DRMacIver's Notebook

Democracy isn't just voting

Democracy isn't just voting

This post's reading comes from Amartya Sen's "Identity and Violence", page 55, although actually it mostly comes from Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom" (which I haven't read).

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes how influenced he was, as a young boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the local meetings in his African hometown.

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer.

In context the point that Sen is making is that the idea we have of democracy as a "western" ideal that we've inherited from the greeks and imposed on the rest of the world is bogus, and in fact democracy taken in the general as any form of collective decision making that involves its participants equally in the process is found in my cultures.

I'd like to highlight something else: The democratic ideal that he is describing is actually quite far from the western one, and it's better. These days in a lot of the west we have this very anemic idea of democracy, where we've basically reduced it to voting, and voting is in many ways supposed to be the thing you do when better ways of doing democracy have failed. Reducing democracy to voting is already failure, even before you get into the question of what voting system you should use.

Really the starting point for democracy is not the vote but the discussion (not the debate!) - people getting together to try to figure out the best solution, in a way that respects everyone's needs and viewpoints. Everyone speaks, everyone listens. You don't necessarily have to all agree at the end (Consensus-building is sometimes a good idea, but it's hard and not always worth it), but everyone has the option to be heard.

This isn't to say that voting is never a good feature in democracy. Voting has a lot of advantages when what you want is a relatively low cost way of deciding between a small number of options, but most decision making isn't like that (and the decision theorists who tell you it is are lying to you). Most of the interesting parts of the democratic process consist of getting to the point where you can reduce things to that small number of decisions.

This is particularly useful for decisions that don't matter very much, because it lets you get them out of the way quickly, but for more momentous decisions it largely comes at the end when you've exhausted the possibility of agreement.

One of the big limitations of voting over discussion is that it cannot put new things on the table. You can vote for RON (the only candidate that can promise change!) in some systems, but most voting in practice does not meaningfully allow that.

This, I think, suggests a feature that is important and absent from most voting systems: They need to be able to fail. One possible conclusion of voting should be that it concludes that you weren't ready for voting yet.

Consensus seeking votes are the easiest example of such a thing: Unless 100% of people agree on an option, the vote fails and you have to go back to discussion. You can do similar things by requiring supermajorities: If \(\frac{2}{3}\) of people approve some outcome, you select that, otherwise back to the drawing board.

I think one reason we overfocus on voting is that it's easier to do at scale (lotteries are also easy to do at scale, but we don't like those for various reasons - some good, some bad). The democratic ideal of discussion really only works with small groups - even our parliaments are too large to really manage it, let alone our populations.

I feel like there are probably systems that solve this by essentially patchworking together many small democratic groups, but perhaps the biggest problem with getting there is how little small scale democracy there is in most people's lives. The overwhelming majority of small group interactions we have result in someone basically taking charge, and because people are increasingly atomized most of us don't seem to be part of any communities that could be or would benefit from being democratically run (maybe this isn't true? It's certainly my impression).

I do think one part of that is the absence of good social technology for this. John Gastil's Democracy in Small Groups describes how small group democracy is actually implemented in practice in some of the communities where we do have that, and frankly I'm a democracy fan and I still think it sounds awful.

Maybe what is needed is something like Liberating Structures? A toolkit of easy to use small group democratic processes that people can just plug in to their lives and use where appropriate.