Skip to main content

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

The essence of democracy is majority rule, the making of binding decisions by a vote of more than one-half of all persons who participate in an election. However, constitutional democracy in our time requires majority rule with minority rights. Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, expressed this concept of democracy in 1801 in his First Inaugural Address. He said,

All . . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.

In every genuine democracy today, majority rule is both endorsed and limited by the supreme law of the constitution, which protects the rights of individuals. Tyranny by minority over the majority is barred, but so is tyranny of the majority against minorities.

This fundamental principle of constitutional democracy, majority rule coupled with the protection of minority rights, is embedded in the constitutions of all genuine democracies today. The 1992 constitution of the Czech Republic, for example, recognizes the concepts of majority rule and minority rights. Article VI says, “Political decisions shall stem from the will of the majority, expressed by means of a free vote. The majority’s decisions must heed the protection of the minorities.” The Czech constitution is filled with statements of guaranteed civil liberties, which the constitutional government must not violate and which it is empowered to protect.

Majority rule is limited in order to protect minority rights, because if it were unchecked it probably would be used to oppress persons holding unpopular views. Unlimited majority rule in a democracy is potentially just as despotic as the unchecked rule of an autocrat or an elitist minority political party.

In every constitutional democracy, there is ongoing tension between the contradictory factors of majority rule and minority rights. Therefore, public officials in the institutions of representative government must make authoritative decisions about two questions. When, and under what conditions, should the rule of the majority be curtailed in order to protect the rights of the minority? And, conversely, when, and under what conditions, must the rights of the minority be restrained in order to prevent the subversion of majority rule?

These questions are answered on a case-by-case basis in every constitutional democracy in such a way that neither majority rule nor minority rights suffer permanent or irreparable damage. Both majority rule and minority rights must be safeguarded to sustain justice in a constitutional democracy.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)