The Wikipedia definition of democracy states:

Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατία dēmokratía, literally "rule by people") is a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislature.

Similarly, the Wikipedia definition of ochlocracy states:

Ochlocracy (Greek: ὀχλοκρατία, romanized: okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) or mob rule is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities.

Is there any commonly recognised set of criteria that can be used to determine whether an act is one or the other?

There are several, nominally democratic, things going on in the UK at the moment: the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations and Brexit, that could conceivably be considered more akin to mob rule; how might I determine, for the sake of argument, whether they (or similar occurrences) are one or the other?

  • There are a few similar questions on this difference if you look at the [ochlocracy] tag. Seeing that this question is about the definitions and includes some research and the possible duplicates are closed, I think it's a question worth reopening.
    – JJJ
    Oct 16, 2019 at 13:42
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    The mere occurance of a demonstration is not mob rule. State power remains firmly in place.
    – pjc50
    Oct 16, 2019 at 22:23
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    The difference is that most of us have heard of democracy, not many of ochlocracy. Beyond that, there seems to be little difference - and who gets to determine what's a "legitimate" authority?
    – jamesqf
    Oct 17, 2019 at 4:19

3 Answers 3


Both democracy and ochlocracy are forms of government where political activism by citizens is tolerated as part of politics.

The difference is that a democratic state follows its legislative, executive and legal processes and follows the rule of law, while an ochlocratic state ignores these in order to appease public sentiments.

A couple tests you can use to determine whether you live in a democracy or an ochlocracy:

  • Do actions by the executive follow the law or the public sentiment? Example: The public opinion demands that donuts are outlawed. Law says producing, owning, trading and eating donuts is legal. Does the executive seize and destroy all donuts nevertheless because that's what the public demands? Ochlocracy. Does the executive refuse to do anything unless the legislature makes a law which tells them to? Democracy.
  • Are decisions by elected officials due to fear of their personal safety instead of just their political safety? Example: There is a proposed law to outlaw donuts. How do the members of parliament decide how to vote on this proposal? "I have to vote for this or I won't get reelected": Democracy. "I have to vote for this or people will literally kill me": Ochlocracy.
  • Does the judiciary follow the letter of the law instead of public opinion? Example: A baker is on trial for possession of donuts with intent to supply. There is no proof beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant ever touched a donut after the law went into effect, but public opinion demands that the baker is punished nevertheless. In a democracy, that person would go free. In an ochlocracy, that person would be convicted.

Is following the Brexit referendum a form of mob rule? Not really. Parliament voted to have a public referendum on the question and parliament also voted to ratify the result of that referendum. Also, the general consensus of constitutional law is that due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, the parliament could choose to ignore the results of the referendum if they wanted to.

Are public protests like the Extinction Rebellion a form of mob rule? Not as long as protests are either peaceful or contained by law enforcement. Peaceful public protests are a form of free speech used by citizens to inform their elected and unelected representatives of their grievances. A democratic society tolerates this form of activism and considers the demands of protesters unbinding requests which the government can choose to either fulfill or ignore. If protests turn so violent that representatives adopt their demands out of fear that law enforcement will be unable to maintain public order, then you have mob rule.

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    Sorry I disagree with "Does the executive refuse to do anything unless the legislature makes a law which tells them to? Democracy." In the US, there are plenty of areas in which power is delegated by default to the executive. Regulating commerce or banning drugs happens to be one of them. Oct 16, 2019 at 15:23
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    @Fizz The US isn't really a prime example for clear separation of powers anyway. But do you have a better example for the difference between ochlocratic and democratic behavior from the executive?
    – Philipp
    Oct 16, 2019 at 15:24
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    You seem to have a point that the separation of powers is stronger in Germany than in the US. However, I'm still not buying that that implies the US is more ochlocratic. It's not clear why the executive is more prone to be scared by mobs than the legislature would be. After all, the legislature is entirely elected, so they probably fear public opinion swings more than some regulatory agency largely composed of unelected bureaucrats. (Its true that the heads of such agencies are politically appointed, so they may have fear of dismissal.) Oct 16, 2019 at 16:05
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    More concretely, I don't see the FDA caving in so easily to "let's ban donuts" because some mob is protesting outside. (They could well be convicted on scientific grounds though.) Oct 16, 2019 at 16:11
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    Why do you believe these traits to be related to "ochlocracy"? Oct 16, 2019 at 22:38

Rights of the minority

In both democracy and mob rule the majority gets to decide public policy. However, democracy implies certain limits to what kinds of policy this majority is allowed to apply, and what unalienable rights the minority is going to have anyway.

For example, in a simplified case of two mostly unified factions, if the majority can impose policies that would physically remove or exterminate the minority faction(s), that would be a clear sign of ochlocracy and not democracy.

If the majority would impose policies that would irrevocably bind their will on a future different majority - for example, disenfranchise the minority and prevent them from voting in the future when their policies might have majority support, that would also cross the boundary. Or if supporters of one party physically intimidate supporters of other parties and prevent their participation in politics, like the 'blackshirts' and 'brownshirts' did in last century - that's ochlocracy.

In essence, democracy is not when government takes power after being fairly elected by a majority of people; democracy is when a government that had majority support hands over power to a different, opposing government that's now elected by a majority of people while the current government enabled these elections to happen fairly despite knowing that they're likely to lose.

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    "In both democracy and mob rule" - not always. Ohlocracy can effectively suppress majority votes/decisions by "defending" different minorities rights. For example, allowing minorities demonstrations - to show that minorities rights are respected. And, along with it, disallowing majority demonstrations - because it harm feelings of one or another minority. Oct 17, 2019 at 6:39
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    Isn't that a completely separate thing, unrelated to democracy per se? After all, an absolute monarch can grant rights to minorities, but that alone wouldn't make his regime a democracy.
    – Headcrab
    Oct 17, 2019 at 7:05
  • If anything "we're a republic not a democracy" is used argue for minority rule. mises.org/wire/stop-saying-were-republic-not-democracy Oct 17, 2019 at 10:21
  • @Headcrab Wrong direction. A big part of democracy is "the things we don't vote about". The difference is essentially between "two wolves and a sheep vote what to have for lunch" and wolves just not having the right to eat sheep, because doing so would gravely violate the rights of the sheep. Now, just because you have things we don't vote about doesn't make a government a democracy (that's essentially what "republic" means), but a government where everything is subject to a majority vote isn't a democracy. That doesn't necessarily mean a democracy is better than a non-democracy, of course.
    – Luaan
    Oct 18, 2019 at 9:06

The difference is similar to iterated vs non-iterated prisoners' dilemmas.

In an iterated prisoners' dilemma, the optimum choice is cooperation, for any non-pathological set of weights (i.e. as soon as you gain even a minimal amount in the both-sides-cooperate scenario, the long-term gains over multiple iterations will exceed the short-term winnings of one defection, after which the other player is expected to defect as well).

Democratic societies understand that cooperation and compromise are required for long-term prosperity and stability, and are seeking compromise solutions that a majority can agree on. A very good example of this in action would be the "indicative votes" process the British House of Commons used to determine which was the best way forward: a multitude of proposals on a broad spectrum, and yes/no votes on each of them to arrive at a ranking from most to least preferable.

This works well when there are no clear and stable majorities, and voters are aware of that -- respecting other, even minority groups' concerns is self-serving as well, as the next vote could see oneself in the minority, and you'd rely on others to include your position in the compromise.

It breaks down if either a group becomes or believes to be a stable majority (removing the iterative aspect), or the proposals put forward do not include any compromise positions.

In a parliamentary democracy, the final yes/no vote is supposed to be a vote on a compromise position reached in a subcommittee earlier, so this part of the process is hidden rather than omitted.

For the general public to do yes/no votes as in Switzerland, the entire compromise finding process (which includes estimation of outcome) needs to happen publicly, so voters can make an informed choice, and voters need to understand that voting for an extreme position may lose them the support of other citizens in the next vote, should an extreme position in the other direction be proposed.

Ochlocracy is the breakdown of democratic processes: every vote is treated in isolation as it has (or as if it had) no influence on future votes, so there is no incentive to seek compromise.

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