Proposal for Non-Adversarial Decision-Making:
Combining the Majority Vote with Consensus Building
Most of the present so called "democratic" societies use only a simple majority vote to arrive at all the decisions. Even if a proposal is approved by the smallest possible majority of a single vote, the decision (law) is immediately after the vote assumed binding for everybody, and one proceeds with its implementation and enforcing. In a polarized society, such a process can perpetuate or even deepen divisions between opposing groups instead of healing. The group that very nearly lost a vote could choose to secretly or openly disobey the new law, then force is used to enforce it, which can in extreme cases provoke violence from both sides.

Yet there is better way - the government by consensus - that has been practiced by many Native Americans for centuries before their first contacts with Europeans. It was however not the "pure" consensus requiring unanimous vote, which could hardly ever be achieved because of the variety of personal views. It was practical consensus int he following sense: They also made decisions by "majority votes", but after a vote, its implementation was postponed until everybody was comfortable with the majority decision. Until everybody affected by a decision understood it, and was willing to except it and abide by it. Thus a vote could be followed by a long period of consensus building - discussions, explanation of the benefits of a decision.

There is no obstacle why we could not use such a proven process in our modern society. It could be equally well used in small groups or in large societies, equally well in the future direct democracy as in the legislative bodies of the present "representative democracies." The process would be as follows:

  1. Discussion of the proposals

  2. Simple majority vote: 50% + 1 vote is enough for a proposal to win

  3. Consensus building: further deliberation to achieve the required level of acceptance of the winning proposal; there would be no time limit, this phase would continue until enough citizens (or members of a legislature, or a group) accept the proposal as the best possible under the given circumstances, and are willing to support and promote it and live with it and by it, even if they initially voted against it. This phase can be suspended for arbitrary time periods if it is clear that the required level of consensus cannot be achieved at the given time, and it can be resumed whenever there is indication that consensus can be achieved.

    Here, in the ideal circumstances, the required level or enough would mean 100% of all citizens or legislators. However, for example to ease the transition from the current situation to this 100% ideal, one could initially require only the consensus of the 75% of citizens or legislators, and increase this figure for example by 1% every year or every few years until the 100% ideal is achieved.

  4. Implementation of the decision only when the required level of consensus is achieved.

Such a decision-making process would ensure much better continuity and stability of the governments even in the current representative systems, and generally would not force big disruptive changes upon the unprepared population by the decision of a simple slim majority. The consensus building process would prepare people for necessary changes, and should decrease the degree of violence in the society to a minimum.

Miroslav Kolar, March 24, 2005

I have seen several sources describing various aspect of Native American decision making process. The most comprehensive known to me is the following book: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy

Here are two short excerpts from it:

  • From Chapter 1: In the written perceptions of the (17th century) immigrants, there is a pervasive sense that the native peoples held the keys to ways of ordering society that European man was only beginning to understand.

  • From Chapter 2 (Perceptions of Native Democracies): Issues "were usually decided upon by majority vote . . . [and] discussed until a general consensus was reached." No human being would be expected to be bound by a decision to which he had not given his conscious consent.

In the very North of the North America some of these traditions continue till the present (or are being revived): Nunavut

Even the modern corporate world values consensus. Below is an excerpt from a Modern Management course on Achieving Practical Consensus.
In my view, it is quite useful food for thinking even for democracy advocates:

There is rarely pure consensus in the real world of organizations.
What can be achieved is Practical Consensus:

Achieving practical consensus starts with the recognition that on virtually any important question
there will be a variety of legitimate views. After reviewing them all, the team agrees to act in a
unified manner in order to meet the needs of  its customers (either internal or external).

Practical Consensus exists when:

1. All members have been heard from, fully, frankly and respectfully, and have honestly and sincerely expressed their views and feelings. (The role Meeting Manager is critical here.)

2. All views have been weighed without prejudice. (Participants should keep their minds open, and argue not to win but to help achieve their "desired outcome.") Win-Win attitudes are crucial.

3. All relevant information has been shared equally among team members.

4. No egos have got in the way!

5. All members are willing to act as though the decision were their own.

Practical Consensus can be achieved when team members:

6. Avoid "arguing" for a point of view, but approach the task on the basis of logic and data.

7. Resist the temptation to change their minds simply to duck conflict or reach an insincere agreement.

8. Support solutions that they can go along with, even if they're not (apparently) ideal.

9. Avoid "conflict-reducing" strategies, such as majority voting, averaging, or compromise.

10. View differences of opinion as a help towards clarification or unexpected solutions.