The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: In about 3500 words, the entry defines majority rule and minority rights in democratic terms, discusses the significance of constitutionalism, explores minority representation, and concludes by considering how to balance the two.
The entry defines majority rule and minority rights as capturing the essential democratic tensions between a state's need for collective decision making and its respect for equality and individual liberties. Majority rule is implicit in the democratic concept, which in turn implies a utilitarian theory of justice--if individuals vote in their own best interest, majority rule will yield policies benefiting the largest number of individuals. Most constitutional democracies balance majority rule with minority rights, in an effort to preserve liberty, equality and effective individual choice. This balance is the essence of the doctrine of constitutionalism, and all liberal states have faced constitutional struggles over it.
Next the entry focuses specifically on minority rights, and emphasizes that these rights are not solely aggregated individual rights. Rather, minorities, like majorities, are comprised of groups of individuals with shared views on issues. In this sense, minorities are groups who lack political power to compel equality. The entry provides a few examples of how different countries deal with this situation. In representative democracies, rules governing representation significantly effect the balance between majority rule and minority rights, and the entry includes some examples from United States politics.
A compelling justification for majority rule is a government's need for legitimacy and respect. Similarly, the ultimate justification for minority rights is the fact that majorities are not always right, fair or just. Striking the appropriate balance ensures that majorities and minorities both maintain a stake in the political process. Whatever mechanisms nations choose to maintain this balance, the shared underlying goal is tolerating minority choices while expressing majority will.