On Social Tyranny

          Since the birth of democratic forms of government, long have critics been concerned with majority power over minorities and individuals.  Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps expressed the concept best with the phrase “tyranny of the majority” (Tocqueville, Reeve, & Spencer, 1839, p. 280), describing how the majority can influence an electoral process to the detriment of minority participants and individual liberty.  In Mill’s (2003) work, On Liberty, he notes that the majority rule in the electoral process is not the only issue, but that democracies must also guard against the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion or feeling” (p. 91) or the tendency and ability of society to impose its cultural norms on all constituents through non-civil means.  Mill warns that failure to conform to societal pressures can result in imposed limits on the ability of minorities to fully participate in society (Mill, et al., 2003).  We see Mill’s cause for concern in contemporary American society, as debate rages on same-sex marriage, and many states are limiting the rights of LGBT community and the individuals therein from participating in marriage, the societal convention that recognizes a relationship and confers certain rights and obligations upon those in the relationship.  In the case of same-sex marriages, the majority is creating public policy that limits minorities from participating fully in American society.  While we continue to face the majority rule issue in contemporary U.S. politics, public and special interest groups offer a way for minority groups to promote social change via a wide range of activities designed to influence the political process.

Despite the protections of law afforded all citizens on the United States, significant evidence of the effects of social tyranny permeate American society.  According to the latest U.S. Census data, 56% of the U.S. population consider themselves non-Hispanic whites, while 16% consider themselves Hispanics and 12% consider themselves black (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a).  And yet, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly made up of whites, with nearly 84% reported as white, 5% as Hispanic, and 8% as black (U.S. Congress & Manning, 2011).  There is a clear gap between the ethnic makeup of the U.S. population, and those who represent the population in the political process; but critics might argue that minorities are treated fairly by their elected representatives.

Unfortunately, the evidence would seemingly indicate that whites maintain a consistent economic advantage over Hispanics and blacks, with median household incomes 43% higher than Hispanics and 67% higher than blacks (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 25% of Hispanics and 25% of blacks were living below poverty level in 2009, with only 9% of whites in the same category (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Census data also shows that Hispanics and blacks are far more likely to lack health insurance than their white counterparts (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Finally, a recent Pew Research Center report found that whites had more than eighteen times the household wealth than that of Hispanic households and more than twenty times the household wealth than that of black households (Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011).  The evidence would appear to support the notion that minorities continue to suffer under a form of social tyranny that prevents them from participating fully in the benefits of American society and if not for the gains of previous decades of collective action, the situation might well be far worse.

Collective action is an often, successful method for a special interest groups or public interest groups to influence the larger majority and change the dynamics of social tyranny.  Special interest groups can be considered those, “which have a narrow social base, concentrate on limited issues, and, benefit mainly their own members” (Etzioni, 1985, p. 171), while public interest groups “have a broad social base which have a broad social base, address a wide range of issues, and balance members’ interests with a strong commitment to the commonweal” (Etzioni, 1985, p. 171).  Olsen described the logic supporting the effectiveness of collective action to allow a small group to influence a larger group in economic terms, where the benefits of action are concentrated, while the costs are diffused (1971).   Interest groups attempt to influence politics by organizing individuals with common interests, informing the public and elected officials, organizing electoral competition, organizing government, and linking the state and local politics with national politics (“Interest Groups,” 2011).  Collective action in the form of public or special interest groups have long been a force for change in public policy, with well-known examples of dramatic social change witnessed during the civil rights movement and the more recent Arab Spring.

Increasingly, political minorities are using collective action to form both special and public interest groups, to influence public policy in order to benefit as full participants in American society.  Collective action is a fundamental construct of our democratic system that allows minority groups to advance their aims in the face of significant resistance from the majority that has a vested, interest in maintaining the status quo.


Etzioni, A. (1985). Special Interest Groups Versus Constituency Representation. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, 8, 171-195.

. Interest Groups. (2011). Texas Politics  Retrieved August 5, 2011, from http://texaspolitics.laits.utexas.edu/5_printable.html

Kochhar, R., Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2011). Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

Mill, J. S., Bentham, J., Austin, J., & Warnock, M. (2003). Utilitarianism ; and, On liberty : including Mill’s Essay on Bentham’ and selections from the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Olson, M. (1971). The logic of collective action; public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.

Tocqueville, A. d., Reeve, H., & Spencer, J. C. (1839). Democracy in America (3rd American ed.). New York: G. Adlard.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010a). 2010 National Population by Race. In c2010br-02.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010b). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. In p60-238.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.

U.S. Congress, & Manning, J. (2011). Membership of the 112th Congress: A Profile. (0160537177). Washington: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Retrieved from http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/R41647.pdf.