What Is Majoritarianism? Definition and Examples

Small group standing out from the majority.
Small group standing out from the majority.

Hermann Mueller/Getty Images

Majoritarianism is the traditional idea or philosophy that the numerical majority of a given population, sometimes categorized as a certain race, ethnic group, social class, gender, religion, or some other identifying factor, should have the right to make decisions that affect the society. Especially since the American Civil Rights Movement and school desegregation,  this majoritarian “Because there are more of us than there are of you,” rationale has come under criticism, leading representative democracies to enact laws restricting the power of majority populations to uniformly protect the individual rights of their citizens.

Background and Theory 

Majoritarianism is based on the view that legitimate political authority should always express the will of the majority of those subject to this authority. Some prominent thinkers, including 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, regarded this so-called “majority principle” as the only appropriate way of determining law or public policy on which citizens disagreed. Others, such as Enlightenment-era philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that the majority is more likely to be objectively correct in identifying what is in the common good than the minority.  This result depends, however, on whether the majority is indeed aiming at satisfying the common good, rather than its vested interests or prejudices. 

 In modern democratic countries, the two main electoral systems are majoritarian representation systems and proportional representation systems. In majoritarian systems—also known as winner-take-all systems—the country is divided up into districts. Candidates compete for these individual district seats. The candidate receiving the highest share of the votes cast wins the election and represents the district. In the United States, federal elections for seats in Congress are conducted as a majoritarian system.

In proportional representation systems, as currently used in about 85 countries, citizens vote for political parties instead of individual candidates. Seats in the legislative body, such as the British Parliament, are then allocated in proportion to vote shares. In an ideal proportional representation system, a party that receives, for example, 15% of the votes nationwide also gets approximately 15% of the seats in the legislature. The essence of proportional representation systems is that all votes cast contribute to the result—not just a plurality, or a simple majority, as in majoritarian systems.

Majoritarianism, as a concept of government, branches out into several variants. The classic form of majoritarianism is found in both unicameral and unitary states.

Unicameralism is a type of legislature, which consists of a single house or assembly that legislates and votes as one. Unicameralism is in contrast to bicameralism, as typified by the House and Senate of the United States Congress.

A unitary state is a country governed as a single entity in which the central government is the supreme authority. The central government may create or abolish administrative sub-national units such as provinces, however, such units may exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate.

Qualified majoritarianism is a more inclusionary variant, which incorporates degrees of decentralization of powers and federalism’s constitutionally mandated separation of powers.

Integrative majoritarianism incorporates several institutions intended to preserve minority groups and foster politically moderate parties.

Historical Examples 

Recorded history reveals relatively few instances of large-scale majoritarian rule, for example, the majoritarian systems of Athenian democracy and other ancient Greek city-states. However, some political scientists insist that none of the Greek city-states were truly majoritarian, due to their exclusion of women, non-land owners, and slaves from decision-making processes. Most of the famous ancient Greek philosophers were opposed to majoritarianism. Plato, for example, argued that decisions made according to the will of the uneducated and uninformed “masses” were not necessarily wise or fair. 

Anarchist and activist anthropologist David Graeber offers a reason why majoritarian democratic government is so rare in the historical record. He suggests that majoritarianism democracy cannot exist unless two factors coincide: “1. a feeling that people should have equal say in making group decisions,” and “2. a coercive apparatus capable of enforcing those decisions.” Graeber argues that those two factors seldom meet. “Where egalitarian [the principle that all people are equal] societies exist, it is also usually considered wrong to impose systematic coercion. Where a machinery of coercion did exist, it did not even occur to those wielding it that they were enforcing any sort of popular will.”

Similar to democracy, the theory of majoritarianism has been used as justification for a sizable or aggressive minority to politically oppress other smaller minorities, or even sometimes a civically inactive majority, as in Richard Nixon's “Silent Majority” that he claimed supported his conservative nationalistic policies. Similarly, when populist presidential candidate Donald Trump called on voters to “make America great again” in 2016, he was appealing to a vocal minority of citizens who believed that the stature of the United States had somehow been diminished in the eyes of the global community.

This scenario has most frequently occurred in religion. Especially in Western nations, for example, annual important dates in the Christian year such as Christmas Day are observed as national holidays, to the exclusion of other religions. In other cases, a particular denomination, such as the Church of England in England and the Lutheran Church in the Scandinavian countries, has been designated as the “state religion” and has received financial backing from the government. Virtually all countries have one or more official languages, often to the exclusion of some minority group or groups within that country who do not speak the designated language or languages. 

Contemporary Questions and Controversies

Critics of majoritarian systems point out that since citizens need not necessarily aim for the common good, a simple majority will need not always represent what is objectively fair, leading to the view that there should be constitutional limits on the authority of the majority. Most recently, social choice theory has questioned the very idea of a “majority will.” Social choice theory suggests that where a group of people is choosing between more than two alternatives, the alternative that is selected as the winner can change depending on exactly which democratic institutions are used to aggregate individuals' preference orderings into a “social choice.”

Majority vs. minority
Majority vs. minority.

Sanga Park/Getty Images

As opposed to pluralism—a foundational element of democracy holding that many different interest groups will be allowed to share power—majoritarianism allows for only one group to participate fully in the nation’s governing and social processes.

One important and perhaps negative aspect of the majoritarian electoral system found in the United States is that congressional representation occurs by the geographical district. In each district of a purely majoritarian system, whichever candidate gets a plurality of the vote serves as representative for that district. However, the population of these districts changes constantly. As a result, most majoritarian systems employ a redistricting process. In the United States, redistricting happens only once every decade after the population is counted in the U.S. Census.

The drawback to redistricting is that how the boundaries of the districts are drawn can have a large influence on representation—and thus power. Through an illegal, yet still common state legislative process called gerrymandering, the political party in power can manipulate the district boundaries in ways that exclude minority voters. While it has always been viewed as something done wrongfully, nearly all majority political parties and factions have practiced gerrymandering at times.

Through the 18th century, philosophers and statesmen, including America’s Founding Fathers such as James Madison, viewed majoritarianism negatively. They believed that the majority of the population was poor and ignorant. It was also presumed that the majority if given the power and opportunity to do so, would tyrannize all minorities. The latter view was of great concern in the 19th century to English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill and French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, the latter of whom coined the phrase “tyranny of the majority.”

In his 1835 book Democracy in America, Tocqueville prophetically wrote, “In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers, an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

Sources 

  • Bíró, Anna-Mária. “Populism, Memory and Minority Rights.” Brill-Nijhoff, November 29, 2018), ISBN-10: ‎9004386416.
  • Graeber, David. “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Paradigm).” Prickly Paradigm Press, April 1, 2004, ISBN-10: ‎0972819649.
  • de Tocqueville, Alexis. “Democracy in America.” University of Chicago Press, April 1, 2002), ISBN-10: ‎0226805360.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Majoritarianism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, May. 26, 2022, thoughtco.com/majoritarianism-definition-and-examples-5272219. Longley, Robert. (2022, May 26). What Is Majoritarianism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/majoritarianism-definition-and-examples-5272219 Longley, Robert. "What Is Majoritarianism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/majoritarianism-definition-and-examples-5272219 (accessed July 6, 2022).