From Wikipedia on democracy:

According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens

What mechanisms (existing or proposed) exist to prevent a democracy turning into an ochlocracy, or into a tyranny of the majority?

See also:

  • Apart from Federalist 10, you may also want to turn to Mark Levin's Liberty Amendments. – K Dog Jan 26 '17 at 17:10
  • Worth remember that any political structure is really just pieces of paper. The only thing that gives it any power is the people. If you turn the people then it doesn't really matter what political system you have. – David says Reinstate Monica Jan 26 '17 at 17:18
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    I would challenge this definition of democracy. A true democracy is majority rule only, (c) and (d) are not part of the definition. The United States, of course, is a republic, not a democracy. – barrycarter Jan 26 '17 at 17:51

Below are some examples from a contemporary American view. These mechanisms wouldn't have be applicable if you were interested in the view of the Ancient Greeks, who were very concerned with this subject.

Indirect Elections

In America, the people do not directly elect the President. We elect representatives to elect the President. The elector has no other function besides electing the President. This can provide some insulation against the will of the majority, because the representative can vote contrary to the popular will. Of course, this doesn't typically happen, but it is one mechanism in our system designed for exactly this purpose. In fact, historically the United States Senate was also selected indirectly, but this changed with the 17 Amendment.

Wikipedia maintains a list of other indirect elections.

Legislative Authority

In most of the world's democracies today, the people cannot directly legislate. Instead, they elect legislators who create laws for them. This is a large check against the majority: in any given election, they could lose.

This specific issue was one of the ancient Greek's main concerns, since they often exercised direct democracy.

In practical terms, depending on the size of the majority and their specific election rules they may not have to worry about this. However, in other cases it will be a significant deterrent.

Judicial Independence

Judges in America are designed to be insulated from politics. As such, they should be aloof from the will of the majority. There are many specific mechanisms for this including: being appointed (rather than elected), appointments are for life, judges do not report to a political body (such as a legislature or executive department), and an independent professional body (typically a bar association).

Judicial independence is critical for the rule of law. It's what allows a judge to rule based on the merits of the law, rather than political circumstances or the majority's will.

Election Terms

A short election term provides incentives for a representative to obey their electorate. A long election term provides more freedom. This is the reason why the Senate is given a six-year term, but the House of Representatives is only two years. Similarly, judges are appointed for life which provides them the maximum insulation from politics.

The Party System and Electoral Structure

The party system exists to aggregate the wants of many disparate groups. The structure of elections and the party system can be limit the influence of the majority, or enhance it. For example, in America party elite control legislative committee assignments and much of the funding for campaigns. This isn't directly controlled "by the people" and may be freely dispensed regardless of the majority's will.

Conversely, the winner-take-all system in America gives the majority a big advantage. Here, a candidate wins an election by having the majority of votes in that area. Votes are not split based on the proportion of votes in that area they receive. This benefits the majority by allowing them to easily repress even fairly sizeable showings by minority parties.

Legal Protections

Most democracies have (either through their Constitution or legislation) minimal legal protections for all citizens. For example, the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. This protection prevents the majority from directly shutting down media which they disagree with. Of course it only really works if the courts agree and other institutions play ball too.

Additionally, they may have protected categories which may not be discriminated against. These laws prevent the majority from abusing the minority, at least as long as the laws stand.

Rule of Law

The rule of law prevents power from being used improperly by restricting the authorized usage of power. For example, although the Supreme Court can overturn laws (a powerful feature), they can deal with laws that are brought before them. These laws effectively restrain governmental officials.

As long as these rules and procedures are followed, there are a lot of checks to exercising power. Each of these rules is a barrier to arbitrary uses of power by the majority.

  • I got a little lazy with references. I'll edit them in later. – indigochild Jan 26 '17 at 16:11
  • This post would be improved by adding to the indirect elections section some commentary on small "r" republicanism, a Madisonian example on factions and pluralism, and commentary on unalienable rights that may be encapsulated in something like the Bill of Rights. – K Dog Jan 26 '17 at 16:25
  • @KDog - Unalienable rights are covered under the 'legal protections' category. My answer is already kind of long, so I probably won't include that historical information. It's good info though, I'd upvote it if you posted it. – indigochild Jan 26 '17 at 16:30
  • lest you forget I am already working on an Aristotle definition of the good: happiness themed response on why chick porn is worse, or less virtuous, than Shakespeare. I sort of have the skeleton coming together. – K Dog Jan 26 '17 at 16:34

There is no fool proof way, unfortunately. For democracy to work, you need quality voters - there is plenty of evidence for that.

Some mechanisms help on the margin, but each with its draw backs, like representative Democracy, small government, pre requisite for voting, electoral college, separation of power, or even the right to bear arm, ...

But none of that is sufficient to prevent the rise of tyranny o the majority.

The fundamental issue for any democracy is that it is based on quantity not quality of votes. Such a system needs special care to protect the minorities, the politically weak, and the powerless and voiceless elements of a society.

That is very very hard.

  • It's entirely appropriate to challenge the frame of a question, but you need to explain why. You say that we need quality voters, but you don't explain why (summarize that "plenty of evidence"). – indigochild Jan 26 '17 at 17:19

TL:DR: (There is no tl;dr)

From Federalist 10, one of the most quoted Federalist Paper.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

The payoff:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions. A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures. The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts [Ed Note. Yes Madison just called a key platform of the Dems, student loan forgiveness, a wicked project] for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

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    A TL;DR may not be appropriate, but the answer could at least stand to be sectioned. Madison was writing a treatise, whereas Stack Exchange is meant to be more instructional in tone. – called2voyage Jan 26 '17 at 18:50
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    Also, the editorial note is distracting, since it does not deal directly with the central topic. – called2voyage Jan 26 '17 at 18:52

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