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Assume a democracy where every person can vote. Now, if there was a party to say: "If we win, next time only all men are allowed to vote plus all women with dark hair." Let's assume that there are 50% men. Secondly we assume 25% women with dark hair. So for 75% of the population it would be a good idea to vote for this party as this grants them more power. After they have won, they declare: "If we are elected again, only men will be allowed to vote next time." So men would make up the majority of the now-allowed-to-vote people, such that little by little we could boil down power to a small group of people. Why doesn't this happen? The same question in a different context: How did gay people get the right to marry, although a lot of people oppose this? In my (pro-gay) opinion we often get laws that are way more humane than the people living under them are. What force drives us away from the lynch-mob? I hear a lot about democracy representing the opinions of the majority, but I feel the way more important job of a democracy is to protect minorities, rather than doing "what most people want". Why arent we stuck in a lynch-mob society?

Edit: Thanks for the answers and comments. What I took so far is that courts and some sort of fundamental rights have to be in place to avoid the problem. Furthermore there is not a final answer to deal with the problem once and for all. It is always subject to societies and the people. This is good to know for me, as I was not sure if there was a optimum solution to the problem. However, I am new to this and the problem has emerged in my head steming from a very different context, such that I appologize not being able to have done my own research as I just don't know what to even search for. Does this problem have a name, is there research about it, is there something I can google for? I started here as I had no clue on how to even get started.

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  • 13
    This is the central question of democracy, going back to Ancient Greece. There is no one or final answer, only countless different attempts (some more successful than others) to maintain a stable balance against tyranny, anarchy, and demagoguery. It’s certainly a fascinating and important question, but don’t expect anyone to have the answer
    – divibisan
    Jul 3 at 3:41
  • 4
    It's currently happening before your very own eyes, if you care to pay attention. There are many countries that like to call themselves democratic but are only democratic in name. The USA is a prime example, where gerrymandering, limiting choice, making it hard to vote and simply denying people the right to vote is common place. As some would say, the USA is a corporatocracy, not a democracy. Jul 3 at 18:26
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    If we assume that there is 50% men and 25% women with dark hair, for 75% of the population it would be a good idea to vote for this party as this grants them more power Assuming the population is 50/50 gender split you've got 50% of men (25% of the total) and 25% of women (12.5% of the total) for 37.5% voting for the law, not 75%. Jul 4 at 9:13
  • What? No you have 50% of the whole population men, and 25% of total population women with dark hair. I dont get what you calculated
    – jjstcool
    Jul 4 at 13:09
  • @jjstcool The way its phrased you're saying 50% of all men have dark hair. This is only 25% of the total population - perhaps you didn't mean it that way but its how its written. Jul 5 at 11:02
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This problem is a large reason why some version of High Courts (ex: Supreme in US, Supreme Court in Canada) and a document guaranteeing fundamental rights (ex: Constitution in US, Charter of Rights in Canada, Droits de l'Homme in France) are required:

Further examples:

i.e. it is important that democracy does not degenerate into "two wolves and one sheep voting for dinner".

Note that the examples given do not always mean the ruling is against the popular will at the time, only that a discriminatory law/custom was still in place. For example, after gay marriage was ruled legal by courts, Stephen Harper's government organized a vote to repeal it, which came out 175 to 123 in favor of rejecting the repeal and keeping gay marriage. One supposes the members of Parliament had their ears to the ground about it, at least in non-Conservative ridings.

Conversely one should not expect a High Court to be too far ahead of public sentiment: at a guess, Brown vs Topeka wouldn't have happened in the 1890s.

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  • Thanks, you gave some examples of when/what did happen opposing my argument, yet it does not explain why it happened. The women's right to vote is probably a good example that courts have to be in place. And there are human factors as well that tell us not to exclude some arbitrary minority. So I would consider this "an easy case", but what about refugees who are much more subject to prejudice? Why do most democracys take refugees despite a lot of opposition in society? I am looking more for a concept instead of examples. Thank you
    – jjstcool
    Jul 3 at 21:27
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    I don't see this answer as opposing your argument. Democracy, by itself, does not stop the behavior you are concerned about and I gave one possible approach to fixing this problem, which means that there is a problem. Now, as to easy case, that's strange. You specifically cited gay marriage. And you also did not cite refugees. I would also argue that the obligations of a country towards its own residents and citizens are of a different nature than that same country towards external people, including refugees, so you are risking making your question overbroad. Jul 3 at 21:35
  • i.e. you could have a very democratic country that does not like to take in immigrants or refugees, even as it behaves very ethically towards its own people, irrespective of race, sexual orientation or religion. the concepts are linked, of course, a xenophobic country is unlikely to be very ethical, but they are not the same. You need to articulate a somewhat clearer question that can be answered. Oh, on this distinction about refugees - I am addressing the question of accepting refugees in the first place. Once accepted then, yes, those obligations become same as towards locals. Jul 3 at 21:57
  • Hey, sorry for not being 100% clear, you are being part of a thought developing in my head. You are right, the notion that some democracies might not accept one single immigrant and yet could be good working democracies is valid, did not think about that. About the easy case thing: I am not trying to move goal posts here, (btw, I was talking about womans rights, not gay rights as the "easy case"), I am trying to make the point that there are some topics with different levels of societal opposition
    – jjstcool
    Jul 3 at 22:41
  • (e.g. womans right to vote seems so normal, who would oppose it, even if it takes away a little bit of everybodies power, a little more controversal is gay rights as for some reason people seem to care a lot about who others love, in the refugee/immigrant there is in my perception the highest opposition, even with immigrants who are now citizens of the country, as people feel immigrants keep them from prospering or whatever.). Im German and over here a right wing party called AfD is gaining massive traction and I wonder when it will be to late to stop a second 1933.
    – jjstcool
    Jul 3 at 22:46
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Democracies are fragile by nature because they are based on the will of the people. If a majority of the people seriously want to get rid of their democratic system, they can succeed eventually. This is a feature, not a bug: the principle of a democracy is to give the people full power about the direction of the country, so a democracy must allow the people to choose whatever they want... otherwise it's not a democracy.

However this doesn't mean that it's easy to topple a democracy. Thankfully there are many obstacles in the way.

First, democracies are purposefully designed to make it hard for a person or a group to gain control of everything, this is the principle of separation of powers. There are also various rules governing which laws can be passed and how much majority they require. There is a political opposition who can and will denounce any attempt to undermine the democratic system. There is freedom of speech which contributes to a healthy democratic debate in society. Ultimately there is a Supreme Court which may invalidate any law which is not compatible with the Constitution of the country.

But in my opinion the most important obstacle is simply the deep historical and cultural attachment that most people have with their democracy. Especially in countries which have been democracies for a long time, most people are quite proud of the democratic values that their country represent. Historically democracy rarely happens peacefully, so there is often a feeling that democracy is a valuable legacy of the smart and brave people who fought for it in the past. With time the core democratic values become part of the identity of the country, and a lot of people do not want to give that up. In fact many people would probably be ready to fight for their democracy, so it wouldn't be easy at all for a government to topple the democratic system in their country.

tldr: democracies are designed with structural safeguards, but ultimately a democracy depends on how much people feel like it is "their democracy" and consider its core values as their own.

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  • Interesting view. From this and previous answers I get: the Supreme Court and Constitution are non-optional tools a democracy needs. A country with a simple "everybody can vote on everything" would not suffice for a healthy democracy (assuming it would be feasible to do so). Especially when it is about deciding what to do with murderers etc. Especially in the law system I get the feeling that the laws are way more humane than the people. A public vote on the verdict would most often be much more severe than it actually is. But this is another, yet related, question. Tank you
    – jjstcool
    Jul 3 at 23:33
  • very good tldr.
    – jjstcool
    Jul 4 at 0:56
  • @jjstcool Direct democracies (people themselves vote on and decide most every issue) outside of highly localized areas are fairly rare (Switzerland is an example). Representative democracies are much more common, going back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome, and are almost always argued to be superior to direct democracies on the grounds that direct democracies are subject to the demands of the ill-informed and fickle masses, which renders them unstable. Representatives and bureaucracies are said to slow down and moderate these things, turning chaotic tumult into stable progression. Jul 6 at 7:13
  • @jjstcool - I wouldn't say that the Supreme Court and Constitution (as the US has them) are non-optional. The UK doesn't have either one in that sense, but it's still considered a democracy (see here). That said, it could certainly be considered a more fragile democracy than one that has an explicit constitution and a court that applies it to laws.
    – Bobson
    Jul 7 at 16:38
  • To put ideas from the other answers together: It is a good thing to have such mechanisms in place, as they slow down the "moods" of the people to do damage. So the "more fragile" aspekt is probably true.
    – jjstcool
    Jul 7 at 17:51
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I think the answer to this question comes down to political culture. In essence, democracy (as well as every other political system) originates with a set of attitudes, beliefs, desires, and assumptions that both instigate the formation of the system and perpetuate themselves within the system. In the specific case of democracy, people prioritize liberty, self-governance, equality, accountability, and all of the thing that are spelled out in the US Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Once these ideals are instilled, people will try to create institutions that support and enforce them; once these institutions are established, they will reaffirm and reinforce the original ideals. Anything which threatens those ideals or institutions becomes increasingly contentious.

Democracies generally work through the interaction of vocal minorities with complacent majorities. Complacent majorities dislike disruption to their habits and chafe at anything that forces them to reflect on their taken-for-granted ideals. Vocal minorities are constantly pushing to redress (perceived) violations of their own rights and liberties within the greater society. Sometimes vocal minorities can create a strong moral case for their positions, and are gradually integrated into the social structure. At other times vocal minorities cannot make a strong moral case, in which case they either sink into the obscurity of private association, or take up expressly anti-democratic positions as they try to push their worldview onto the complacent majority. The latter activity is usually Pyrrhic. Whatever victories they accomplish through anti-democratic means will be washed away when the complacent majority wakes up and reacts with visceral abhorrence to the violation of their ingrained ideals, or else the democracy itself is washed away creating the grounds for subsequent rebellion. This may play out over decades or generations; it is exceedingly difficult to change political culture once it has established itself.

In the "all men and women with dark hair" scenario presented in the question, it may be that 75% of the country might casually support such a position. But the missing piece is that blonde and red-headed women will scream bloody murder over the implicit loss of their own political standing. Since the majority of men and dark-haired women will naturally fall into the category of the 'complacent majority' — i.e., not fierce advocates for the position — many of them will likely respond to that primal scream. They are content with the power they have in the given society, sympathetic to the pain and loss suffered by others, and will turn away from such an obvious power-grab with revulsion. Simple "We want more" mindsets do not fare well against the moral postulates established in a political culture.

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The OP seems to not have done much research. Democracies do sometimes disestablish themselves, the prime example being Germany under Hitler. Other democracies often start down that road, by adopting punitive laws against out-of-favor groups. Examples might be the half-century "War Against Drugs" in the US and many other supposedly democratic countries.

On the other hand, such laws can be abolished when a majority no longer supports them. Contrary to the gay marriage example, polls show that a substantial majority - about 70% - of Americans support it: https://news.gallup.com/poll/350486/record-high-support-same-sex-marriage.aspx Support for marijuana legalization is almost as high: https://news.gallup.com/poll/323582/support-legal-marijuana-inches-new-high.aspx

PS: My point here is that you need some precipitating force, such as a demagogue, a religion, or even some real or imagined external threat, to create the "us against them" mentality that leads to the decline of individual freedoms. Otherwise, most people tend not to care all that much about what other people are doing in private.

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  • I am not sure Hitler's Enabling Act really counts as a democracy voting itself out. Seems more like a constitutional coup of sorts, after the elections, elections in which Hitler did not get a majority and through intimidation of the elected officials. Jul 3 at 4:25
  • @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica: I meant that the election of Hitler was the start of the democracy voting itself out of existence. Everything subsequent was simply the downhill slope...
    – jamesqf
    Jul 3 at 16:44
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    but the Germans did not know that when they voted for him and he only got 30% of the vote in 1932. This is democracy not being stable enough, not democratic choice to self-abolish. Yes, he got more votes in 1933, after emergency act, but was it a real vote by that time? I did not adjust my answer re your remark on the gay vote. But... marijuana smokers being an oppressed minority? Come on, as someone who does and did before it was legal that's a stretch compared to racial/religious/sexual discrimination/ Even if enforcement is a total waste of police/judicial effort. Jul 3 at 17:39
  • On your last paragraph - Pakistan has rather extreme anti-heresy laws, up to and including the death penalty. No, they are not totally tip-top democratic but still a fairly reasonable try at it. India, under Modi, has also been veering steadily in that same direction. If you add up a demagogue, a religion, or even some real or imagined external threat that's leaving quite a wide door to bring in oppression so I don't share your sentiment that most of the time people are OK-ish. Jul 3 at 17:49
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    @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica: So the Germans could not read Mein Kampf, published in 1925 & 1926 (in two volumes). It was something of a bestseller in Germany before he became Chancellor. Per Wikipedia, he made the equivalent of about $7 million from it by 1933: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mein_Kampf#Popularity WRT Pakistan, we perhaps differ on the meaning of democracy. If Pakistan ever was a true democracy (what I've read suggests not), it's well on the road to lots of wolves voting on lunch, of course due to religion.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 3 at 23:35
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It only took about two years from the NSDAP becoming the strongest party in the election of July 1932 to Hitler establishing complete dictatorship as Führer and Chancellor after President von Hindenburg's death in 1934. The Nuremberg Race Laws were passed in 1935.

(In addition, after the July 1932 election parties that were against the German Republic held a majority in Parliament and could effectively sabotage democratic processes although they fiercly hated each other and would never work together.)

On the way to the dictatorship, a significant intermediate step was the Enabling Act of 1933. This act permitted the government to pass laws without consulting with parliament or requiring parliament's approval. The understanding was, that a 2/3 supermajority was required to pass this law, which was attained by various tricks and by having arrested and interned a significant number (if not all) of members of parliament of the Communist Party preventing them from voting against. Modern constitutional theory holds that this law was unconstitutional even at the time -- despite its supermajority passing that would have allowed constitutional amendments -- as the constitution did not grant any branch the power to delegate its powers. Nonetheless, it was not contested at the time.

In a functioning democracy, there would be a couple of safety nets that attempt to prevent such an outcome. For example, there is typically a Supreme or Constitutional Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws before they can be enacted. Furthermore, it is generally expected for the executive to respect the judgement of the judicative and the laws enacted by the legislative; and all three branches should uphold the democratic principles.

In 1930's Germany, practically nothing of this held true. There was a majority in the legislative to abolish istelf with the Enabling Act. The executive was put into non-democratic hands which led to a change of culture down the command chain. And large parts of the judicative -- especially the higher ranks -- had held their offices since the Empire (World War I had only ended 15 years ago) and were generally staunch conservatives and not particularly democratically-minded. The facts that the police force in general was also conservative, that there were paramilitary groups (Freikorps) made up of jobless World War I veterans that generally supported conservative and fascist causes and that the Nazi party had its own semi-military semi-police force arm in the SA was likely just icing on the cake. (It bears mentioning that despite having their own street fighting force the Communist Party would have had a far harder job of taking over government and forming a communist dictatorship even if they had won an outright majority in parliament due to the generally strongly conservative judiciary and executive.)

So what keeps a democracy alive? Analysing the downfall of the Weimar Republic it's a combination of the following factors:

  • A set of clear rules and frameworks that limits the powers of offices, be it legislative, executive or judicative (commonly condensed into a strong constitution)

  • A system of checks and balances

  • People in power in the relevant positions that support upholding the democratic order

  • And among lower levels: trust in the working system and in general supporting the democratic system

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Democracies frequently disestablish themselves, especially when they are new.

A typical pattern is: (1) independence or first democratic elections in a previously non-democratic state or an interrupted democratic state (e.g. by occupation or war or coup), (2) allegations of corruption and incompetence surround the neophyte democratic political leaders, (3) some force (usually, the military, or a former monarch or descendant of a former monarch, or religious authorities) seize control as the "adults in the room" who can restore non-corrupt normalcy and competence that the democratic government failed to achieve, and (5) eventually, often many decades later, the country tries to attain democracy again.

Almost every modern democracy has experienced this once or twice in history. The exceptions generally developed long, increasingly independent democratic political traditions under the supervision of a colonial ruler that stayed in power, at least partially, for a very long time, rather than making a clean break with its colony. This supervision prevented the breakdown of the democratic political system until democratic government was thoroughly ingrained.

Another common pattern in early democracies was for democratic government to solidify into hereditary oligarchies as elections continually re-elect incumbents and members of political dynasties who often have informal sources of power, such as economic power that also drives people to back them.

Cynical political theory notwithstanding, there are many examples of the franchise being expanded, rather than narrowed, by existing more narrow franchises. Usually, this is due to a mix of protests and demands, short term political advantage for the ideological party in power, international pressure, and idealism.

Democracies tend to narrow the franchise, in contrast, when the ruling faction feels that some of those with the franchise who were previously a minority and are not ideologically aligned with the controlling faction, now threaten their control. We are seeing this right now in U.S. red states and previously saw it after Reconstruction in the former Confederate States.

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Social trust, Separation of powers, and Supermajority barriers.

Social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others – a “faith in people.” If voters lack trust in the honesty, integrity and reliability of a defined set of people, maybe based on religion, ethnicity, gender, wealth, social status, criminal history, location, nationality, age, etc. Democracy absolutely will shut out these people from the electorate. A high level of social trust is correlated with internal stability, which is positive for the economy, and individual happiness.

Separation of powers is a complex concept with vastly different implementations. To save space I'll oversimplify: It slows things down by requiring more than just a single election to replace the entire government. This increases the time during which social trust needs to be beyond a threshold to exclude (or include) a group from the electorate.

Supermajority barriers require way more than just half of the electorate to support some changes that are seen as drastic, like changing who is allowed to vote. This changes the threshold of how far social trust in a group must deteriorate until they can get excluded from the electorate.

0

This is one of the reasons why most large societies use representative democracy rather than direct democracy. Direct democracy, where all the people vote on the laws, makes "tyranny of the majority" much easier, as in the example you describe.

In a representative democracy, the theory (which may not always hold out, but often does) is that the representatives will make decisions for the good of the whole populace, perhaps biased by the majority of their constituents. Hopefully we elect representatives who are not so selfish that they make decisions for their personal benefit (laws regarding corruption and conflicts of interest exist to mitigate these).

We have examples from the past where this has worked. The landmark civil rights laws in the US in the 60's were voted into place by a legislature consisting almost entirely of old white men, who had little to gain from giving more rights to blacks. The 15th and 19th Amendments, which gave blacks and women the right to vote, clearly went against the interests of the white men who previously were the only ones allowed to vote. Had these been put to a popular vote, there's a good chance none of these measures would have passed. Elected representatives are expected to do what's best for society as a whole.

However, even in a direct democracy, this type of tyranny doesn't happen often, because many people are not so selfish. Empathy and cooperation are important human characteristics. Many of the people at Black Lives Matter rallies are white people who have no skin in the game, they just agree that we'd all be better off if everyone were treated equally.

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