Rule of the People or of Majorities
We say two things about democracy. Both of them are sort of true. But it is easy to see that they cannot be true at the same time. And that creates a problem for our understanding of what democracy is.
The first thing we say is that in a democracy the people rule. To be sure, we do not govern. We do not issue executive orders, issue driver's licenses, or building permits. The government does that. But we always have a supervisory role because we elect representatives to the legislature and we elect the head of the Executive, the president. Persons to fill many other important jobs in the executive must be approved by the elected representatives. All of this is familiar.
We also say that our democracy is an electoral system where there are periodic votes, with every vote having the same weight and getting counted only once. Votes are secret so that no one is exposed to political pressure for the vote they cast. When not everyone casts votes for the same candidate, for instance, the majority wins. Where two or more candidates compete the one who has more votes gets elected.
The people who vote for the majority, whose candidate gets elected thereby gain some influence over the next government and thus may be said to rule.
But what about the minority? What about the people who work really hard for their candidate who is, for whatever reason, less popular and does not win? They have no influence over the government. They have no influence at all. They cannot really be said to rule.
Here is our problem then. When we practice electoral democracy with majority rule only the winners of elections maybe said to rule and the other people do not. When we say that democracy consists of an electoral system with majority rule, we seem to contradict the other thing we say, namely that in a democracy, the people—meaning all the people—rule.
Many people are fully aware of the tension between the different ways in which we describe democracy. If it were easier for us to come to agreement on different things or on who is the best candidate for a particular job, obviously this would not be a problem. The people would make their choices by "consensus" as it is called. They would discuss a matter, consider alternative proposals for resolving an existing problem and then figure out the best resolution of the problem and adopt that. Once everyone agreed, the only thing remaining to do would be to execute the policy agreed on.
That scenario would obviously be lovely but it is, in our world quite unrealistic. In almost any situation we are unable to reach agreement. To this many people say: “Yes, majority rule is a second best arrangement but it's really not so bad.” Electoral systems with majority rule are widely accepted as an acceptable form of democracy.
But to do so is a mistake. Decisions are made only by a portion of the citizenry. The minority has nothing to say and it is not accidental who belongs to the winning majority. The people who can pay for expensive lobbyists,who can afford to hire high-class advertising agencies to promote their perspectives win most elections; the people who are poor, who work more than one job and therefore have no time to agitate on behalf of their points of view usually lose. Electoral systems with majority rule are not democratic. They produce oligarchies, the rule of mere portions of the population, of the wealthy, the owners, the employers.
The defenders of electoral democracy will argue that we have no choice because people just cannot agree and therefore we need to fall back on majority rule. But this defense of majority rule completely ignores the fact that there are a whole lot of trained and highly skilled people in our country at this time and, in fact, all over the world who know how to get people who have different perspectives on something to agree in spite of their differences, but many of these people make their living helping different groups to overcome serious disagreements and forging agreements that everyone is pretty happy with.
This sort of technique is called alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Thousands of practitioners of ADR all over the world have training institutes, trainings and conferences. They have different domestic and international organizations that accredit practitioners. Their members write many books and pamphlets. The different versions and techniques and theories of ADR are readily available to anybody who wants to know anything about it.
ADR differs from the typical political. In ordinary political conversations people debate with each other and are at pains to win and to show that the other is mistaken. Businesses cannot afford to waste time on debates that do not reach a speedy and mutually acceptable agreement. In the business world, the conversations between groups of people who disagree are often facilitated by trained experts. These experts learn to remain neutral. They do not take sides. Their only interest is in getting the conflicting parties to come to some desired agreement, be that about a policy, or about the possible candidate for an important position, or about some more general principles of politics. The facilitators have many tasks. Often political debates go round and round because people misunderstand each other. A facilitated debate will make quite clear what they disagree on.
In a political debate each side is wedded to their particular proposal; in contrast, facilitators will encourage parties to be creative and find new solutions that both parties might accept gladly. Political debates are often hard to close because the parties make assumptions that they have not really examined or fact-checked. Facilitators will probe gently to encourage each party to examine any unexamined assumptions. That process will often open up new conversations.
Using such techniques, facilitators, mediators and others resolve problems every day --often problems that have festered and have created serious hostilities. Testimonials to that accomplishment come from large corporations, important law firms, and other powerful people whom we can trust not to spend money for help with their disagreements unless that help is indubitably worth its price.
If we applied these techniques to our political disagreements many of those would disappear and our decisions would more often be based on consensus and not exclude electoral minorities from ruling. Using the skills of various professionals in facilitating agreement and consensus, we would be able to turn our back on the injustice of majority rule. Using the techniques of facilitation and mediation, democracy resting on consensus may well be possible.
“But this will take too long” the defenders of majority rule will tell us. However, the reality is that mediation and facilitation have not so far being used to any extent to settle political disagreements. We do not know how difficult or time-consuming it would be to apply these techniques in politics. A lot of experimentation will be needed before we are in a position to have reliable opinions on the feasibility of resting consensus democracy on mediation and facilitation techniques. The encouraging results in various business situations should encourage us to engage in that kind of experimentation.
We do not know today how well a mediated and facilitated democracy would function. But we do know that it is a real alternative to our present. The insistence that majority rule is the optimal procedure is clearly mistaken, given the positive experiences many enterprises are having with mediation and facilitation. Electoral techniques and majority rule or not unavoidable. Using electoral systems and majority rule is a choice we make. It is, as we saw above, a choice of oligarchy over genuine democracy.
The dogma of the inevitability of majority rule is being promoted by the winners in existing oligarchies. It is in their interest to make everyone believe that there are no other options. But there are. We should take back our democracy by trying large-scale experiments with mediated and facilitated democratic conversations.