In democratic societies, making decisions via voting is seen as the cornerstone of freedom – as if making decisions this way is the only way democracies can express their freedom. In so many discussions around democracy, the unsaid assumption is that voting is the most representative and productive way important decisions should be made.
The issue I would like to raise here is that in a democratic system – no matter how you’re represented – voting might not the best way to make decisions in that system.
Within any political machine, or indeed any organization, there are thousands of cogs that contribute to its working. These cogs include its policies, structure, membership and how it spends money (to name a few). Aside from the organization’s functions, I would argue that it’s the way it makes its decisions that defines how it works.
Perhaps because of the long-standing history of voting in elections, voting has been co-opted as the default way that free people come to make decisions. My argument is that voting is limiting, excludes non-majority positions and creates division. The option I want to promote instead is consensus decision making.
I’ll use an example that came up the other day to illustrate these points. My partner and I were catching up with another couple and we were discussing where we’d like to have dinner. At the moment, I’m trying to eat as little meat as possible, so I was trying to think of places that have good vegetarian options (Indian was my preference). As I was about to suggest Indian, the other guy suggested we go to a pub that had steak specials that night. The girls agreed, excited to try somewhere new. Timidly, I then reminded them that I was trying to eat as little meat as possible.
The guy apologized (having forgotten my change in diet) and we then talked about other options available. Eventually we settled on a tapas place because it was easy to accommodate all our preferences (menu, atmosphere and price were all talked about).
To me, this seems a very natural way to come to a decision and is a real-world example of consensus decision making. Perhaps the most relevant foundation of being able to come to a decision that we were all happy with was that we all cared about each other and wouldn’t want anyone to be unhappy with the choice made (not being able to enjoy the food, having to spend more than they wanted, or not being uncomfortable).
Now let’s consider what might have happened if we’d used a voting system instead of looking for consensus. There were two options that were presented at the outset: a steakhouse and Indian. Three preferred one option, one the other. In order to make most people happy, there would have been a vote and I’d have lost. We’d then have gone to have steak and I’d probably have ordered a meal I didn’t find very satisfying.
Of course, there are other things that might have happened – I might have found a delicious vegetarian option at the steakhouse, or the others might have enjoyed a meaty curry. Even acknowledging this, there are some very important points that sit in this example. The first is that if we had voted, we’d have been limited to a set number of options. Even if we’d discussed those options at length, in the end we’d have to vote on a limited number of options. In consensus decision making, the people involved aren’t limited to choosing between A, B or C. Instead, there is a discussion that revolves around those options, but there is nothing preventing the group from discovering and agreeing on D, E or any other letter. This is why voting is limiting: those voting can’t innovate or negotiate beyond pre-defined options.
The second point this example brings up is that it was an unspoken assumption that a consensus decision – one where everyone was happy with the outcome – would represent the best outcome for everyone. Nobody in this process was there to just promote their own agenda, instead, we were there to do what was best for everyone. Certainly, we each came to the table with our own values and preferences, but the point of the discussion was trying to find something everyone would be happy with.
On the other hand, if we had voted, there would have been winners and losers – something that seems counter-intuitive when we all had the underlying belief that something we all were happy with was the best outcome.
This brings me to the final reason why consensus decision making can be better than voting: voting creates division. When looking at this example, but also when looking at decisions made within a governmental framework, voting is at essentially adversarial. The very act of voting pits one idea, person or proposal against another. This can be most explicitly seen when looking at decisions made within a political party. If party members have to vote on whether their party will either support or reject a certain policy (for example the Republicans voting on whether the debt ceiling should have been raised), the almost inevitable outcome is that there will be sections within the party that are resentful of the result. This creates division and disunity.
If, on the other hand, the party was tasked with coming to consensus, then getting to an outcome would necessarily involve all points of view being heard and the resulting policy being as representative of all members as possible. It would mean that the opportunity for division, resentment and sabotage would be severely reduced. It would also mean that the opportunity for the majority to bully the minority into submission is essentially removed.
Of course, coming to a consensus isn’t always possible and there needs to be a way of tie-breaking if people are adamant about not compromising. On this point, the biggest criticisms of consensus decision-making are that it’s too ideological (people are naturally adversarial and will choose to block consensus unless they get their way), and then, that it’s impractical if a lot of people are involved in the decision making process.
In response, I’d say two things. The first is to acknowledge that a way to break a deadlock is necessary and voting might be the best way to do this. However, I see no reason why consensus shouldn’t be the default decision-making process, with voting used as a last resort. Secondly, consensus decision-making is not a radical or impractical ideal. There are very large organisations and political parties all over the world that make their decisions via consensus – organisations that have realised that if their goal is actually to do what’s best for everyone, then voting is simply too excluding of minority positions to accomplish that.
Lastly, a point to consider: it seems to me that it’s a two-party dominated political system that benefits from voting as it’s designed to only benefit the majority. I wonder what government policy on health care, or education, or disability services would look like if those deciding on policy had to make decisions that didn’t ignore sections of the population?