The Role of “Majority Rule” in the Collapse of Democracy

Bruce Nappi
Feb 27, 2016 · 9 min read
U.S. Colonial Congress — 1787

I recently posted part 6 of my series The Collapse of the First Global Civilization: The Failure of Democracy. The entire article was listed as a 59 min read. There are multiple subsections that stand on their own that I’m sure will interest special audiences in a smaller format. Here is one of them.

Majority Rule — the Greatest Flaw in Democracy

The current form of government we now call “democracy” was modeled after the first great experiment with democracy in Athens Greece around 500BC. What most people don’t realize is that Athenian democracy was seriously FLAWED! Let me address what is probably the most significant flaw of Athenian Democracy: Majority rule.

Majoritarianism is a type of voting. People believe it means that they, society, agree to be bound by some approach if more than 50% of the “people” are in favor of it. But, while appearing to be simple, there are as many ways to implement this principle as there are politicians. For example, a “majoritarian” vote can be any percentage over 50%. So, it could be 50% plus one vote or proportions like 60%, 2/3rds, and 75%, which are also common.

To understand why “majority rules” is such a flaw, it’s important to understand is exactly what a citizen’s goals are. Is voting a goal? Is talking to a representative a goal? Of course not. Voting and talking to a representative are just means to an end. The end is getting the world to behave in ways that each of us wants. This, of course, brings us right back to the problem of freedom.

In critiques of democracy, the concept of MAJORITY RULE is typically referred to as the “TYRANNY of the MAJORITY”. What makes it a problem is the extent that it directly conflicts with PERSONAL FREEDOM.

That is, using “majority rule”, once 51% of the population agree on something, they rule as tyrants over the majority. Ironically, social thinkers have known about this for a long time. John Stuart Mill, spoke about it in his book: On Liberty, which was written almost two centuries ago in 1859:

Is what he said clear? He said that democracy fails to support the “liberty of choice” for everyone who is NOT IN THE MAJORITY! If 51% of the people, even in a theoretically perfectly run democracy, decide to kill off the other 49%, then democracy has failed the 49%. This is referred to as ‘lynch mob democracy’, and it is literally, the “lynch pin” that kills modern democracy.

But in the real world, democracy is not even close to perfectly run. The bills in democratic governments, which create laws that all of us have to follow, do not even get close to a 51% vs. 49% vote. Why? Because the people get mostly left out. For example, in the U.S. there are only 100 senators. If 51 of them vote for something that ALL the people in the country hate, then they win with a 51 to 300 million vote. It’s more like .00005% vs. 99.99995% where 99.99995% of the citizen votes don’t have any influence at all. I’ll come back to this.

The people controlling the government will keep telling us that we have a voice. This keeps us sedated and out of their way. They will keep telling us that they are ‘public servants’, while, in fact, they are totally their own servants and servants of the rich and powerful.

To date, society has not been able to solve this dilemma. Yet despite the huge shortcomings we now endure, most people in society view “majority rules” as a great thing. Why? Because society has perpetuated the lie that it is the only way to provide “fair” public input. And the world has been brainwashed into believing this for over 2500 years! It is not the only way. A new approach will be presented in a concluding part of this series.

Large Number Of Candidates — Stepwise Voting

Another complication for majority voting occurs when there are a lot of alternatives or candidates. The typical approach is to break the vote intosteps. For example, in many countries, where there are a lot of political parties or a lot of candidates, they often have preliminary votes. A number of candidates, like two, three or four, with the highest number of votes, get to have a run off. This process is frequently referred to as primaries. While this again seems pretty simple, when complications are brought in, it isn’t. The problem is controlling the concentration of power.

Using primaries, the winners of a primary election are typically not determined by all the people, but by the limited set of people voting in that primary. For example, assume there is a mostly secular country. If a remote area with a strong religious following holds a primary, no matter who is chosen, they will probably bring into the general election biases related to their religion, despite their other capabilities. Those biases will cause them to lose in the general election. If the remote primary, however, was open to the entire country, it is possible that a religious moderate from the area might be selected, thereby giving the area some representation.

Primary elections that are not very carefully designed are choosing winners in a way that is very far from a selection by “all the people”. There are dozens of ways to improve on this simple approach (3) yet they are seldom used.

Lynch Mob Democracy

Lynching of Reuben Stacey — Florida 1935

The previous mention of lynch mob democracy is actually a broad issue related to human RIGHTS. A basic assumption about the U.S. Constitution is that it protects “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a major misunderstanding held by most Americans. These rights were actually stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. When it came time to write the U.S. Constitution, they were conveniently left out. Here is a hypothetical description of a tragic example.

A mob forms and decides they don’t like what someone else is doing. They decide the person should be hanged? This “lynch mob” takes a vote. The vote is unanimous: 10 to 0. The person they don’t like is, of course, not allowed to vote. “MAJORITY RULES” is the cry! They prepare to hang him. Does this process protect “life” or “liberty” or even justice?

A “principled” person in the mob figures this out and objects. He says it seems “unfair” to leave the un-liked person out of the vote. A new vote is taken allowing the un-liked person to also vote. The vote is then 10 — for, 1 — against. MAJORITY RULES is again the cry! They prepare to hang him again. Is this now just?

Another “principled” person speaks up protesting that something is missing. The decision was unfair because it has been made without “due process”. A court and jury haven’t been used. O.K. So the mob selects one of their members to be a judge, 2 are selected to be the lawyers, and the remaining 7 are sworn in as the jury. Not much question about what the outcome of that “trial” is going to be: GUILTY! The un-liked (minority) person is hanged.

The photo above was taken in Fort Lauderdale Florida in 1935. (9) The charge was, “threatening and frightening a white woman.” Notice the people in the photo besides the victim.

The point of this example is to show how voting, even using the most fundamental principle of majority rule, has failed society miserably. Tragically, such cases were all too numerous in U.S. history. But while an extreme case was used for this “lynch mob” example to make the problem clear, many Constitutions insure that this kind of drastic “mob” element will actually happen regularly. The Constitutions do this by creating a “spoils” system, which allows winning political parties to load government cabinet positions with a “mob” of their supporters.

Absolute Rights — a Bill of Rights

During the writing of the U.S. Constitution, this “mob rule” limitation was already well known. It was ignored. Four years later, a major step toward a solution was made by amending the Constitution to create the BILL OF RIGHTS. This set of Constitutional Amendments attempted to protect citizens from the “tyranny of the majority” for a number of specific BEHAVIORS. While it was a good step forward, it still left 2 serious problems: 1. The number of personal freedoms protected is very small; and 2. the wording of the amendments is so general and lacking in sound logic that the freedoms keep coming under attack and need to be fought for over and over again. With the current structure of U.S. government, implementation of the Bill of Rights now rests in the hands of just 9 judges, who are elected by government representatives. These representatives are “theoretically” voting the view of the majority of citizens, but clearly have an industry driven political agenda.

Greatest Good for Greatest Number

Related to the issue of rights is a pervasive myth that comes up over and over. There was a justification for “majority rule” associated with Jeremy Bentham, which was stated, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The myth is a false interpretation of this statement. The popular myth is that the “greatest number” means an absolute count of people. Using that interpretation, the tragic poverty seen in the world is justified because there are now “more” people, as an absolute number, who are living well, than there were when Bentham first made the statement. But this is a false justification that is due to just having a much higher general population.

For example, imagine a country with 500,000 happy people. Now compare that to a second country with 5 million people, but 4 million of them are slaves. Could a democracy judge the second country “better” or “happier” because the 1 million who are not slaves, presumably the happier group, is larger than the 500,000 happy people in the smaller country. Even though there could be twice as many ‘happy’ people in the second case, a democracy couldn’t judge that case as positive with so many people denied their freedom. In fact, with 4 million slaves, the second example would be viewed as a catastrophe of the main goal of democracy.

This example can be used to understand modern democracy, and specifically, the tyranny of the majority. I presented the “lynch mob” as a perfect example of a complete failure of democracy. So, even if the vote is 10 to 1, a lynch mob still constitutes tyranny. A good short summary of this was provided in On Liberty by John Stewart Mill (4):

For the saying, “the greatest good for the greatest number”, an interpretation that makes more sense to equate “democracy” with freedom is to interpret “greatest number” to mean the greatest percentage. But even this is shy of the goal. Bentham said something else that can be used to form a better democratic guide: “Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.” With these guides, society should use “percentage” as an initial measure, but also question whether “everything reasonable” has been done to eliminate misery. Unfortunately, our world is very far from either of these measures.

Summary for Majority voting

To reinforce the major points of this section:

1. A majority-vote democracy should not be the goal. The goal should beFREEDOM and individual LIBERTY.

2. A majority-vote democracy, even with a theoretically perfectimplementation, is a failed functional model for a complex modern society.

3. The goal of freedom, however, can’t be sought through anarchy. That would only lead back to struggles for power, dictatorship and the equivalent of slavery.

4. When many candidates are involved, the process must still be designed to involve all citizens uniformly in every step of the vote.

5. The issue of individual rights must be protected above majority rule.

Images courtesy of flickr

The topics discussed here are expanded further on the A3 Society website.

Bruce Nappi

Written by

Director A3 Research Institute, A3 Society. Eagle Scout 1965 North Pole Expedition. Seeking ways to tell the world about discoveries to achieve true democracy.