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One Vote for Democracy

By Ulli Diemer

There was much that I found wise and helpful in Alexandra Devon's article on meeting process (It ain't the meeting it's the motion! KIO #16), but I find myself in fundamental disagreement when she maintains that consensus is preferable to democracy.

To begin with, I think she confuses the essential defining characteristics of the consensus model and of the democratic model with things that have to do with meeting process in general.

For example, she rightly stresses the importance and value of things such as having "a social time before the meeting", making "a special effort to connect" with new people at meetings, having "trust between group members", having "shared values" in the group, and making the effort to "express our views, explain them, listen to the views of others and modify our views when others make points we might not have thought about." On the other side, she points to the destructiveness of meetings in which "people constantly interrupt each other", in which "a few people dominate", or in which "the quieter people are ignored".

However, there is nothing inherent in the virtues she lists which make them unique to consensus-model meetings, and nothing inherent in the faults she names which limit them to democracy-model meetings.

I can guarantee that if she asks around she will find plenty of people who can tell her about democratic groups based on shared values and trust in which special efforts are made to make new people feel comfortable, in which people listen to each other, are open, and change their minds when others bring up points they haven't thought of, and in which decisions are usually negotiated compromises rather than rammed through. I can also assure Alexandra that there are many people who could tell her about their experiences in consensus-model groups in which a few people dominated, people constantly interrupted each other, and the quieter people were ignored. I suppose one can argue that such groups were not practising "true" consensus, but then one could say with equal validity that democratic groups characterized by these problems are not truly democratic either.

I also think that advocates of consensus fail to distinguish adequately between 'consensus' as a specific model for holding meetings and 'consensus' as a term generally used to mean "agreement". In the sense of "agreement", consensus can happen in any type of group operating with a any decision-making model. I have certainly belonged to groups operating under a democratic model in which most decisions were made by consensus in this looser sense. Since we tended to agree about most things, issues rarely came to a vote. I suspect that any group having the ideal characteristics Alexandra lists as desirable (small size, clarity about goals, mutual respect, mutual trust, openness to each other's views, etc.) would tend to arrive at 'consensus' - i.e. agreement - a lot of the time, no matter whether they were officially making decisions by the democratic model, by the consensus model, or by consulting the I Ching.

The real issue, I think, is what kind of process is appropriate to groups which are not so perfect. Groups which are bigger than can fit into someone's living room, groups in which there is confusion or disagreement about goals, groups in which some people may not like each other as much as one might wish, groups in which some people are a bit too full of their own opinions to be as open as they ought to be to others'. In other words, most groups. What happens then when some people tend to dominate and interrupt, while quieter people get ignored or are afraid to speak up?

I can tell you what happens in most groups, consensus-model groups as well as the democratic groups which Alexandra is so down on: the problem doesn't get dealt with adequately, so some people "go home depressed", others "go home and don't come back", and the ones best equipped to stomach lousy meetings remain.

If you don't know of consensus groups where this is precisely the pattern, you haven't looked very far.

The remedies Alexandra suggests are excellent ones: good meeting facilitation, establishing a time frame, making sure people who haven't spoken get a chance before others get to speak again, paying attention to the social aspects of why we come together in groups, and being aware of and considerate of each other's feelings and opinions. (One might add challenging people whose meeting habits are unpleasant.) There is no reason why this can't be done equally as well in a democratic group as in a consensus group.

In fact, democratic groups are better equipped to deal with process problems. This is because democracy allows a group to proceed with what it wants to do in the face of people who are obstructive, obnoxious or insensitive. Democracy makes it possible for a group to say to such people, in essence, that 'we don't think this particular discussion/behaviour is constructive anymore, and we want to move on, whether you agree or not'. It enables the group to proceed in the way the majority of people in it want it to.

Consensus, on the other hand, allows people who are insensitive or stubborn to bring the whole group grinding to a halt. Ideally, of course, they "stand aside" or learn to participate more constructively, but what has actually happened in countless consensus groups is that the group has been prevented from doing what most people in it wanted to do - in other words, prevented from functioning - because one or a few people have blocked consensus or dragged discussions on past the willingness of most members to continue participating in the group. The social change movement is littered with the corpses of groups which fell apart for precisely such reasons.

At the same time, consensus often serves to make the quieter people in a group quieter and more intimidated yet, because the onus on someone expressing an opinion is often much greater than in a democratic group. In a consensus group, you know that you may be put on the spot by more vocal members of the group who disagree with you and who pressure you to defend your point of view. This can be a frightening prospect for someone who is just developing the courage to speak up at a meeting. Typically a more timid person will quickly "stand aside" or say they've changed their mind, just to get off the hot seat. And they'll be all the more unlikely to speak up again. In addition to the personal unpleasantness of such a situation, this kind of dynamic can easily mean that a vocal few can push the group in a direction many members are unhappy with, but are afraid to speak up about. It is precisely in these kind of situations that democracy and voting can empower the less aggressive members of the group, while consensus disempowers them.

It can be true, as Alexandra says, that in a democratic group "unless you have unanimity (which is rare) some people are placed in the uncomfortable position of carrying out or living with decisions they are not comfortable with." Whether people really feel uncomfortable with a given decision, of course, depends on how strongly they disagree, how fundamental the issue seems, and perhaps most importantly whether the discussion and process leading up to the decision left people feeling good, or with a bad taste in their mouths. But by her own description, exactly the same thing can happen in a consensus group in which some people "stand aside" to allow a decision which "is not what you hoped but you have to live with".

Whether "the integrity of the group in the face of a divisive issue" is maintained and whether "after the meeting (in spite of all the high emotion)" people are "able to join hands and sincerely say we respected each other's concerns" doesn't depend on whether the decision was arrived at by a vote, or by consensus with some people "standing aside", but on whether the meeting and decision were good or bad according to criteria of substance and process which apply equally well to meetings held under either model.

What is really destructive of the integrity of the group is a situation where one person or a handful of people are able to block the desires of the overwhelming majority. When such a situation arises - and it does frequently in consensus-model groups - it makes a mockery of Alexandra's assertion that "consensus... allows each person equal and complete power in the group". On the contrary, in a situation where 100 people want to do something, and one person doesn't and refuses consensus, consensus ultimately hands over all the power to one person, and totally disempowers everyone else.

Even short of this extreme - but by no means unusual - circumstance, I think that if you look more thoroughly at the track record of consensus-model groups, and not just at the few successful ones, you will find a recurring pattern: domination by a vocal few, silencing and/or departure of the majority who have jobs, children, or are not meeting-junkies, collapse of the group, and then the dominators move on to foist their wonderful model onto another group.

Don't misunderstand me: some of the people who I respect most and who have the best meeting skills favour the consensus model and do well with it. If groups were composed of people like them, consensus would work. But most groups aren't composed of people like them, and in my experience, while either kind of group can function well or badly, democratic groups are more likely to function well and are better able to solve problems that do arise.

If consensus works in your group, that's fine. But I think advocates of consensus are doing a disservice by urging others to adopt a model which works only in unusual circumstances and which has been responsible for driving so many people out of social activism.


Published in Kick it Over (KIO) and in the Connexions Digest Volume 12, Number 1.
For Alexandra Devon's response, click here.

Also available in Chinese: One Vote for Democracy.
También disponible en español: Un Voto por la Democracia.
Aussi disponible en français: Un vote pour la démocratie.
Also available in Japanese: One Vote for Democracy.
Also available in Korean: One Vote for Democracy.
Also available in Polish: Jeden Głos na Demokrację.
Also available in Portuguese: Um Voto Para a Democracia.


Ulli Diemer
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Subject Headings:
Activism/Radicalism
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Conflict Resolution - Consensus Decision Making - Democracy - Democratic Values - Meetings - Social Change