The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2018.16)

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

One comment

  1. Ian Davidson

    Political science is not my strength. However, presumably the reason why most “democracies” have a separation of powers between government, legislature and judiciary and sign up to international declarations such as UN Bill of Rights is de facto recognition that “rule by majority” is insufficient to guarantee civil rights? NI is a close/recent example of how “majority (mis) rule” *resulted in a breakdown in basic day to day niceties such as not killing each other? If you took the “sovereignty of Parliament” (Westminster) at its most literal interpretation, the UK legislature could rule that “the moon is made of cheese” and provided the correct procedures followed, it would become established law! Thankfully the Scottish Parliament is established with human rights and judicial oversight built in to its legislative and executive framework.
    (*or perhaps more accurately, “majority mis-rule” by a powerful minority hiding within the majority?).

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