberg, "History of the Majority Principle," American Political Science Review (1926):52-68.

Session 2. (1) James Madison's Theory of Democracy as a Way of Avoiding Either Majority Tyranny or Tyranny of a Minority. (2) John Stuart Mill’s Critique of the Pitfalls of Majority Rule, and His Argument for Proportional Representation as an Alternative.

So you'd like to know more...

Brian Barry, "Political Accomodation and Consociational Democracy," British Journal of Political Science 5 (1975): 477-505, READ pp. 477-490 ONLY

Treats consociation or permanent power-sharing as a Non-Majoritarian Institution for Dealing with Two or More Evenly and Sharply Divided Groups in a Society.

Session 3. (1) The Doctrine of the Concurrent Majority as a Means of Avoiding the Pitfalls of Majority Rule. (2) A Modern Version of the Concurrent Majority, Re-tooled to Reduce Racial Oppression
John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, ed. C. Gordon Post (Hackett, 1995), pp. 3-54.
So you'd like to know more...

An example of the concurrent majority: Any EU member-state can veto EU policies on many issues (video)

Melissa S. Williams, Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation (Princeton UP, 1998)
Session 4. (1) Noncompetitive Party Systems: Vehicles of Absolute Rule by the Majority? (2) Does Majority Rule Deny Cultural Minorities the Opportunity to Flourish? (3) Minority Representation as a Means of Protecting Minority Rights.

Bernard Boxill, "Majoritarian Democracy and Cultural Minorities," in Multiculturalism and American Democracy, ed. Arthur M. Melzer et al (UKansas Pres, 1998): 112-119.

So you'd like to know more...
Session 5. Feb 18. (1) Some Cultural Minorities Contain Internal Minorities (e.g., women) That The Minority's Elites Itself Allegedly Oppress. If We Grant Political Autonomy to Cultural Minorities, How Do We Deal with the Inevitable Impacts on these Internal Minorities? (2) What Role Should There Be for Minorities and Their Rights in a Democracy? (3) Should the Moral Views of the National Majority Be Given Special Deference?

Ronald Dworkin, "Liberty and Moralism," Taking Rights Seriously (Belknap Press,1977): 240-259.

So you'd like to know more...
Session 6. Feb 25. (1) Is the Majority So Irrational that Its Rule Is Undesirable? The Crowd Theory of Gustave Le Bon. (2) Are Groups Inevitably Ruled by Minorities? Elite Theory. (3) The Idea of a Ruling Class in Capitalist Society.

Richard W. Miller, "The Concept of a Ruling Class," Analyzing Marx (Princeton UP, 1987):101-141.

Session 7. Mar 3. (1) So What’s So Great about Majority Rule? (2) Is the Multitude Wiser than the Few?
Robert Dahl, "Majority Rule and the Democratic Process," Democracy and Its Critics, pp. 135-152.

Dahl, "Is There a Better Alternative?" Democracy and Its Critics, pp. 153-162.

Jeremy Waldron, "The Wisdom of the Multitude," Political Theory 23 (1995): 563-584.

So you'd like to know more...
Henry Richardson, "Majority Rule as a Closure Device," Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy (Oxford UP, 2002):203-214

Session 8. Mar 17. (1) Who Says the Details of Group Decision Rules Don't Matter? (2) Benefits of Majority Rule. (3) Can An Election Ever Uncover the General Will of a Community? The Case of the Condorcet Jury Theorem.

Nate Silver, "Donald Trump Would be Easy to Stop under Democratic [Party] Rules," FiveThirtyEight (7 March 2016)

Albert Weale, "Unanimity, Consensus, and Majority Rule," Democracy (Palgrave, 1999): 124-147.

Bernard Grofman and Scott Feld, "Rousseau's General Will: A Condorcetian Perspective," American Political Science Review 82 (1988): 567-576.

So you'd like to know more...
Examines in what ways majority rule is and can be responsive to differing intensities of preference. 
Session 9. Mar 24. (1) The Problem of Social Choice Posed. (2) A Challenge to Arrow's Assumption that Social Choice Means that Society Chooses.
Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2nd edition, pp. 1-33.
A helpful explanation of what the heck Arrow is up to.
Session 10. Mar 31. (1) What Does It Mean? An Interpretation of Arrow’s Conditions on Social Choice, and His Result. (2) Arrow's Social Choice Theory Assumes that All Preferences and Values Are Commensurable--They Can Be Rank-Ordered by Individuals and Society--But Is that Assumption True? The Theory of Value Pluralism. (3) Should We See Politics as Social Choice Theory Does--as Fundamentally a Matter of Private Choice by Self-Interested Individuals--or as Fundamentally Aiming at Reasonable Deliberation among Citizens?
Charles R. Plott, "Axiomatic Social Choice Theory: An Overview and Interpretation," in Rational Man and Irrational Society, ed. Brian Barry and Russell Hardin (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1982): 229-245.
So you'd like to know more...
Bernard Williams, "Conflicts of Values," in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford UP, 1979), ed. Alan Ryan, pp. 221-232. 
Joseph Raz, "Incommensurability," The Morality of Freedom (Clarendon Press, 1986): 321-366.

Session 11. April 7. (1) An Economic Theory of Constitutional Choice Favoring Supermajority Rules: Public Choice Theory—Part I: Its Foundation in Methodological Individualism and Social Atomism. (2) Individualism: Its Diverse Meanings. (3) What Is the Social Atomist Tradition, and Does It Underlie All Modern Contract Thinking? 

James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, pp. 3-39.

Steven Lukes, "The Meanings of ‘Individualism’," Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (1971): 45-66, READ pp. 45-58 ONLY.

Session 12. April 14. (1) An Economic Theory of Constitutional Choice Favoring Supermajority Rules: Public Choice Theory—Part II: Its Foundation in an Ideal Of Consensus; (2) Are Consensus as an Ideal, and Supermajority as a Second-Best, the Only Feasible Way of Protecting against Tyranny of the Majority and the Central State? Or is Public Choice Theory Led to That Conclusion Because of Its Atomistic Economic Approach? The Federalism and Participation Solution Offered by the Sociological Liberalism of Tocqueville and the French Doctrinaires.
James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, pp. 39-62, 81-96
So you'd like to know more...

Melissa Schwartzberg, “The arbitrariness of supermajority rules,” Social Science Information 49 (2010): 61-82

Session 13. April 21. (1)The Liberal Paradox: Can a Liberal Consistently Accept the Pareto Principle? (2)What Should We Do about Bad or Immoral Preferences entering into the Social Choice? (3) What Should We Do If We Want to Relieve the Oppression of Women, But Many of Those Women Prefer to Keep the Social Structures That Oppress Them?

Amartya Sen,  "The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal," Journal of Political Economy 78 (1970): 152-157.

Brian Barry, "Lady Chatterley's Lover and Doctor Fischer’s Bomb Party: Liberalism, Pareto Optimality, and the Problem of Objectionable Preferences," Foundations of Social Choice Theory, ed. J. Elster and A. Hylland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 11-43, READ pp. 11-33 ONLY.

Martha C. Nussbaum, "Adaptive Preferences and Women's Options," Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge UP, 2000): 111-166, READ pp. 111-144 ONLY.

So you'd like to know more....

Session 14. April 28. Does Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem Show That It Is Impossible to Discover the Social Choice, and Hence that Democracy Is Impossible? Arguments for "Yes" and "No"

William H. Riker, Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice(Waveland 1982), pp. 1-36 

Jules Coleman and John Ferejohn, “Democracy and Social Choice,” Ethics 97 (1986): 6-25, READ pp. 6-19 ONLY.

So you'd like to know more...

“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. 

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