Competition, Consensus and Compromise
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.1
The “western” electoral system, often called “liberal democracy,” is a competitive system, which many political scientists refer to as agonistic pluralism — the public contest among adversaries. This agonistic view assumes participants come with pre-established conflicting or incompatible preferences, values, and interests and dismisses the possibility of finding near consensus on most issues. Agonistic theorists accept the inevitability of eventual winners and losers (hopefully through elections rather than violence). This leads to a majoritarian view of democracy, leaving the minority losers with the hope of coming back to fight and win another day. Leading political philosophers such as Chantal Mouffe, and Nadia Urbinati are associated with this agonistic view of democracy.
In recent decades alternative theories of democracy have gained significant attention. The relatively newer interest in deliberative democracy is sometimes described as the seeking of consensus, or near consensus, through a process of giving, and genuinely hearing, conflicting arguments among political equals. Jurgen Habermas described this as a scenario in which the “unforced force of the better argument” persuades the others and wins out. The contest of competing ideas is incorporated within the deliberative consensus-seeking model, but participants’ openness to changing their minds rather than the just winning is key. This deliberative ideal seems ludicrous to realists, because decisionmakers in electoral arenas want to win, rather than risk having facts change their minds. However, near consensus through deliberation is an ideal – a goal to aim for – rather than something easily achieved in real-world situations. Yet, the real world experience of citizens’ assemblies in recent decades proves that it is achievable, when elected politicians are not the players. It should be noted, however, that the agonistic, or competitive notion of democracy advanced by other political scientists is likewise merely an ideal, only loosely associated with how things actually happen in the real world.
Grounded in deliberative democracy as an ideal, hundreds of citizens’ assemblies of ordinary people have interrogated conflicting expert witnesses and ultimately reached a near consensus on controversial topics. The dramatically increased diversity within randomly selected groups (compared to elected groups), combined with carefully designed deliberation procedures and facilitation allow such groups to make epistemically better decisions than factionalized elected bodies.
In an earlier chapter, I mentioned Mary Parker Follett’s integrative deliberation, in search of win-win alternative resolutions. But there is another approach that can also go beyond the divide between consensus-seeking deliberation, as opposed to the agonistic majoritarian concepts of democracy. This is simply the notion of compromise. Rather than hoping that high-quality deliberation can uncover a best resolution, or simply letting the majority faction get their way, some have argued that democracy should fundamentally be based on compromise. Sometimes deliberation will discover integrative win-win solutions, and other times a majority faction can give in on their unessential preferences to accommodate minorities.
John Stuart Mill, one of the most important political theorists of the nineteenth century advocated for compromise through proportional representation systems, arguing that the British (and American) winner-take-all voting methods promote tyranny of the majority. In his view, democracy is not defined by majority rule, where the majority can routinely impose their will on everyone else. Mill argued that democracy means “the government of the whole people by the whole people,” including the minorities within it. This requires the ability to compromise. For this to be possible, the representatives must act as trustees, able to learn from those with opposing views and even be able to change their own opinions, and strike compromises. But partisan elections require telling voters what representatives believe and will do before they get elected, and before they enter debate to hear the other side. Pre-established party platforms and partisan campaign promises disable democratic deliberation and often stymie compromise. However, regardless of where one comes down on this agonistic versus common-good divide (”conflict is inevitable” or “we can seek common ground”), I will show that sortition is still a better tool than election.
I subscribe to the approach of Brazilian political theorist Gustavo H. Dalaqua. Rather than assuming that there is an uncrossable chasm between the dispassionate rationality of deliberative or epistemic democracy on one side, and the passion of pluralist competitive democracy on the other -- by embracing compromise as the essence of democracy, we can have our cake and eat it too. Dalaqua writes:
“A politics based on compromise unites the agonistic and deliberative strands of democracy, for it allows the extant antagonism in society to unfold in a discursive manner. It permits political groups to manifest their rival passions inside political institutions, but at the same time forces them to deliberate and reach provisory agreements (i.e., compromises).”
On most issues it is useful to explore pluralistic disagreements and then deliberate to seek integrative consensus. But if no win-win option is found, rather than quickly moving to a majority winner vote, a search for acceptable compromises should come next. This is not achievable when competitive partisan elections make defeating opponents the overriding priority, rather than the building of community. A lottery-selected body of non-politicians, who don’t have a primary goal of exposing and defeating each other, makes this democratic ideal a possibility.
The next couple of chapters (many posts) will focus on the pathologies of the competitive system based on elections, also called “representative democracy,” that is dominant today.