Can We Mandate Consensus?

Motivation is like water behind a dam: its potential for good or ill is enormous. According to researcher and former IBM executive Saul Gellerman, what most of us consider to be powerful motivational goals–a desire for wealth, security, status, and so on–are nothing compared to our fundamental human desire to simply be ourselves.65 How is this thirst for self-realization related to consensus?

People often trace their satisfactions and dissatisfactions to specific economic or political circumstances. They evaluate constantly, if intuitively, how well those circumstances allow them to live a good life free of unnecessary irritants (let alone oppression) and to achieve not just bare subsistence or a comfortable living, but their personal potential. When dissatisfactions with a job or community conditions are bad enough, such people become motivated to make changes because, at that crucial point, they begin to identify personally with what they had previously accepted as someone else’s problem, or a problem too big for one person, or a problem that was best left to guardians. Such people do not even need to have a good solution in mind when they begin to wrestle with these problems, only a firm belief that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Although watershed moments like these don’t happen often in the life of a nation (the American Revolution was one; the U.S. Civil War, and its continuation in the Civil Rights Movement a century later, are others), the instinct that causes them–our latent desire to control the conditions of our own existence–is ever present.

John Stuart Mill identified three fundamental feelings such citizens must possess if any system of governance (and we may take this to mean economic as well as political) is to survive these periodic challenges, or to thrive once it has replaced the previous order.66

First, citizens must freely accept the system and not actively oppose it. They should not spend an inordinate amount of time and energy finding ways to get around what is expected in daily life. Certainly, the pre-revolutionary American colonies, the antebellum South, and black communities in the 1950s and 1960s were alive with activists anxious to subvert the prevailing socio-economic order; but Americans today also spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about, and trying to cope with, our own guardian-induced headaches: from byzantine tax codes and unaffordable health care to the soulless policies of huge corporations, to say nothing of lesser irritants like gridlocked traffic; recurring energy, financial, and housing crises; and political scandals that seem to pop up like tissues in a box. Tolerating a system is not the same as accepting it; and eventually even the longest fuse reaches the powder keg.

Second, citizens must not only accept the method of governance freely, they must do what is necessary to preserve it. This was certainly true when patriots in 1776 tried to establish the Union and in 1861 when they tried to preserve it; and few people today would seriously propose turning back the civil rights clock to the Jim Crow 1940s and 1950s. However, enthusiasm for conventional politics–as evidenced by record-low voter turnouts and a steady decline in grass-roots party membership–seems to be waning as is employee commitment to firms who today view job loyalty as a one-way street.

Finally, Mill declared that citizens must voluntarily do what is expected of them under the system–from mundane duties like obeying traffic laws and work rules to the occasional, exceptional contribution like serving on juries or in the military. Certainly, colonial objections to British “taxation without representation” and the refusal of many blacks in the 1960s to go to the back of the bus amply demonstrate this principle, just as today few would doubt that society has become more contentious and litigious, resulting in more challenges–both subtle and overt–to previously accepted guardian authority.

In a very real sense, Mill’s three levels of acceptance reflect a kind of consensus within the demos about the quality of its political and economic life, powerful feelings that seldom appear in guardian measures of success–such as rates of employment, gross domestic product, and stock prices–and it’s not surprising that they don’t. To most guardians, citizen-workers are little more than a resource of the state or corporation. They are seen as a source of labor, not the locus of democratic power. In guardian eyes, people perform their civic duties and obey the law only because compliance is easier than defiance and even hard-core dissenters don’t want to be punished. To guardians, compliance is as good as commitment, but the two are not the same. Compliance involves going through the motions, usually to avoid something bad. Commitment involves working hard and going the extra mile in order to achieve something good. Since participation builds commitment, this distinction is crucial to a just and productive society, and it means that direct democracy–based on consensual processes–is not only possible, but necessary if our human and natural resources are to be employed to maximum effect.

A century before Mill, Rousseau formulated his own three requirements for fair and effective governance, ideas that reflect this fundamental distinction between commitment and compliance.67 Laws, he said, must not only be enforced fairly and equitably, they must be seen to do so in order for people to trust each other and respect the authority of the state. They must also allow people to move freely from one social or economic class to another, since it is human nature to form groups and to compare the status between them. Finally, ordinary citizens–not politicians or bureaucrats–should administer as much of the state as possible. This not only minimizes the chance of tyranny and corruption, but it also encourages people to embrace, use, and feel responsible for their own civic institutions. Create this environment, Rousseau promised, and “ would kindle in all the lower orders [in his day, anyone who was not an aristocrat] an ardent zeal to contribute to the public welfare,” a situation quite different from today’s culture of conflict, victimization, and entitlement.

Before Rousseau–in fact, in the earliest days of the Romans–we find what is undoubtedly one of the first examples of government-mandated consensual participation. To replace the corrupt laws of its former kings, the fledgling Roman Republic sent commissioners, called decemvirs, to study the workings of Greek city-states and come up with a legal system better suited to Roman values. They returned and published the Ten Tables of law–not as an edict, but a rough draft. Despite every effort to be innovative and impartial, the historian Livy tells us, the decemvirs knew that the “wits of ten men” counted for little against the cumulative talents and experience of the entire city. They asked that “every citizen should first quietly consider each point, then talk it over with his friends, and, finally bring forward for public discussion any additions or subtractions which seemed desirable. The object was for Rome to have laws which every individual citizen could feel he had not only consented to accept, but had actually himself proposed.”68

This very sound psychology, like Rousseau’s three requirements, works equally well for economic enterprises; for a corporation won’t last long if employees continually resist and undermine the policies of top management. When guardians are estranged from dependents, both sides tend to put their own interests first, and the common good is disregarded.

The key to releasing all this civic and economic energy is voluntarism: self-initiated, self-directed collaboration based on personal consent.

Some modern democratic theorists have recast these ancient principles for the twenty-first century. Dahl has proposed five necessary and sufficient conditions for practical, direct democracy–a virtual primer on consent.69

First, although political and economic leaders (and the media) may still influence how people vote, no single vote should count more than another. In government, this would eliminate, for starters, the Electoral College as arbiters of presidential elections–which is not only undemocratic at its core, but gives disproportionate voting power to small states. On two occasions, this unequal voting power usurped the expressed will of the people, yet guardians who administer this exclusive club see no reason to change it. In the private sector, Dahl’s first condition would eliminate the plutocracy of stockholders “voting by shares,” which elevates dollars over people.

Second, everyone otherwise qualified to vote must be given an “adequate and equal” chance to do so. This means simply that the government must make sure economic and social inequality does not become political inequality–that the resources of property do not trump the resources of polity in the communal decision-making process. As political decisions become visibly more democratic, pressure will mount to make economic decisions more democratic, too. While consensual participation in economic decisions would not necessarily reduce inequalities in property, it would go a long way toward making those inequalities more acceptable.

Third, citizens must have “adequate and equal” opportunities to learn about issues and alternatives that affect a particular decision, at least within a time frame appropriate for that decision. This goes beyond current notions of a “free press,” which protect mostly the advocacy rights of publishers and advertisers. Just as one of government’s oldest functions is to ensure that markets are honest (as in the policing of weights and measures), so must it prevent one point of view, or a few privileged and preferred points of view, from monopolizing political debate. This doesn’t mean that every crackpot or extremist must be given equal time in the media, only that the demos itself–not monied interests or guardian gatekeepers–should choose which schemes deserve public attention.

Dahl’s fourth condition takes this principle one step further, giving the demos control over the legislative agenda: in other words, only the demos can decide what the demos will decide. This means more than abandoning censorship by guardian gatekeepers; it means that the state must provide at least one avenue for the dissemination of reasonably objective electoral information, as well as a user-friendly way for individuals and groups to make proposals to their peers and obtain binding decisions on those questions.

Finally, the demos must be constituted using the widest possible, rational criteria for citizenship. Certain people–non-citizens, for example, or those judged mentally incapacitated–may be fairly excluded, but inclusion, not exclusion, is the hallmark of true democracy.

These guidelines codify what most mature adults already know from life experience: that participation and the opportunity to consent strengthens a person’s commitment to, and the moral validity of, whatever decision is made. Further, that rules and laws made through this process tend to be simpler and more easily interpreted than the convoluted, tortured language that results from guardian-brokered deals among competing interest groups. And with simpler, more straightforward laws, the opportunity for a judge to turn legislator during judicial review is also reduced.

Yet even a broad-based, directly participative system like this will not necessarily produce consensus if it depends on one-time, win-lose, majority-rule contests. To promote consensus, solutions must become inclusive, not exclusive. That is, they must seek to achieve the common good, not just the goals of one group over another’s. Such issues may be decided by a single vote if consensus is near, but it may take several votes–with the results of each round revealed to all–before this point of near-consensus is reached. And consensus here does not mean a super-majority in the traditional sense (as in the two-thirds majority needed for Congress to override a presidential veto), but a majority big enough to account for all but the most radical and intransigent fringes inevitable in any demos.

In short, not only can we mandate consensus, we must if we are to harness the astonishing, transformative power of participation–but is large-scale consensus possible?

Under representation, public officials keep an eye on the economy and track the creation of profit and distribution of wealth that results from market action, making periodic “corrections” (through regulations, law, or policy) as they see fit. Since citizens did not participate in making the laws that empower these officials, tension–and eventually, antagonism–develops among competing groups, and between the governors and the governed, over the burdens and fruit of economic activity.

In this adversarial climate, both the haves and have-nots know that dominating the guardian hierarchy is key to protecting and improving one’s interests, so contests among classes, special interests, and identity groups are frequent and ferocious. Few of us pause to wonder what might happen if the main focus of these contests–the representative offices themselves–simply disappeared and were replaced with a directly participative process wherein the coercive laws these guardians and their dependents fear, and which enable them to force their will on others, could be passed only with the direct consent (and by consent, we mean consensus) of all material stakeholders.

One immediate effect would be that the incentive and opportunity for short-sighted, authoritarian solutions (let alone corruption and oppression) would be sharply reduced. With direct citizen legislation–based on gradual consensus building, not a single win-lose vote–the emphasis would shift from competition between classes, political parties, and personalities (or between citizens and their own government), toward proposals that reflect the interests of all the people–or at least the vast majority–who must live with a given law.

Such voluntarism, participation, reciprocity, and self-restraint, born of consent, is the foundation of direct democracy on any scale. To make it work, citizens must disavow the use of non-democratic coercion to achieve their aims and, similarly, reject any law that restores non-consensual guardianism or that is forced upon them by nondemocratic means.

Even though consensus, not victory, would become the new political grail, all the conventional tools of persuasion and electioneering–scientific polls, think-tank studies, public agency analyses, mass media advocacy (both editorial and advertising), and so on–would continue to play major roles in political governance. Some form of public voter information, such as the pamphlets currently issued by states with citizen initiatives and referenda, would complement these efforts, counterbalancing, to a degree, the always-formidable power of money. In general, though, citizens want only the minimum information needed to make an informed decision. The most common voter complaint heard now about elections is that there is too much information, not too little, and that its content is too biased and highly charged. There is nothing wrong with passionate advocacy; but under consensual democracy, partisan rhetoric must eventually give way to messages that normalize differences and expand the circle of consensus if a proposal is to pass. It will no longer be enough to force a bare majority, effective only on the day of balloting, to ram preferences down the throat of the losing side.

The raw material for consensus building, of course, is the demos itself. Advocates will no longer win elections by suborning or colluding with key guardians and energizing (or demonizing) certain groups, but by facilitating an expanding network of informed citizens who, having statutory opportunities to make contrary and complementary ideas part of the proposal, will become advocates in their own right.

As it stands now, the demos is composed of four types of citizen, each with a different level of readiness for participation in such networks.

The first category contains our current guardians. These range from representatives, elected or appointed government officials, and senior bureaucrats to corporate executives and owners of significant property. While many aspects of these guardians’ lives are controlled by other guardians (they function, after all, in an integrated hierarchy), they are the people who come closest to experiencing the benefits and responsibilities of full democratic citizenship–at least in their spheres of influence. Once these upper-tier guardians see that the world doesn’t end when they share their current, exclusive power with other stakeholders in their area, and experience their own liberation from the guardians above and around them, they may well become consensual participation’s most eloquent advocates.

The second category is composed of those citizens who actively help the first. They are the fund-raisers, campaign organizers, envelope stuffers, signature gatherers, neighborhood canvassers, and so on: the staff officers and foot soldiers of the guardian class who do everything but exercise power themselves. This category also includes those who help our official rulers by lobbying, attending rallies, and protesting or demonstrating on cue. Beyond those who are motivated solely by specific self-interest, citizen-activists serve for a variety of reasons–from idealism and the joy of belonging to a group with a mission, to a simple fascination with celebrity. But the two things they all have in common is an unrealistically high regard for, or romanticized view of, guardians (whom they view as either saintly, civics book heroes, or aristocrats excused from normal conduct) and the expectation that guardianism will one day live up to its own promise. A few pragmatic activists understand that the system is fatally flawed–antagonistic, divisive, and destructively undemocratic–but hope that their years of service or financial support will at least earn them a chance to influence a few guardian decisions.

The third category is comprised of that sizable plurality of law-abiding, responsible citizens who vote regularly and conscientiously, but whom nobody would call activists. They are the critical mass who, despite nagging complaints about the system, quietly observe Mill’s conditions for stable government, though their compliance is more a product of habit than conviction. However, their primary domain is societas, not civitas; and that’s just fine with guardians and their helpers, who don’t want the system bogged down with too much unauthorized thinking. Some “marginals” like these have a fairly complete and sophisticated understanding of the guardian system and hold few illusions about how the political economy really works. Others rely on received opinion and gut-instinct for each issue, though their behavior over time forms a pattern that, retrospectively, reveals a coherent personal and social philosophy that is not only genuinely felt, but held in common with many others.

Because modern guardian politics involve so many negative messages and so often require citizens to choose between “the lesser of two evils,” most marginals know a lot more about what they dislike than what they favor, which gives their attitudes about participation a cynical tinge. Still, they vote, serve on juries, and occasionally volunteer with charities and service groups, preserving a sense of community that keeps them engaged.

The final category is composed of those citizens who are alienated by, and disengaged from, the entire guardian-dependent system. They seldom if ever vote, care only about those laws that affect them personally, and, while generally law-abiding, see nothing wrong with cutting legal or ethical corners provided they don’t get caught. The jobs they hold are often menial, underpaid, and supervised by tyrannical bosses, which only sours them further on the system. When they receive public assistance, it is often with disdain, like surly children complaining about a small allowance. Some of these disaffecteds can articulate reasons for their attitude (often in the form of Marxist litany, group-victim dogma, or conservative scripture), but most can’t hold much of a conversation about anything, politics and the economy included–they are simply too preoccupied with personal angst. Emotionally, these drop-outs resemble jilted lovers. They abandon citizenship the way heartbroken people give up dating. Still, their disaffection is a hopeful sign, because in order to be hurt, you still have to care.

When it comes to large-scale consensual participation, the last two categories are probably the most important numerically and psychologically. For most of the drop-outs and many of the marginals, the personal drive toward maturity–which always includes a community component–was arrested at some point in their development. They are not irredeemable, but they require more education and experience to become fully collaborative, self-governing adults.

Political guardians, of course, like to characterize these less-mature people as typical of all voters–of the whole non-guardian class–especially when it comes to direct democracy. These uninvolved, inarticulate, and unreflective people, they say, are proof that citizens are inherently incapable of self-government; and those few who might be capable are simply too lazy and self-absorbed to do it. Although they won’t admit it, guardians think these marginals and dropouts make perfect citizens. After all, they are passive, compliant, usually obedient, and bear just about any burden–from unfathomable tax codes and arbitrary work rules to divisive (and often contradictory) laws–without acting on their complaints.

Economic guardians also depend on apathetic, disengaged employees to maintain their power–or at least get their way with minimum headaches. Although these citizen-workers often observe different standards of behavior at home than on the job, their feelings of frustration and alienation are surprisingly consistent. Their workplace behavior (which tends to be artificial, ingenuine, and deferential to imposed authority) and home behavior (which tends to be more genuine, self-directed, and insistent on reciprocity) reflect the same qualities that alienate them from political life. They consider both politicians and company executives to be phony, self-serving, and insincere while their family, friends, and neighbors are more “real.” Nonetheless, these citizen-workers accept the yoke of guardianism and adapt themselves to its many contradictions and double-standards, suppressing their desire for greater reciprocity and participation. Over time, this leads them to frustration, discouragement, and the pervasive sense of impotence and dependency upon which guardianism ultimately thrives.

In short, guardian institutions do not inform, but deform, our character as citizen-workers, making it appear as though our natural appetite and aptitude for consensus, on whatever scale, is mere illusion and therefore forever out of reach.

Of course, saying something loudly and often doesn’t make it true–as many guardians are finding out.

  1. 65. Gellerman, Saul W. Motivation and Productivity. Thirteenth Edition. American Management Association. 1963. 290.
  2. 66. Mill, Three Essays, 199.
  3. 67. Rousseau. A Discourse on Inequality.
  4. 68. Livy. The Early History of Rome. New York: Penguin. 204-205. 1960.
  5. 69. Dahl. A Preface to Economic Democracy, 59.

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