In representative democracy, often people can use the monopoly of violence for a good cause by enforcing protection of minorities that are enshrined in constitutions that can be violently imposed. Results include Eisenhower using the national guard to desegregate schools and Justin Trudeau accepting record high numbers of refugees even though polls showed little support for increasing immigrations.

However, in a direct democracy where there are no hierarchies and there is bottom up organisation, like what we see in Rojava, where everyone makes laws themselves and appoint representatives to enforce them, how can minorities be protected ? There is no coercion to force people to act in an egalitarian fashion, and without coercion or sympathies of educated populations, majorities have little incentive to protect minorities (at least that is what they perceive, even if better protection of minorities is an economic advantage via more utilization of talents)

  • 5
    A constitution is not unique to representative democracy in any way. It's merely a set of rules the population has agreed to obey.
    – Davor
    Apr 28, 2022 at 15:23
  • 14
    FYI, Rojava is a rebel regime in parts of Syria. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:16
  • I guess you are only interested in cases where the minority's interests clearly clash with those of the majority? "Showing little support" is very different from actually opposing. Otherwise, in most cases, minority rules...
    – Zeus
    Apr 29, 2022 at 6:27
  • 1
    What's to stop a non-Direct Democracy from also using majority force on the minority if they really wanted to? Who does the coercion? The majority? Seems Catch-22. Apr 29, 2022 at 14:02

6 Answers 6


Certainly belongs in Se.Po, it's a core concern of politics, IMO.

In a mature democracy, not necessarily including, but not excluding either, one like Rojava, evolving under the stress of a warzone, the answer is that you can't, unless the democratic majority devolves power to a system that is, at least somewhat, or short-term, independent of their own desires.

This system, be it a Constitution, Charter of Rights, or Supreme Court, or a combination thereof, becomes a deciding point for each citizen if the proposed law or action is acceptable when invoked.

The US Constitution with the tension between either 2nd Amendment, or the notion of Supreme Court enlargement (aka packing). Neither party is happy but the general idea, that a different, orthogonal, decision framework gets to be the arbiter is firmly rooted.

Gay Marriage in Canada for example. Legalizing gay marriage may or may not have been popular when it was first announced but very quickly people got to examine their beliefs in opposing it. Was it worth opposing the core belief of what a country was established on?

Similarly you have the Swiss Federal court ruling, that Appenzell did not, despite a majority of the eligible (male) voters wanting to keep women's vote out, constitute an ethically and legally viable way for a Canton to proceed. And that despite Switzerland being the poster child for, very mature, very stable, very ongoing, direct democracy.

But make no mistake, Supreme Courts and assorted sundry do not, and maybe should not, typically range far forward of what a democracy's electors approve of. When it comes to treating minorities, a Supreme Court is not a guarantor of rights.

This type of mechanism can also prod a politician into "doing the right thing" which would apply to the Eisenhower example. Re. Canada's Trudeau and perhaps the Syrian refugees, Canada's rather low admittance number, 35k IIRC, was not all that unpopular - it wasn't going on a huge political limb.

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    It's Appenzell not AppenZell, there is no capital Z, it's not aligned with Putin. ;)
    – Nobody
    Apr 28, 2022 at 19:08
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    Seems an OK answer, but the 2nd Amendment being thrown into it seems very out of left field. Why that one in particular, rather than say the 4th or 5th? I get the feeling I'm missing the point you were trying to make.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 29, 2022 at 15:54
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    The 2nd is the right to arm bears. I.e. it is very contentious but the system is set up to let a court decide what to do, rather than having the voters directly decide by majority vote. People do not disagree on 4th (unreasonable searches) or 5th (due process). Apr 29, 2022 at 16:07

In a sufficiently diverse nation, every group of people, by itself, is a minority, and therefore fears a majority trampling all over them. But this means the minorities have a shared goal that trampling should not occur, and will establish and defend institutions to prevent trampling, such as a legal framework that treats every citizen equally, or treats every (official) language equally, and so on.

As for how a nation becomes sufficiently diverse, all that is needed are different divisions for different political issues. For instance, a person may have a region of origin, a gender, a faith, a language, and so on, and vote according to whichever division applies to the matter at hand. Then, most persons will experience being in a minority every once in a while.

From the comments:

Historically, various groups looking for civil rights have often been at odds with each other, like black and female groups in the US

Of course they can be at odds which each other. But when it comes to minority protections, they have a shared interest. In a direct democracy, where individual laws are put to the vote, a law that benefits several minorities can enjoy the support of all of them, allowing an informal coalition of minorities to prevail against a single group even if that group is individually stronger than any minority.

And that's why I contend that in a direct democracy with many minorities, there is a strong incentive for the creation of institutions that protect minorities.

I realize such subject-specific informal coalitions have greater inertia in a representative democracy, in particular if that representative democracy has effectively devolved to a two party system. But in a direct democracy, where people vote on individual laws, such informal coalitions can form very easily.

What country holds together when there is no some form of majority? The rest of the minorities are always set aside

Switzerland, for instance. We have 4 different official languages, numerous cultural divisions, the strongest party has a mere 25% of the vote. And still we hold together - and have held together for centuries.

calling women a minority is wrong in every possible way,

You're assuming that women are equally franchised, which may not necessarily be the case. In many regions of the world, formal or informal mechanisms can make it harder for some groups to vote than others, so a group may be a minority (in the sense of voting power) even it its members are numerous.

Gender may also be relevant as an additional factor. For instance, mothers may have different interests than fathers, so gender can play a role in identifying minorities even if both genders are represented equally.

  • Which doesn't seem to be backed up by evidence. Historically, various groups looking for civil rights have often been at odds with each other, like black and female groups in the US. I recently read a Newsweek article by a Black author who said the Republicans should focus on Black rights to lure away Black voters from the Democrats, who push for intersectionality and civil rights in multiple directions.
    – prosfilaes
    Apr 28, 2022 at 16:53
  • @prosfilaes while this is correct, the answer did mention minority groups (groups that do not have a majority by population) which most definitely does not include women in almost every country in the world (men death rates and life expectancies are lower). The US was a unique case where two groups lacking suffrage had some intersections but one was not a minority.
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 28, 2022 at 18:04
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    @meriton we have provinces more diverse than the European continent, and all are equally opressed in the backwater regions Apr 28, 2022 at 20:24
  • @uberhaxed The OP mentioned gender as a group; males and females are equal enough in population that calling either group a minority by population is not really accurate. The US was not a unique case if you follow the history of suffrage. There are plenty of other examples; religious minorities in the US are not on average appreciative of LGBT rights, for example.
    – prosfilaes
    Apr 28, 2022 at 21:04
  • @prosfilaes if you read my comment, I was stating that calling women a minority is wrong in every possible way, even counting technicalities (while 50/50 is average, in every case women edges out men). Also, if you read my comment you would see that I said that the case is unique because there is intersection between the groups. It's like you didn't read it at all.
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 28, 2022 at 21:11

Minorities, and any organizations that aim to protect them, need to invest heavily in media and political technology to prevent anti-minority laws from being passed to vote. This should be possible while having high political culture and making sure to never make the majority feel threatened at the same time (by not allowing any implicit inequality in minorities' favor).

Having a constitution (grants universal rights which can't be taken away, needs 2/3 votes to change), ratifying international agreements (prevent discrimination) and having working courts (enforces two previous mechanisms) also helps.


Well, Rojava is not a pure direct democracy. It promotes civil marriage and minority rights because like Switzerland, it is a semi-direct democracy: a form of democracy in which representatives administer daily governance, but citizens have different forms of popular action. Rojava has representatives like co-presidents and co-chairs and local councils representing minorities in the form of the Syrian Democratic Council to balance out the people and help embrace values to protect the individual rights of people, there are ways for a supermajority of people to propose changes to pre-existing laws and new legalization with some limitations, like how some people in Rojava in the past cast a vote to improve local services.

  • Going on the Switzerland ideal, national referendums in Switzerland must pass by "double majorities" which mean that not only must a referendum pass the national popular vote by the prescribed percentage, but it also must pass by some majority in a percentage of cantons equal to the prescribed percentage to pass the vote.
    – hszmv
    Dec 21, 2022 at 15:59

It can't... but neither can a representative democracy, a constitution or any other such system of democracy.

Like the very point of a democracy is that the people (Greek Demos), govern/rule (Greek -cracy) themselves.

So if you want to overrule the will of a majority, that by default means that a minority of people rules. Because "sum total" - "majority" = 100% -(50+x)% = (50-x)% = "less than 50%" = "minority". Not a complicated math.

Which prompts a very serious question: Where would they draw their legitimization from? Like it's not consent, that's for sure, but what is it? Theocracy? Authoritarianism? Military Junta (=rule by force)? None aka Tyranny? Hereditary monarchies? Property? "Interpretation of Tradition" (=Pseudo-Theocracy)? Aristocracy/Technocracy (=rule of "the best", the "most ethical")? Bureaucracy and "institutionalism"? Any other suggestion?

Been there, done that. All of them had been far worse than any democracy. Like none of them cared for "minorities" in general, but usually only for ONE particular minority and that was themselves. Like that's close to the believe in a benevolent dictatorship and spoiler alert dictatorships aren't benevolent. Like even if the dictator would not inherently be an asshole the sheer magnitude of taking care of everything and getting to know the lived reality of every possible minority would be virtually impossible and so he would fail that task and be forced to generalize decisions leading to not giving too much thought about outliers but caring more for averages aka majorities (you know the groups most likely to overthrow him if he didn't)...

So no all known attempts to reduce the risk of "the tyranny of the majority" by force, would only just mean to give into an even worse "tyranny of a minority".

And apparently all proponents of the boogeyman of the "tyranny of the majority" have historically been involved in slavery and colonialism, mostly concerned with their own privilege and their status as minority. So not really proponents of equality but rather people concerned with conserving an existing inequality. Sure that's an ad hominem argument, in the sense that just because they were despicable human beings doesn't mean they didn't say something of substance. That being said, did they?

They are not wrong in that a decision that is only based in majority rule and doesn't figure in the perspective of a minority and doesn't give them the opportunity to veto, amend or even just comment the proposal can feel as tyrannical to that minority as a real tyrant's decision.

That being said, a) you could agree on a different mode of democracy. Like you could demand consensus, either in general or specific to certain topics, you could give everyone a voice to raise their complaints about something, you can have discussions and exchanges prior to a vote and so on. b) representative democracies and anti-democratic systems suffer the same problem... just worse. Like the decisions of the representatives might as well feel as tyrannic as that of a tyrant and here an even smaller set of the population has a say in that. Like a representative with a free mandate is essentially a tyrant bound not to the will of the people but just their own consciousness.

So the more transparent the process and the more people that are close to the decision making process and able to actively participate the less people you'd have for whom that looks like a tyranny.

And the other thing is, if a majority is out to discriminate a minority there's only so much pretty much any system could do against it. Like there's this incredibly stupid argument that if 2 wolves and 1 sheep have a vote about what they have for dinner than it would be sheep. The problem is that the two wolves have a 2/3 majority so they could even amend a constitution to say that and even if the constitution demands consensus they could argue "we abandon society eat the sheep and form a new one"... So this is equivalent to a collapse of society itself in which case a constitution would help you either. And if you argue that the sheep should just kill the wolves, to show them their place, then how is that different from the other way around, just that the death toll is even higher?

No at the end of the day the power of a constitution comes from the fact that at the very least a majority of people consider these ground rules to be useful. So stuff like equality before the law is something that both provides rights to the individual and takes them away. Like you aren't above others anymore but you're also not below other people either. And if you take a large enough group and look at them with regards to a multitude of aspects then most likely everyone is a minority in some regard, so having fundamental and universal basic rights is likely to be in the best interest of a majority.

You can of course pragmatically go on a limb and calculate "tolerance" to a system that is unjust but not unjust enough to be overthrown, but that's not something you should bank on lasting long.


Direct democracies, or pure democracies, is a system where citizens directly participate in political decision-making. It allows citizens, rather than politicians or parties, to vote on political issues through citizen assemblies, referendums and initiatives (though there are evolutions of this model where politicians and parties have also defined a role for themselves). Direct democracies thus cannot protect minorities against majoritarianism, unless there is a strong constitution that legally guarantees them certain rights that can't be overturned by the majority, and there is an independent judiciary to protect these rights.

Even in Switzerland, a model of a stable, direct democracy, the majority have been sometimes been observed to disregard the rights of the minorities (and liberal swiss politicians have had to come with alternate political strategies to protect some of these rights):

Turning to the indirect effects, the analysis of the parliamentary debates reveals that a combination of fearing a popular vote, and a debate about Muslim minorities, leads to more restrictive minority rights. This means that Muslim minorities are excluded from those rights. It seems that potential out-group minorities are discriminated against not only by direct effects, but also by indirect effects. Interestingly, parliaments nevertheless develop strategies to enforce their interests, such as embedding liberal rules for recognition in total revisions.

The empirical findings of our study corroborate the theoretical expectations of many political scientists. Direct democracy has negative effects on minority rights. However, these effects are limited to out-group minorities. Ironically, those are the social groups that are most in need of support by the state, because they suffer from (latent) intolerance by the majority. However, direct democracy has not only a downside for these minorities. All issues and bills analyzed in this article attempted to change the status quo by extending the rights of religious minorities ... In other words, when there were negative effects of direct democracy for religious minorities in Switzerland, they always took the form of a status-quo bias, i.e., an inhibition of the extension of minority rights — at least during the period investigated here ... Direct democracies never brought about a restriction of the status quo

Of course, the Anti-Minaret-Initiative, approved in November 2009 by a majority of Swiss voters, restricted the rights of Muslims by prohibiting the construction of Minarets in Switzerland. Since it was a vote on the federal level and since it took place after the end of our data period it has not been taken into account in the present article.

Source: Direct Democracy and Minority Rights: Direct and Indirect Effects on Religious Minorities in Switzerland -

In the Unites States of America, some states and local government bodies have direct democratic system. A study has noted that LGBTQ minorities in America have often faced an onslaught on their rights enabled by the direct democratic system:

The new frontier for civil rights in American politics is gay and lesbian rights, and direct democracy has been no stranger in this battle ... These attempts have generally been more successful at the local level than the state level (Donovan and Bowler 1998); however, the process was used to adopt defence of marriage act (DOMA) laws in the 1990s (Haider-Markel 1999, 2001), and in the 2004 elections, 13 states had initiatives or referendums on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage (Haider-Markel and Joslyn 2005; Donovan et al. 2005). All 13 propositions passed by large margins ... As Cain and Miller (2001) suggest, there is some evidence that the initiative process is sometimes prone to produce laws that disadvantage relatively powerless minorities, more than legislatures do.

Source: Representation and Direct Democracy in the United States

Indeed, the fear of majoritarianism (also known as the tyranny of the majority or masses) is the reason why many mature democracies, with a reasonably large minority population, have rejected the direct path in favour of different kinds of constitutional democracies with representation.

The idea of democracy has evolved from just allowing the public to decide politics, to one that focuses on equitable negotiation of power between various groups in a society. In such a system, a common issue is how can the majority (or dominant political group) ensure the minority that their rights won't be ignored or crushed? The political solution to this is the now universally accepted democratic idea that the minorities need to be guaranteed certain rights by the majorities, to ensure they don't feel insecure. This is why an important feature, and the true hallmark of any democracy today is how they treat their minorities.

Right-wing political ideology, however decry all minority rights as "extra-constitutional" or "anti-democratic" rights, falsely propagating that it is at the expense of the majority or dominant group in a society. They believe that by giving minorities "special" rights, the state / system favours the minorities more (which is partly true), which disadvantages the others (not true). They wrongly believe that the minorities exploit these rights to grab more political power, often by vilifying the majority or dominant group. The popular label for this political idea among the right is the "tyranny of the minority" (which is a perversion of the term minoritarianism).

Note though that there is another popular usage (more neutral, but still negative) of the term tyranny of the minority where "minority" refers to a small group in a society that effectively try to dictate politics for everyone.

  • For very few countries that was a deliberate choice and a constitution can only do so much as a majority lets it. You also can demand consensus voting if you really want a direct democracy and a protection of the individual. And the general idea of democracy is that the constituents decide politics not a tyranny of a minority.
    – haxor789
    Dec 17, 2022 at 16:46
  • No the tyranny of a minority or just plain tyranny is your classical dictatorships, aristocracies, "technocracies" and so on. You know when people like John Stuart Mill engage in colonial exploitation and call it "benevolent despotism". Or when the founding slave owners of the U.S. decide that the "mob" shouldn't have a say in how they treat their "employees"... And representative democracies most often were the result of powerful people trying to keep their privileged position and the tyranny of the majority is a farce.
    – haxor789
    Dec 18, 2022 at 0:58
  • Minority rights exist to ensure their equality with the majority community. Without it, they are vulnerable and not equal. These rights balance the political power and equalises it between everyone in a society.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:28
  • The point is that your narrative "Representative democracies are a bug fix, because direct ones didn't work" is simply wrong. Most predecessor systems were even more elitist, tyrannical and authoritarian and so the progress that was fought for often just didn't manage to go beyond representative democracies. So direct democracies were never even tried in the first place. And reading Madison, the "tyranny of a majority" was more or less to stop poor people from voting against economic inequality. So the "minority" that was protected was rich/powerful people, not Blacks, women, LGBTQ aso
    – haxor789
    Dec 20, 2022 at 15:38
  • Yes, many didn't try direct democracy route at all because the danger of majoritarianism was evident in it. In fact, I also assert that those who did choose direct democracy did so for that exact reason, and have since been forced to evolve into a semi-direct ones today to fend of majoritarianism. Yes, earlier representative democracies chose to deny the vote to some sections. Yes, it was to deny power to some. But they were forced to abandon this after India showed it was possible to give everyone the right to vote and still have a thriving democracy. India was ridiculed for this idea once.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 21, 2022 at 14:42

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