• Olivia Earth

Tyranny of the Majority


This paper seeks to compare populism/radicalism in South Africa and Venezuela and assess its implications for democracy. This will be achieved by defining the meaning of liberal in a liberal democracy, exploring the differences and commonalities of South Africa and Venezuela’s populism/radicalism, an explanation of populism/radicalism and a discussion about why it may be a potential threat to democracy, and if so, how it exerts its power. All sources used are from credible journal articles. This paper argues that populism’s implications do not in fact affect democracy, but the liberal elements in a liberal democracy.


What is democracy and why is it a preferred form of government?

Before delving deeper, the highly contested concept of democracy will be defined. The literal and etymological meaning is ‘rule by the people’ however, there is a modern confusion. The term democracy is synonymous with liberalism to such a degree that many have forgotten that they are in fact independent terms (Rhoden, 2015:561). The first forms of democracy were not liberal in any sense of the meaning. Athenian democracy did not protect individual rights by current standards of what is considered the ‘citizenry’. However, contemporary criteria have placed additional values on the definition of democracy. A democracy today extends its meaning to protecting the rights of individuals and minority groups which warrants the autonomy or liberty of its people (Plattner, 2010:84). Democracy is often the preferred form of government due to a “new-found” appreciation of political freedoms (Bratton & Mattes, 2001:449). However, there is contestation about democracy and how it does not ensure the best/most qualified rulers. But, at the end of the day, democracy is a form of utilitarianism, an ethical tradition, which goes by the doctrine of what goes is what is beneficial for most people or the citizenry.

The idea of the “tyranny of the majority/masses” was a common topic made accessible by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America and, by John Stuart Mill (On Liberty) (Pashakhanlou, 2016). This concept examines a danger to democracy in which the majority of democratic voters may condemn a minority of people through “universal adult suffrage” (The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996). On the face of it, democracy may seem to be influenced heavily by populism however, it is in fact the liberal qualities encapsulated by democracy that come under threat by the majority (Rhoden, 2015:564). The democracy we speak of today is shrouded in misconceptions due to its relationship with liberalism (Rhoden, 2015:565).

With regards to radicalism, the author has used the definition preferred by Max Weber in his works. Radicalism is defined as “differing in one crucial aspect from the socially sanctioned outlook of common sense. Because of this difference, radical beliefs have a polemic disadvantage vis-a-vis the outlook” (Bittner, 1963:928). Immediately here it can be noted that radicalism has negative connotations as Weber’s definition of radicalism includes its downfalls. This view of radicalism will set the tone for the rest of the paper. Radicalism differs from populism in many ways and without clearly defining the two notions there may be conceptual inconsistencies. For the purposes of this paper, populism is encapsulated by, “an ideological corruption of democracy if we consider that democracy…implies…the willingness to teach and educate the people rather than to seduce it” (Vincent, 2011:1). This is a rather bleak view of populism’s effects insinuating that populism is used as a tool of manipulation. In South Africa, the values that are most readily associated with populism are liberal values, these include specifically; “individual rights, gender equality, tolerance of moral diversity and non-discrimination” (Vincent, 2011:1). The author wants to highlight the issue that populism is easier to define than radicalism which appears to be a matter of opinion. For the purposes of this paper, the author has assumed that the two concepts are similar – however, in fact, the author submits that the distinction between concepts warrants further investigation. It is also important to note that radicalism is a term used loosely in South Africa. Populism does not have to be radical i.e. populism could simply be a mass movement towards environmentalism.

Radicalism in Venezuela

Venezuela’s political history, not unlike South Africa, has been marked with political instability and governmental inconsistency. When trying to analyse this, a problem occurs: was Hugo Chávez’s rule authoritarian or democratic? According to Freedom House (2018), Venezuela’s political institutions have largely deteriorated since 1999, which is when Chávez was first elected into power. However, in brief, Freedom House (2018) states that Venezuela is a democracy due to the current head of government being elected through free and fair elections.

Owing to Chávez’s prioritising of the welfare of poor and his left-wing claims, he become incredibly popular after a long period of authority by rich elites characterised by oligarchy (Rodriguez, 2008:50-51). Many people attribute his political success to his populist support however, as Francisco Rodriguez (2008:51) puts it, Chávez got lucky with manipulating the political system – he ran for parliament in a time of strong economic growth. Adding to this, Chávez managed to create a heavy dependence on Venezuela’s oil production which made up 95% of the country’s wealth (Hugo Chávez and the coup that never happened, 2018). When the oil prices dropped chaos reigned and the country moved into a recession that is double the size of the great depression (Hugo Chávez and the coup that never happened, 2018). In this way we see that Chávez’s “economic model [had] begun to unravel” (Rodriguez, 2008:52).

Hector Schamis (2006:29) elaborates on the oil problem by explaining his findings. He says that in countries that produce oil their democracies don’t “fare well” on a long term basis. This is due to oil-export proceeds which push the exchange rate, which is detrimental for the “competitiveness of the manufacturing sector and crowds out investment” (Schamis, 2006:29). This situation is what set Venezuela apart from other Latin-American countries which were generally under authoritarian rule when Venezuela was benefiting from the high prices of oil. Accordingly, Chávez’s rule can be regarded as an “oil-funded, twenty-first century version of a patrimonial domination…with the vague populist oratory and nebulous socialist goals [which are in fact] undemocratic methods” (Schamis, 2006:31). This is how Chávez rose to power, the oil boom and oratory. Democracy was not what Chávez used, it was the liberality of the country that allowed his revolutionary leadership style to prevail and for his populist following to take effect (Schamis, 2006:31).

Poverty reduction may in fact be linked to economic growth and not Chávez’s implementation of prioritising the poor. However, his continuation of oil work has helped alleviate poverty which he was able to do through the use of his liberal democracy’s economic and political positioning but, the statistics do look impressive: a decrease in poverty from 54 percent in 2003 to 27.5 percent in 2007 (Rodriguez, 2008:52). In this way, populism was used to maintain a liberal democratic society for Chávez’s agenda. This did not impact Venezuela’s democracy but instead effected the democracy’s liberal elements. Although, according to the Venezuelan Central Bank, despite the decrease in poverty the Gini-coefficient has broadened during the period of 2000 and 2005 from 0.44 percent to 0.48 percent (Rodriguez, 2008:53). This indicates an inconsistency in reports about how well the country is actually doing as the Gini-coefficient measures the economic inequality between the wealthiest and poorest people in the country where “zero indicates perfect equality” (Rodriguez, 2008: 53). As much as the misiones (programs to provide services) have seemed to have made the most effect with regards to poverty reduction there is no extensive evidence that this has helped to improve living standards or economic inequality for those living in poverty (Rodriguez, 2008: 53).

Was Chávez naïve or wilful? Oil prices are well known for their state of flux. Perhaps Chávez was simply exploiting the situation. It seems as though Chávez was running a soup kitchen instead of teaching his people to grow their own vegetable gardens. This created a dangerous dependence on oil prices which is still having detrimental effects on the country today. Carlos de la Torre (2013:28) shares these sentiments and states that Chávez’s regime “can simultaneously be conceived as a threat…to liberal democracy” because of populism.

De la Torre continues by saying that Chávez’s rule “undermined the institutions that guarantee contestation, pluralism and civil liberties as the power was concentrated in the executive which reduces the authority of counterbalancing powers” (De la Torre, 2013:28). Populism is often likened to irrationality where De la Torre (2013:29) argues that it is simply grounded on the manipulation of the citizenry by demagogues, this is a typical example of the “tyranny of the majority”. However, it can be argued that populism is a discourse that undermined oligarchy and aided Venezuela in its democratisation (De la Torre, 2013:29). Even so, the “corporatist arrangements between the organised sectors of society and the state” circumvented and surpassed the economy’s increasing informal sector. This prevented “social movements” from having “organisational structures to engage in sustained collective action” when Chávez rose to power. This in turn facilitated both Nicolás Maduro (the current Venezuelan president) and Chávez to challenge their opponents by mustering followers in the public sphere (De la Torre, 2013:40).

This populist action by both presidents promoted public participation above and beyond that of the national elections which consequentially “instituted mechanisms of direct democracy” undermining their opposition and also undermining independent social movements and the possibility of building resilient civil societies (De la Torre, 2013:44). As much as populism could be used to aid positively in a county’s transformation, in Venezuela, the government used their populist position to push an agenda that was naively implemented and has led to the collapse of their economy. They are experiencing the largest recession ever in the southern hemisphere which is also twice the size of the great depression (Hugo Chávez and the coup that never happened, 2018). Therefore, it is noted that populist politicians have not yet proven successful in turning their majority followings into “viable political” success and should instead aim to reconcile and “promote substantive democratisation while reinforcing the procedures that make up democracy itself” (Schamis, 2006:33).

South African populism: a comparison to Venezuela

Populism has always had an immense impact on South African politics. As observed in the 2009 elections the current ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), re-won a phenomenal majority of the national vote by 65.9 percent. In addition, the ANC procured 264 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly (Vincent, 2011:1). South Africa is therefore a single party-dominant regime. Whereas, in Venezuela, in 1998 it became a multi-party state with two main competing parties. Following this, in 2005 during the elections the Fifth Republic Movement emerged as the country’s new dominant party eventually amalgamating with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, 20 October 2007 (Freedom House, 2018). This makes Venezuela today a dominant party system, which is similar to South Africa, however, there has been speculation over whether Venezuela’s party system will remain unwavering (Vincent, 2011:8).

The ANC’s long term ruling of South Africa is often questioned by citizens who do not feel as though the party delivers on its promises. For example, South Africa, like Venezuela has an enormous inequality gap that has grown in the past few years which is shown through the 0.64 to 0.66 increase as measured by the Gini-coefficient. This indicates a three percent increase in inequality during the period between 1994 and 2009 (Vincent, 2011:1). However, this did not seem to deter the majority of voters. Louise Vincent (2011:2) says that Jacob Zuma’s winning of the elections in 2009 can be attributed to populist vote. Vincent says additionally that Zuma’s “style of politics [and] rhetoric” was significantly more successful than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, which enabled him to garner so much backing that the ANC’s support was “undented” and perhaps increased (Vincent, 2011:2). In this manner, Zuma, and South Africa, are less radical than the Venezuelan rulers but just as populist.

However, changes have taken place in South African parliament and the newly elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, made a statement concerning the amendment of ‘land expropriation without compensation’ during his State of the Nation Address. This amendment can be attributed to the populist influence in South Africa. AgriSA, South African Agricultural Industry Association, stated that Ramaphosa contradicted his knowledge that “agriculture [is] the largest contributor to economic growth and job creation” in South Africa by making this change (FTW Online, 2018). But despite Ramaphosa’s knowledge, the motion suggested by Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) leader Julius Malema, was accepted with a majority vote of 241 to 83 who were not in support of the motion (FTW Online, 2018). The ‘land expropriation without compensation vote’ has both populist and radical tendencies in that it stems far from the left of the political spectrum (i.e. it has socialist tendencies) but also, in the sense that it shows some disregards for constitutional property rights. In this way we see that populist voting does challenge the liberal elements of democracy in that it has voted against the constitution, even though the vote was made democratically.

South Africans often speak about ‘radical economic transformation’. But despite its ambiguous label, no one can seem too define what this means exactly. It seems to be a term of convenience and for Zuma, it often equates to money in his pocket. There has been very little transformation on an economic level except for the implementation of ‘black economic empowerment’ (BEE) standards. Thus, South Africa is not as radical as it may appear and is instead driven by populism. The EFF’s influence in parliament is breaking down South Africa’s dominant party regime and hampering the ANC’s monopoly of power. The author believes that the increase in “black ownership and control in the economy” is the most radical move in South Africa since the end of Apartheid’s parliamentary sovereignty (African National Congress, 2017). But again, this idea of radical economic transformation is more of an empowerment matter than an avant-garde move away from what was previously there or in place.

Populism’s implications for democracy

Even though there is a difference between the two countries democracies (in terms of the degree to which they are populist or radical), populism effects democracy in the same way. It is therefore a threat only to the liberal components of liberal democracies as politicians do not respect the democracy for allowing people the freedom to vote but rather abuse the fact that they can use the liberal mechanisms to push an agenda. Populism is therefore a threat to a liberal democracy and, radicalism is not much better. However, some oppressive/autocratic regimes have revelled in majority consensus, including, as Plattner points out, Iranian theocracy and Nazi Germany (Plattner, 2010:84). Therefore, “majoritarianism” is not the only value on which liberal democracy is based (Plattner, 2010:84). Majoritarianism can be used as a close synonym for democracy, ‘rule by the majority’. Consequently populism undermines the possibility of forging strong civil societies (De La Torre, 2013:44). And this, in turn, creates a lack of opportunity for engagement in the political realm which both undermines citizens and does not help to educate voters due to very few occasions for political participation.

In summary, populism does not in fact affect democracy however, it plays a dangerous role in affecting the liberal mechanisms that democracy enables due to its reliance on non-structural features for example, normative and regime preferences (Mainwaring & Pérez-Liñán, 2013:124). Radical because of the determination to enforce policies and normative due to an intrinsic value of democracy. This means that people ‘should’ hold democracy in higher esteem than the values it enables because democracy is what ensures citizens their safety to vote out an undesirable ruler.


It is therefore clearly stated that Venezuela and South Africa display elements of both populism and radicalism. Populism’s implications do not in fact affect democracy, but the liberal elements in a liberal democracy which means that populism/radicalism is a potential threat to a liberal democracy and may therefore undermine the political system. It is important to note that majoritarianism is not the only value on which liberal democracy is based. If this was the case there would be no “individual rights, gender equality, tolerance of moral diversity and non-discrimination” (Vincent, 2011:1).

Reference List

African National Congress. 2017. Employment Creation, Economic Growth and Structural Change: Strengthening the programme of radical economic transformation. [Online]. Available: http://www.anc.org.za/sites/default/files/National%20Policy%20Conference%202017%20Economic%20Transformation_1.pdf [2018, March 7].

Bittner, E. 1963. Radicalism and the Organization of Radical Movements. American Sociological Association, 28 (6): 928-940.

Bratton, M. & Mattes, R. 2001. Support for Democracy in Africa: Intrinsic or Instrumental? British Journal of Political Science, 31 (3): 447-474.

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.

De la Torre, C. 2013. In the Name of the People: Democratization, Popular Organisations, and Populism in Venezeula, Bolivia, and Ecuador. European Review of Latin American Research, 95 (3): 27-48.

Freedom House: South Africa. 2018. [Online]. Available: https://freedomhouse.org [2018, February 27].

FTW Online. 2018. Ramaphosa must desist from ‘populist rhetoric’ on land expropriation – AgriSA. [Online]. Available: http://www.ftwonline.co.za/article/177457/Ramaphosa-must-desist-from-populist-rhetoric-on-land-expropriation-AgriSA [2018, March 7].

Hugo Chávez and the coup that never happened, 8 February 2018 (video file [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1k065Qe9lE [2018, February 27].

Mainwaring, S. & Pérez-Liñán, A. 2013. Democratic Breakdown and Survival. Journal of Democracy, 24 (2): 123-137.

Pashakhanlou, A. H.  2016, July 28. Thanks to the referendum, the tyranny of the majority has prevailed. BrexitVote Blog. [Online]. Available: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/07/28/thanks-to-the-referendum-the-tyranny-of-the-majority-has-prevailed/ [2018, February 18].

Plattner, M.F. 2010. Populism, pluralism and liberal democracy. Journal of Democracy, 21 (1): 81-92.

Rhoden, T.F. 2015. The liberal in liberal democracy. Democratization, 22 (3): 560-578.

Rodrίguez, F. 2008. An Empty Revolution: The unfulfilled promises of Hugo Chávez. Foreign Affairs, 87 (2): 49-62

Schamis, H. E. 2006. Populism, Socialism, and democratic institutions. Journal of Democracy, 17 (40): 20-34.

Vincent, L. 2011. Seducing the people: Populism and the challenge to democracy in South Africa, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 29 (1):1-14. Photo @ http://bit.ly/2Gdz6lg

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