The Tyranny of the Majority: A Case Study of the McCarthy Era

  • Eva Durlinger Maastricht University
Keywords: Tyranny of the majority, McCarthy, conformity theory, minority influence theory


Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his travels through the United States in the 1830s that the system of majoritarian representation could become subject to a ‘tyranny of the majority’. This concept exists on the political and the social axis. The tyranny of the majority of the social axis, where majorities impose their viewpoints on minorities and subjugate minorities to their opinion is most extensively analyzed in this chapter. In this, minorities tend to conform to majority opinion out of fear of repercussions. This chapter thus provides a link between the tyranny of the majority and the conformity theory. It researches whether American society has become subject to the tyranny of the majority during the McCarthy era. The main claim derived from this research problem is that American society was indeed subject to the tyranny of the majority during the McCarthy era. Nevertheless, a tension was apparent in society. Although minorities indeed conformed to majority opinion and there was a climate of political intolerance, some minorities were in fact able to turn the conformity theory upside down and influenced the majority in such a way that minority opinion prevailed. This phenomenon was noticeable in the Civil Rights Movement, where African Americans persuaded predominantly white Americans that African Americans should be granted equal rights. In short, American society is highly in flux. Although the tyranny of the majority became a social reality during the McCarthy era, at the same time a minority was able to persuade the majority of its viewpoints.

Author Biography

Eva Durlinger, Maastricht University
Research Master European Studies



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