E pluribus unum: the fundamental political dilemma

Any political body comprised of more than one person faces the question of who decides. In a dictatorship, monarchy, or one-party system, a single agency can decide a given issue and come forth with a relatively uncontested plan. From the viewpoint of decisiveness and efficiency, ideally a single person is in control, which is the basis of chains of command, as in the military. At the other end of possibility, imagine an organization with a hundred members. Potentially there are one hundred different plans and one hundred commanders, with zero followers. Without a means to come to agreement, the organization cannot pursue a consistent course of action or perhaps any action at all. Even with a technical means such as majority vote, there is always the possibility that 49 members will only nominally agree with the decision and will remain disaffected. Their implicit choice is to remain bound by the majority decision or leave the organization. This is a basic dilemma facing all so-called democracies.

While the 100 members could have as many different ideas, in practice they will likely join together in smaller factions. (Unanimity means one faction.) In many representative democracies, including Canada, political opinion is divided among several official political parties, whose member representatives appear on a ballot and generally adhere to party policy. In the U.S., there have nearly always been only two major political parties.

Any political arrangement has its challenges. Unless it represents a true unanimity of opinion, the single party system is not a democracy by Western standards, but severely constricts the scope of dissent. On the other hand, a multi-party system can fail to achieve a majority vote, except for coalitions that typically compromise the positions of the differing factions. Either the two-party system is unstable because the parties cannot agree even that their adversaries are legitimate; or else it is ineffective in the long run because the parties, which agree to legitimately take turns, end up cancelling each other out. The U.S. has experienced both those possibilities.

The basic challenge is how to come to agreement that is both effective and stabilizing. The ideal of consensus is rarely achieved. Simple majority rule allows for decision to be made and action taken, but potentially at the cost of virtually half the people dragged along against their better judgment: the tyranny of the majority. The danger of a large disaffected minority is that the system can break apart; or else that it engages in civil war, in which roughly equal factions try forcibly to conquer each other. A polarized system that manages to cohere in spite of dividedness is faced with a different dysfunction. As in the U.S. currently, the parties tend to alternate in office. A given administration will try to undo or mitigate the accomplishments of the previous one, so that there is little net progress from either’s point of view. A further irony of polarization is that a party may end up taking on the policies of its nemesis. This happened, for example, at the beginning of American history, when Jefferson, who believed in minimal federal and presidential powers, ended by expanding them.

The U.S. was highly unstable in its first years. The fragile association among the states was fraught with widely differing interests and intransigent positions. As in England, the factions that later became official political parties were at each other’s throats. The “Federalists” and the “Republicans” had diametrically opposed ideas about how to run the new country and regularly accused each other of treason. Only haltingly did they come to recognize each other as legitimate differences of opinion, and there arose a mutually accepted concept of a “loyal opposition.” Basically, the price paid for union was an agreement to take turns between regimes. This meant accepting a reduction in the effectiveness of government, since each party tended to hamstring the other when in power. This has been viewed as an informal part of the cherished system of checks and balances. But it could also be viewed as a limit on the power of a society to take control of its direction—or to have any consistent direction at all.

Another, quite current, problem is minority rule. The U.S. Constitution was designed to avoid rule by an hereditary oligarchic elite. For the most part, it has successfully avoided the hereditary part, but hardly rule by oligarchy. American faith in democracy was founded on a relative economic equality among its citizens that no longer exists. Far from it, the last half-century has seen a return to extreme concentration of wealth (and widespread poverty) reminiscent of 18th century Europe. The prestige of aristocratic status has simply transferred to celebrity and financial success, which are closely entwined. Holding office, like being rich or famous, commands the sort awe that nobility did in old Britain.

A country may be ruled indirectly by corporations. (Technically, corporations are internally democratic, though voter turn-out at their AGMs can be small. Externally, in a sense, consumers vote by proxy in the marketplace.) While the interests of corporations may or may not align with a nation’s financial interests in a world market, they hardly coincide with that nation’s social well-being at home. The electorate plays a merely formal role, as the literal hands that cast the votes, while the outcome is regularly determined by corporate-sponsored propaganda that panders to voters. Government policy is decided by lobbies that regularly buy the loyalties of elected representatives. When it costs a fortune to run for office, those elected (whatever their values) are indebted to moneyed backers. And, contrary to reason, the poor often politically support the rich—perhaps because they represent an elusive dream of success.

People can always disagree over fundamental principles; hence, there can always be irreconcilable factions. Yet, it seems obvious that a selfless concern for the objective good of the whole is a more promising basis for unity than personal gain or the economic interests of a class or faction or political party. Corporate rule is based on the bottom line: maximizing profit for shareholders, with particular benefit to its “elected” officers. It embodies the greed of the consumer/investor society, often translated into legalized corruption. Contrast this with the ancient Taoist ideal of the wise but reluctant ruler: the sage who flees worldly involvement but is called against his or her will to serve. This is the opposite of the glory-seeking presidential candidate; but it is also the opposite of the earnest candidate who believes in a cause and seeks office to implement it. Perhaps the best candidate is neither egoistic nor ideologically motivated. The closest analogy is jury duty, where candidates are selected by random lottery.

The expedient of majority rule follows from factionalism, but also fosters it. To get its way, a faction need only a 51% approval of its proposal, leaving the opposition in the lurch. The bar could be set higher—and is, for special measures like changing a constitution. The ultimate bar is consensus, or a unanimous vote. This does not necessarily mean that everyone views the matter alike or perfectly agrees with the course of action. It does mean that they all officially assent, even with reservations, which is like giving your word or signing a binding contract.

The best way to come to consensus is through lengthy discussion. (If unanimity is required, then there is no limit to the discussion that may ensue.) Again, a model is the jury: in most criminal cases—but often not in civil cases—unanimity is required for a “conviction” (a term that implies the sincere belief of the jurors.) The jury must reach its conclusion “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A parliament or board of directors may find this ideal impractical, especially in timely matters. But what is considered urgent and timely is sometimes relative, or a matter of opinion, and could be put in a larger perspective of longer-term priorities.

The goal of consensus is especially relevant in long-term planning, which should set the general directions of a group for the far future. Since such matters involve the greatest uncertainty and room for disagreement, they merit the most thorough consideration and involve the least time constraint. A parliament, for example, might conduct both levels of discussion, perhaps in separate sessions: urgent matters at hand and long-term planning. Discussing the long-term provides a forum for rapprochement of opposing ideologies, resolving misunderstandings, and finding common ground. Even on shorter-term issues, it may turn out that wiser decisions are made through lengthier consideration.

In any case, the most productive attitude through which to approach any group decision is through careful listening to all arguments, from as objective and impersonal a point of view as possible. That means a humble attitude of mutual respect and cooperation, and an openness to novel possibilities. Effectively: brainstorming for the common good rather than barnstorming to support a cause or special interest. Democracy tends to align with individualism, and to fall into factions that represent a divergence of opinions and interests. What these have in common is always the world itself. When that is the common concern, there is an objective basis for agreement and the motive to cooperate.