Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Democracy is Not Mob Rule

Written by johnleemk on 11:37:01 am May 13, 2007.
Categories: ,

One interesting argument when it comes to democracy is just how far a democracy is equivalent to mob rule. Or, more precisely, is democracy a tyranny of the majority?

Opponents of democracy (and usually proponents of some form of a republic) have often argued that a democracy is equivalent to majoritarianism, where the majority can suppress the minority, and is thus undesirable.

Some advocates of democracy, however, have argued that democracy is nothing more than a tyranny of the majority, and as such the will of the majority should always be given effect, viewing this as an upside, not downside, of the democratic process.

If you ask me, both sides are wrong. Any functioning democracy has innate safeguards built in to prevent the majority from usurping and abusing the democratic process to browbeat and coerce the minority in submission to their will.

Of course, the earliest democracy as we know it, that of the Athens city-state, did not have such constitutional safeguards. It truly was nothing more than a tyranny of the majority.

Initially, this worked well because Athens was not too big. But as it grew, the majority's suppression of minority views and constructive criticisms led to the fall of Athens.

Almost all democracies since Athens have not been tyrannies of the majority, however. The United States, which can be called either a democracy or a republic (its founders preferred the latter, since their narrow definition of democracy only encompassed a majoritarian state such as Athens), has in-built mechanisms for overriding the will of the majority, as we all saw in the 2000 presidential election.

Likewise, almost every democratic state in existence has an electoral system which more than occasionally produces a government without support from a majority of the people. And practically all democracies require more than a simple majority to amend their constitutions, effectively allowing the minority to block the will of the majority.

Yet, the idea persists that democracy, because it is meant to reflect the will of the majority in most cases, is equivalent to a tyranny of the majority. A simple thought experiment, though, can remove all doubt about this question.

Before the experiment, it is important to note that there is no standard definition of a democracy; things get fuzzy once we get past the "reflecting the will of the majority" part — and even that can be controversial since, as is about to be shown, the normal democracy does not always act like a tyranny of the majority.

For our purposes, though, a democracy can safely be said to have at least some untrammeled freedom of speech. Even if it is curtailed, there is at least freedom in what one can say, even if it is not popular.

The question is, can this democracy repeal such a freedom of speech? For instance, can it ban any opposition to established laws, because these laws were established by the will of the majority?

The answer is of course it can — but not without losing its status as a democracy. For a democracy to function, freedom of speech is necessary. The reason freedom of speech and democracy are two concepts so intertwined in our minds is because if voters cannot even begin to discuss the possibility of overturning the status quo, how will they ever vote against it?

A democracy is not always fair to the minority. That is to be expected. But a democracy exists to tolerate the views of the minority, and to give them a fair hearing — that is what sets it apart from all other forms of government.

Practically all other governments still derive their power and legitimacy indirectly from the consent of the people — otherwise the people would revolt and replace their government. (For instance, in a totalitarian state, the dictator may get away with what he does, despite it not being popular with the majority, because the majority still prefers him as their leader, even if they do not agree with his decisions.) The will of the majority is not what sets democracy apart.

What makes democracy unique is its tolerance for the views of minority groups, even if they are unpopular. A democracy is not mob rule or a tyranny of the majority — it is precisely the opposite.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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