The Myth of Majority Democracy

January 1, 2015 Uncategorized

This post originally appeared as part of a series on Deep Democracy Basics. 

“We believe in democracy. This means that we respect the decision of a ruling majority –even if we disagree with it. After all, if we were the majority, we would expect others to respect our rule.” – Truth? or Myth?

What is democracy?

Democracy is an ancient concept, typically traced back to the Athenian city-state model of 500 BC. It is also a young concept: as a form of government it has only existed since the French and the American revolutions of the late 1700s, with new variations popping up periodically since. Democracy has often been called a “contested notion” – for many reasons, including the fact that it has inspired not only different definitions, but entirely different ways of going about defining (e.g. procedural, substantive, utopian etc.) as anyone can tell by performing even the most cursory Google search.

Way back around 500 BC, Aristotle called “popular sovereignty” a defining hallmark of democracy and the principle of “majority rule” came into existence to operationalize the democratic ideal. Majority rule means that if a majority (typically understood as 51% or more) of a decision making body (say a parliament) votes in favour of something, then, as part of social contract, we accept that decision as legitimate. Now, in many situations we worry quite a lot about the fairness of the voting process, the adherence to the legal procedures, or the legitimacy of the decision making body itself – but we basically agree with the principle of majority rule. It is a powerful principle: it allows a collection of individuals with different views to make a decision together in a fairly straight forward manner, and it protects that decision through the social contract, which is itself written into laws – typically.

Implicit in this is the notion of the “democratic bargain”, which means that the minority (those who lost the vote and didn’t get their way) accept defeat and go along with the decision of the majority even when it is not in their favour. After all the process used to arrive at the decision was fair. And anyway, there will be other decisions in the future that the minority can hope to win, and once they do win they expect the same level of respect from those who lose.

This is a logical way of thinking and if we are mature adults and “graceful losers” this should work out pretty well.

Except that in reality it doesn’t work out quite like that, does it?

The Reality of the Democratic Bargain

If you think of the last time your favorite political party was defeated in an election, or the last time your well-thought-out proposal was voted down by your superiors, or any time you poured your heart into what you believe in and were non-the-less turned down by a more popular view, you will likely remember that you couldn’t be so adult about it.

The reality is we are not fully rational beings (as much as some of us may wish otherwise): we have passion, we develop attachments to what we think is good or right or beautiful or just. And when we lose we don’t often move on so swiftly.

Rather, what most of us tend to do is resist the majority rule. We will likely become bitter, argue that the decision making process wasn’t really fair, say nasty things about those who won, and if we absolutely have to live with the decision then we strengthen our lobby, go on strike and do everything we can to win next round. In Deep Democracy we call this going on the terrorist line.

This is not a bad thing (or a good thing, for that matter). It just seems to be the reality.

Take the case of my country, Canada, where we have a majority Conservative government in power we as speak. All of us who care passionately about the environment or Canada’s humanitarian reputation or working class families (anything that is not high on the Conservative agenda) are not going to sit back and say “Oh well, the majority of the voters elected this government, so we should respectfully relax and let them destroy these things we care about!” Instead we get angry. We resist. We say that the government’s majority is not a real majority because of the ways our political system are broken (problematizing the democratic process) and call for electoral reform (proportional representation etc.). We say that the voters were uninformed or deceived, the advanced polls were manipulative, or that the people who should have voted didn’t vote (problematizing the decision making body). We publicize every little slip that the government makes: we make jokes and re-post caricatures of political leaders on social media. Maybe we join the opposition parties and argue for alternative policies. Maybe we take to the streets and protest, some of us engaging in civil disobedience. Or we take another path: we say that politics don’t matter anyway, we become apathetic and disengaged.

Now, we are probably right in some or all of our objections above – maybe what the Conservatives are doing is objectionable and maybe illegitimate. But my point is that one way or another we would object to whatever they were doing because we see them as being somebody else’s voice, not ours!  The social contract does not protect the majority’s rule – it is in the nature of the minority (at least the passionate, not-yet-apathetic sector of the minority) to resist it and the resistance will grow every time the minority’s concerns are discounted and its voice is shut down.(Of course, once the tables are turned and the New Democrats are in power, the Conservative minority will resist their rule just the same: maybe then we’ll get our own equivalent of the Tea Party movement in Canada.)

Implications for Group Decision Making Processes

Clearly I am simplifying the political picture above… but really my interest is not so much in national politics (maybe they are hopeless after all). I am interested in the dynamics of a small group of individuals trying to work together: the 50-person neighborhood group, the 20-person medium-size business, the 12-person NGO board, the 9-person city council, the 4-person family.

When a “small” group tries to make decisions using the majority sovereignty rule (which creates winners and losers) it recreates some version of the dynamic I have just described. The minority goes on the terrorist line, and will advance further the more the majority insists on its right to make decisions without regard for the minority’s concern.

Some of the groups that I have worked with use consensus decision making as an alternative to the majority rule. This is better for keeping people off the terrorist line because no one is left defeated at the end of the day: the decision is only made once everybody agrees. The problem is that the “end of the day” is often very late at night! I have been in too many consensus decision-making processes that take way longer than the meeting length allocated to them. Far too often these processes end in “consensus by exhaustion”, when people will just say “I don’t care any more! I agree to whatever if you just let me go home now!” And at any rate, consensus decision-making seems to me to give too much power to the minority – the one or two people who disagree can hold up the majority’s decision for far too long.

Deep Democracy’s four steps decision making process attempt to articulate an alternative. Stay tuned to learn about what that is in a future post.