The phrase "tyranny of the majority
" (or "tyranny of the masses
") is used in discussing an inherent weakness in the system of pure direct democracy and majority rule. Tyranny of the majority involves a scenario in which a majority of an electorate places its own interests above, and at the expense and to the detriment of, those in the minority, where by that detriment constitutes active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.
Potentially, through tyranny of the majority, a disliked or unfavored ethnic, religious, political, or racial group may be deliberately targeted for oppression by the majority element acting through the democratic process.
American founding father Alexander Hamilton writing to Jefferson from the Constitutional Convention
argued the same fears regarding the use of pure direct democracy by the majority to elect a demagogue who, rather than work for the benefit of all citizens, set out
to either harm those in the minority or work only for those of the upper echelon. The Electoral College
mechanism present in the indirect United States presidential election system, and the phenomenon of faithless electors allowed for within it, was, in part, deliberately created as a safety measure not only to prevent such a scenario, but also to prevent the use of democracy to overthrow democracy for an authoritarian, dictatorial or other system of oppressive government. As articulated by Hamilton, one reason the Electoral College was created was so "that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications."
The scenarios in which tyranny perception occurs are very specific, involving a sort of distortion of democracy preconditions:
- Centralisation excess: when the centralised power of a federation make a decision that should be local, breaking with the commitment to the subsidiarity principle. Typical solutions, in this condition, are concurrent majority and supermajority rules.
- Abandonment of rationality: when, as Tocqueville remembered, a decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". The use of public consultation, technical consulting bodies, and other similar mechanisms help to improve rationality of decisions before voting on them. Judicial review (e.g. declaration of nullity of the decision) is the typical way after the vote.
In both cases, in a context of a nation, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, and the introduction of a Bill of Rights
have been used to counter the problem. A separation of powers
(for example a legislative and executive majority actions subject to review by the judiciary) may also be implemented to prevent the problem from happening internally in a government.