Democracy by Consensus: Some Conceptual Considerations*
A notorious thing about democracy is that it is easy to define but difficult to interpret. Yet, you cannot implement the idea without interpreting it, and in fair detail. Granted that democracy is government by consent, we are immediately faced with a dilemma between a maximalist and a minimalist interpretation. In the first approach a democratic government would have to be one based on the explicit consent of all the people and operated by way of decisions enjoying the same quality and extent of consent. On this construal, no known government could be called a democracy. Thus neither Britain nor the United State of America, for example, would qualify as a democracy. It is certain that many people would regard this consequence, not without a touch of derision, as a reductio ad absurdum of the interpretation.
Accordingly, one might be driven to explore a more operational interpretation. One such construal, exploiting certain well-known tenets of conventional wisdom, would run thus. A democracy is a political system in which executive and legislative powers are assumed and exercised only by groups, not necessarily identical, periodically chosen by the people in free elections, provided that there is an independent judiciary and a free press. This proviso is, admittedly, open to debate. Some might want to say that the two embedded conditions are not components of the concept of democracy but rather two of the most important conditions of its realization. Indeed, in so far as an independent judiciary and a free press are designed for the liberty and protection of the citizen, some might even say that these institutions are not essential elements of democracy as such, but only of liberal democracy.
It is not necessary to adjudicate this issue in order to appreciate the following point about the above operational and minimal construal of democracy. Under such a conception, indeed, countries such as Britain and the USA may be called democracies. But it then emerges that attaining democracy is not, in its self, such a mighty achievement. For one thing, many other countries with much less prepossessing political reputations, including quite a few in Africa nowadays, would then have to be recognized as democracies. For another, the operation of democracy in the USA, for example, leaves a whole lot to be desired morally.
As any observer of even the most elementary powers of perception must have noticed in, for example, the campaigns that led up to the general elections in the USA in November 2000, the Hobbesian competition for votes among seekers after political power involves such intensive efforts in the manipulation of the voters that the representative status of the eventually triumphant candidates must be deeply uncertain. To recall just one example of such manipulation, consider the role of ‘negative campaigning’. This is the practice, well mastered by American politicians, of tainting electoral competitors with false or unsubstantiated allegations in order to saddle them with voter disapprobation. This practice was quite rampant. It was also notably effective, invoking from the famous American journalist Dan Rather the exclamation ‘Negative campaigning works!’ emitted, of course, in reporting the fact rather than in rejoicing in it.
Again, note the role of money in manipulating, as distinct from persuading, voters. The causal link between the command of financial resources and the command of voter allegiance has become so clear in American politics as seriously to erode the sense in which any resultant government may be said to be based on the consent of the people. This is not peculiar to the United Sates. Many democracies in the world are worse. Of most democracies in Africa, certainly, the least said, in this respect, the best.
A moralistic reaction to these last considerations might blame the problem on the personal shortcomings of politicians, as a prelude to exhorting all concerned to higher levels of virtue in political life. Such an approach, however, would lack connection with the deeper causes of the situation, which, I suggest, are structural. I will return to this below. But let us, before then, attend to a conceptual point. A consideration of the infelicities in question should encourage one to notice that the American model of democracy is one, rather than the only, possible model of democracy. That model is well known and widely received not only in the Western world but also in Africa, especially among politicians who are out of power. In this model, the notion of free elections, perceived as a sine qua non of democracy, is taken to entail the existence of political parties enjoying unhampered opportunities to compete among themselves for governmental power.
If anything, this last conception -- let us call it the multi-party postulate -- makes it even clearer that what we have here is one attempted interpretation of the idea of democracy rather than its essence. To more easily grasp this, consider that democracy does not even have to be representative. In Western discussions it is usual to trace the idea of democracy to Athenian antecedents. Unfortunately, it is usual also to forget that that ancient form of democracy was not a representative democracy, since, at least in theory, all those who were, in the highly selective Athenian eyes, entitled to participate could participate themselves rather than by courtesy of representatives. (Remember that women and slaves were disenfranchised.) More fundamentally, it follows, as a conceptual consideration, that democracy in itself, does not necessarily even require elections, multi-party or otherwise.
A very much more important conceptual point is the following. Despite the fact that Athenian democracy was of a ‘direct’ or ‘pure’ character, there was no guarantee that the decisions of the popular assembly reflected the thinking of all its members. Factionalism was not unknown in Athenian politics, and the majority could override the minority. After all, Socrates was found guilty in the assembly by something like a majority of 280 to 220 (though, apparently, he was condemned to death by a greater majority). Suppose now, for the sake of conceptual analysis that polarization of opinion in the assembly was usually on these same numerical lines. That would mean that a substantial part of the citizenry suffered veritable disenfranchisement in the matter of decision-making. A polity of that sort would hardly be one to write home about, unless, haply, to contrast it with worse regimes. What emerges from this is that democracy does not necessarily ensure that the decisions of the governing body reflect the consent of all or even a large proportion of the citizens.
What accounts for this finding is the almost standard application, in democratic councils, of the majority principle in decision-making. This principle provides that, in general, the decision of the majority carries the day. So widely is this principle implemented in democratic practice that, indeed, democracy is not infrequently characterized as majority rule. But, surely, the question must arise whether there is any difference that makes a real difference between the rule of the majority and the tyranny of the majority.
In many contemporary African democracies it is hard to perceive any such difference. In my own country, Ghana, neither in the brief democratic interregnums between various post-independence dictatorships nor in the IMF-inspired democracy of recent times was there any manifestation of any real respect for the views of the minority, in parliament or outside it. In fact, the dominant party in the immediate period after the colonial dictatorship had a slogan that constantly proclaimed, ‘We are many and they are few’. Few persons belonging to the minority party could acquire any sense of security from such a slogan. To them any distinction between the rule of the majority with which they were faced and the tyranny of the majority was a distinction without a difference.
In the best known democracies, such as those of the USA and the UK, the problem of the tyranny of the majority in the deliberative assemblies is recognized and dealt with in a number of ways. These include the institution of a system of committees responsible for various aspects of the affairs of the state on which the minority are well represented. Also grave decisions, such as constitutional changes, usually require more than a simple majority, usually to the tune of two-thirds, a number not easily attained in those parts. Such expedients, however, can only have a palliative significance. Even a two-thirds parliamentary majority can be oppressive to a one-third minority.
Furthermore, in spite of such things as representation on committees for the ‘opposition’ and various ‘checks and balances’, it is obvious that in any arrangement in which, by and large, power is in the hands of the majority, the minority are apt to feel that not being in power is quite an unenjoyable state of being. The effects of such unhappy consciousness are visible in the uncompromising opposition that opposition parties are known to put up against the policies of the party in power. Meanwhile, the will to the retention of power is no less evident in the reactions of government parties. The acerbity of the resultant polemics belies the benign protestations, on both sides, of faith in the moral excellence of the system.
As far as morality is concerned, the following principle can hardly be disputed: In the normal run of things all persons have the moral right not to have their interests and concerns affected by actions or forbearances that do not enjoy their consent. The notion of interests is to be taken broadly to transcend narrowly self-centered desires and designs. That is, the principle is subject to the corresponding rights of others. Under this constraint, the interests of an exploiter, for example, in comparison with those of the exploited, are lacking in moral weight. Understood in this way, this postulate is the fundamental reason why government by consent is generally given a high moral rating.
Now, government by consent need not necessarily involve any mechanisms of representation, as we have seen. But in the modern world hardly any state, wishing to be democratic, can dispense with some manner of representation. It is evident that at certain levels most citizens can only be linked to government through representatives. But having a representative is, or ought to be, only the beginning of citizen input into governmental decision-making. The next stage is the factoring of the views of the representatives into the making of actual decisions. We assume that there are some procedures intended to enable citizens to apprise their representatives of their thinking and that the latter are adequately motivated to fulfill their functions of representation.
Even so, the fact, sadly, is that at all these points of possible citizen contact with government decision-making a citizen may be left out of account. First, the elected representative may not be the one for whom the particular citizen voted. Second, this citizen may not, in fact, have any sympathetic opportunities for letting her thinking be known to the elected official. Third, the views of the citizen might be ignored, if, for example, she belongs to a defeated party. All three possibilities are known to occur frequently in systems of democratic government in which the majority principle holds sway, in other words, in majoritarian democracies. The frustrations that arise from this situation can have many manifestations and various sublimations.
As a result, political life becomes a perpetual struggle for power among political parties. Now, if power corrupts, the quest for power also corrupts. And in the inclemencies of that struggle, not only objectivity in discussion or fairness in human relations, but also the very chance of participation in political decision-making is lost. In Africa, human life is also lost, sometimes in numbers too grievous to recount.
Besides these moral negativities, there is the question of the irrationality of a system that breeds so much tension. Is it not possible, one might ask, for human wit to devise a kinder, gentler and more rational system of governance? This question has, in fact, sometimes occurred to the advocates of majoritarian democracy. Shorn of all witticisms, the answer they have usually given is that despite all its obvious faults, no better system is practicable.
Such a suggestion should not impress any African who belongs to an ethnic group with a pre-colonial history of government by consensus. Nor, actually, should it impress too many people from other parts of the world, for the consensual approach to decision-making in political as well as non-political contexts is known in other parts of the world too. Most interestingly, there are contemporary approximations to a consensual polity in continental Europe, notably in Switzerland and Belgium, that should go some way toward dissipating the impression that in the way of democracy there is something ineluctable about the majoritarian system in the political life of a modern industrialized state. Conversely, it should discourage the idea that a consensual system of politics is only possible for ‘simple’, pre-industrial, societies.
The tendency to identify government by the consent of the people, that is, democracy, with government by the consent of the majority is obviously born of excessive fixation on Anglo-American models of democracy. Once liberated from the hold of those majoritarian models, it become possible to explore the possibility of a polity even more radically consensual than that of, say, Switzerland. As far as contemporary Africa is concerned, such a thought enterprise has quite a life-and-death urgency. Fewer things are clearer about Africa in recent times than that the majoritarian democracies transplanted there, sometimes with the encouragement of economic well wishers, are, in many cases, uniquely unsuitable.
The ethnic stratification of nearly all contemporary African states has ensured that many ethnic groups will be politically marginalized, a condition that breeds grievances unpropitious to stability or economic development or anything good for humans. It hardly needs a special argument to prove that if a system of governance could be arranged in which all the different ethnic groups in an African state could develop a sense of political belonging, some, perhaps, many, of the current impediments to peace and progress might be removed. Government by consensus seems to me to be just such a system.
In elaborating on this thought, let us begin by clarifying that to which we are seeking to propose an alternative. By a majoritarian democracy, I mean a political system in which “free and fair” elections contested by parties determine who has the prerogative of exercising legislative or executive power or both. In general, such power will accrue to the party that wins a majority at the polls. For the sake of simplicity, I assimilate triumph at presidential elections to this generalization. I will also ignore those contingencies of national crises or of electoral inconclusiveness that do sometimes compel the formation of a ‘national’ or ‘coalition’ government, except to note the generally admitted relevance of consensus in those situations. Such expedients seem to be based on some sense of the need for consensus. But it is an incomplete sense. The underlying notion seems to be that consensus is practical and necessary in political decision-making but only in very, very important political situations. Apparently, if the given issue is just very important or only just important, then it must yield ground to partisanship. Exactly this accounts for the limitations of the kind of cooperation among political groups for which ‘coalition’ governments are reputed. Such political formations are usually marriages of circumstance in which the separate agenda and ambitions of the parties enter into only a temporary dormancy.
To return to majoritarian democracy, the investiture of power in the majority party is authorized by a constitutional provision or political convention. In either case, such a political order endows political parties with an extraordinarily dominant role in the polity. That role determines the character of these organizations. They become instruments for the acquisition of power and its retention, and they develop internal characteristics and external habits oriented toward that single-minded objective. Internally, power structures are built around beliefs and predispositions and frequently also around personages in anticipation of power. Externally, mechanisms of propaganda are put in place for securing the support of the electorate and gaining advantages over rival parties by all necessary artifices. The quest for power easily excites passions, and this is why rational dialogue does not come easily in the relationship among political parties.
As an alternative to majoritarian democracy, I propose a democracy based on consensus, both on its own merits and on grounds of continuity with pre-colonial traditions in many parts of Africa, including my own. First, then, what is consensus? It is extremely important to make a distinction between consensus regarding normative and cognitive issues and consensus regarding issues of policy and action. In fact, sometimes a decisional consensus cannot be reached because a normative consensus is unavailable. For lack of a better terminology, let us call this the distinction between, on the one hand, cognitive and normative consensus, and, on the other, decisional consensus. The first two kinds of consensus mean general agreement. Their maximal limit, of course, is unanimity. The relevance of these kinds of consensus to action is often great; but, conceptually, there is always a distinction between what is the case and what ought to be the case, taken together, and what is to be made the case. In the first two kinds of cases, that is, in the cognitive and normative cases, consensus simply means that there is at least a very high degree of agreement evenly spread out among a given group. To say, for example, that the consensus of current scientific opinion is that the universe started with a big bang means that most scientific cosmologists in at least most parts of the world are of that opinion. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to consensus regarding what ought or ought not to be done. Thus, for instance, if we say that the consensus among Americans is that a man ought not to be the husband of more than one woman at any one time, what we mean is that in most parts of the United States at least most people, but not necessarily all, are of that persuasion.
By and large, then, the cognitive and the moral cases of consensus are a matter of numbers. Not so decisional consensus, which is the form of consensus germane to the kind of democracy we have in mind. To be sure, decisional consensus too involves numbers. We have this variety of consensus when all the people concerned with a given matter decide that a certain thing is or is not to be done. If the unanimity is instantaneous, the consensus is perfect in some sense. But, for that very reason, it is uninteresting. The interesting and socially important forms of unanimity are the ones that emerge from an original situation of differences. And what is crucial for the kind of unanimity that secures a non-trivial consensus is its manner of achievement, not its numerical value. That manner is the manner of compromise. Where two or three human beings are gathered together, there will always be the possibility of a plurality of opinions. This is especially the case when the issues in hand concern what is to be done. In general, such issues will involve cognitive and normative ones, and regarding them all manner of differences of opinion can arise. In the best of all possible worlds such differences will be resolved by means of rational dialogue. In our actual world, however, even after rational discussion has been given full play, there will sometimes be persisting differences, some of them very important.
Theoretically, there are four options in the sort of situation just hinted at, namely, to stay deadlocked, to do as a minority or a majority bids, or to move ahead together by compromise. Human beings are not so constitutionally pigheaded as to remain indefinitely in the first predicament, though they are known to stay there for considerable lengths of time, sometimes physically fighting among themselves, to the peril of life and limb. The second possibility is that of a dictatorship, deservedly execrated by most, and the third that of majoritarian democracy currently celebrated by many. The fourth (i.e., compromise) is the way that leads to consensus. It is not unknown in human councils, but is comparatively unsung, on account, it seems, of its perceived difficulty. What seems to make it difficult is that it presupposes a willing suspension of belief or disbelief. In a situation in which none of a given set of competing agenda recommends itself to all, it is possible, through the targeted pruning of each, to obtain a workable compromise. That would be something not believed by any to be objectively what ought to be done, but acknowledged by all to be what is to be done in the circumstances.
Consensus, of course, has limits. The compromise must be one that the principals can live with. Otherwise there is no consensus. In some situations one cannot even begin to consider compromise. Between a slave and a hardened slave master, for example, there is no prospect of a compromise and, therefore, of consensus on, say, the subject of human autonomy. The same is even clearer regarding any system of politics based on consensus. You cannot have such a system without a shared commitment to basic morality. Nor is majoritarianism exempt from this condition. The question therefore is: Given this moral requirement, which of the two systems is more likely to reflect in its operations the consent of the people? The role of money in multi-party electioneering, as commented on above, can hardly warm the hearts of the poor or even those of moderate means in the quest for genuine representation of their interests in the councils of the state.
Note the following three things.
(a) There is no such thing as compromise as to what ought or ought not to be done. One cannot say with any degree of propriety something like ‘I believe that we ought to do A, but, in the interest of the community, I am going to believe that we ought to do B’ (where B is in some way incompatible with A). One can change one’s mind and come to agree with others in the matter of what ought to be done; but that can properly be done only as a result of rational reflection and inquiry. For this, what is requisite is open-mindedness, not a spirit of accommodation. The same is even more evident with respect to cognitive questions. We may exhort people to cultivate the art of compromise, but we cannot exhort them to change their beliefs about what is the case merely out of goodwill. What we can legitimately do is to try to change their beliefs with argument and evidence. It follows that the willing suspension of belief or disbelief previously mentioned is not any sort of suppression of thought. What we see here is that the consensus that may be brought about by compromise differs categorically from the type that appertains to normative and cognitive issues.
(b) The relation between decisional consensus and rational dialogue is somewhat subtle. Short of an automatic unanimity by an act, perhaps, of nature herself, rational dialogue is a necessary condition of consensus. But it does not of itself yield consensus. Consensus requires the willingness on the part of all concerned to accord respect to the other parties to public deliberations. It requires also the ability to contemplate with equanimity the prospect of not getting one’s way all the time. Interpersonally, such a frame of mind on the part of individuals translates into a reciprocity that can have far reaching consequences. For instance, amidst such reciprocity, it is not inconceivable, not just that a parliamentary minority might sometimes defer to the majority, but also that the majority might on occasion defer to the minority. Any talk of majorities and minorities is, in any case, only applicable to the penultimate phase of a consensus-oriented deliberation; for, if the right compromises have been made, the emerging decision will be avowed by all. Moreover, in such a milieu, majorities and minorities will not necessarily reflect a permanent polarization of opinion. The point, now, is that the right compromises are made not by virtue of any additional inquiries into facts and values but out of a certain kind of commitment to the general good. Such compromises are not irrational on this account, but their rationality is a rationality of attitude, not of belief.
(c) All the parties to any group deliberation that produces consensus are party to the decision reached. This contrasts sharply with majoritarian decision-making. Here the decision represents the wishes of one group as opposed to another. In politics this usually means the majority as opposed to the minority party. The former are the winners, and the latter the losers. The notion of a party has occurred three times in this paragraph. In its first occurrence it means an individual or group of individuals with an interest or concern for a given issue or project. In the second it is used adjectivally to mean being a participant in the making of a decision, and in the third it is used in the well-known political sense in which a party is a group of people, basically of one mind, organized with the aim of winning governmental power. We will use numerical subscripts to track the different senses. The number one will indicate the first sense, two the second and three the third.
Would parties in all or any of these senses have any role in a polity based on consensual decision-making? Consensus, as may be gathered from all the above, may be characterized (in the absence of an antecedent unanimity) as an agreement arrived at by all the members of a given group through rational dialogue and mutual accommodation. Consensus can be had in both political and non-political contexts, but let us here restrict ourselves to political consensus. It is obvious that if consensus becomes the decision procedure of a nation’s deliberating body, the distinction between government and opposition would lose its raison d’être. If all parties1 are party2 to the decision, there is nothing to oppose and no need of a party3 to do the opposing.
On the other hand, there will always be parties1 wanting to be party2 to decisions that affect them. From this standpoint, a party1 is an association of citizens interested in promoting preferred political ideas and policies. Any one who tries to take liberties with the citizen’s right to form or belong to a party1 of his choice is trifling with one of the most fundamental of human rights, namely, the right of free expression, association being a form of expression. In a consensual dispensation, then, there will be parties1 but no parties3. The same thought may be illuminatingly expressed in other terms: Obviously, a set of political conventions or constitutional provisions that envisage a consensual system of politics will not include a rule that mandates that the party3 that is victorious at the polls gets into governmental power to the exclusion, normally, of other parties3, since there will be no such parties in that system. But, since there will be parties1 in the given state, it will not be a non-party1 state. And also since a system based on consensus is one in which all representatives are party2 to decisions, it will not be a non-party2 system either. A consensual system, then, is a non-party3 system, but it is neither of the non-party1 nor the non-party2 type. The crucial factor here is the absence of the rule for the sectional appropriation of power.
The power of this rule, which invests triumphant parties with the prerogative of forming the government, is well nigh magical. It is the root of virtually all the evils of party3 politics as we know it now. It is this that makes general elections into life-and-death struggles among contending parties3. Dispensing with it will result in the radical transformation of existing parties3. They will cease to be machines for the conquest of power. Their multi-facetted quest for money to lubricate the machine will subside. The mutual hostility among parties3 too will most certainly abate. With these, one can expect an increase in the civility of political discussion and an upgrade in the moral sensibilities of political leaders. It should now be clear why exhortations to moral rectitude in party3 political life, however eloquent, will avail nothing within the structure of the majoritarian system. The allure of sectional power is stronger than the power of words.
Will the absence of parties3 (as we know them) not induce political apathy in the citizenry? It can be granted at once that the kind of enthusiasm that political parties3 are apt to generate in a section of the population will, most likely, dry up. That kind of excitation of spirits might be called, at best, ‘irrational exuberance’ or, at worst, partisan fanaticism. But it is difficult to think that, if issues are objectively represented to the public, as they are likely to be in the new dispensation, and people are enabled to perceive the bearing of those matters on their concerns, they will still adopt an attitude of indifference. This opinion is strengthened by the highly motivated way in which people frequently participate in the affairs of their local governments. At that level of governance it has been easy for people to see and feel the consequences of policy on their lives. Moreover, at this level, the influence of political parties is usually minimal, unless what we have on our hands is a totalitarian system. Genuine interest in government affairs seems to vary inversely with party importunities. On the whole, then any prophecy of apathy is unlikely to be fulfilled in a genuine consensual polity.
In fact, the likeliest source of trouble might be ambitious and ingenious power seekers who might scheme to create a de facto one-party1,3 state (note the double subscripts) under the disguise of a no-party3 rhetoric. A de facto one-party1,3 situation would exist if one party1 is allowed to function and flourish while all others are proscribed on (inevitably) false accusations of subversive actions or intentions. Ostensibly, everyone would be entitled to build or belong to a party1 of his or her own choice, but, observably, only one party1 would be in existence. In such a case, only that one party1 could possibly have ambitions of governmental power. It would thus become, in reality, as distinct from legality, the party3 in power and the only one with such an opportunity in the state. And this would be notwithstanding profuse proclamations of a non-party3 dispensation on the part of the power hunters behind these hypothetical machinations.
I propose the following as indices of a non-party3 system that is genuine and desirable. First, of course, political decisions will have to be by consensus. This is not likely to mean much to the generality of the society unless issues can be widely understood and discussed. In many parts of Africa a great many citizens are not literate in English or French or Portuguese, even though some such language is the official language. This ought not to be an unconquerable impediment to the political education of the populace, for the requisite information and other food for thought can be supplied to them by local speech. Moreover, since some who are not literate in any of those languages are literate in their own languages, it can be done partly by vernacular writing.
Therefore, second, the press must be free, informative and educative. To start with, this means that ruling politicians should not terrorize journalists, an otherwise routine phenomenon. This is obvious. But there is also a less obvious desideratum. At least, in many African countries, it seems clear that the state ought to fund the establishment of high quality newspapers capable of becoming vehicles of public education or free expression. As matters stand now in some parts of Africa the government owns and controls the best endowed newspapers. Not unexpectedly, their role in political education or free expression is severely questionable. Generally, the categorical imperative instituted for such newspapers is something like “Act always in such a way as to let the truth be known only when it is to the advantage of the government or the resident dictator; otherwise do your best to shield it from the public gaze.” Nor are the conditions of service usually good enough to attract personnel of high quality. So even if the journalists concerned were filled with earnest intentions to be enlightening, their own enlightenment might not be commensurate.
Of much of the private press in those African countries where there is some democracy the least said the best. With extremely few exceptions, this class of newspapers tends to be extremely handicapped in terms of level of thinking. Given this state of affairs, if nothing else, it seems to me extremely worthwhile to explore what contributions the state might be capable of making in the matter of a good press. Let us start by making explicit the conceptual distinction between state and government ownership that is implicit in our last few remarks. When a government owns a newspaper, the consequences, as noted above, are disastrous. State ownership, on the other hand, can be an altogether different proposition. This should be especially the case in a consensual state where government is not in the hands of a section of the population, who might then be tempted to use the resources of the state to prolong their tenure of power. Appropriate constitutional stipulations can ensure, to the extent that this kind of thing can be ensured, that a newspaper owned by the state is not under the control of any government.
Consider the judiciary. It is a state funded institution; yet, if the constitution is well framed, it can be an independent institution and a pillar of democratic freedom. Furthermore, consider universities. In many parts of Africa, the leading universities are state-funded. But in some places at least they can, and have been, independent. Half the battle would be won if there could be widespread understanding that the press (or the media in general) is deserving of as much consideration as the judiciary and the universities. As in the case of these institutions, stringent constitutional provisions may need to be adopted to solidify the position of journalists in the state. For instance, something like an independent Press Trust can be established for state funded newspapers. (The same holds for the other media, mutatis mutandis.) Its board of directors, might, for example, be elected or otherwise selected through some rational arrangement by institutions like Trade Unions, Professional Associations, Religious bodies, Farmers’ Councils, Universities and various kinds of voluntary associations. Under such an arrangement state newspapers can be a forum for expressing all tendencies of opinion in the given country. To match the new sense of the importance of the press and other media conditions of service comparable to, or better than, those of the universities or the judiciary would need to be provided.
If these conditions are satisfied, a one-party1,3 system by the stratagem noted above would be hard to contrive. It would be but child’s play for a free and highly educated press, for example, to unmask such one-party1,3 chicanery. And the resources of civil society, such as those mentioned in the last paragraph, which would, by hypothesis, have free expression, would then kick in even more forcefully than in the successful pro-democracy struggles in Africa in the eighties and nineties. Since I have had occasion to mention such institutions as the judiciary, the universities, the trade unions, professional associations etc, I might take the opportunity to recognize them as centers of independent thought and action in any state that can have any pretence to good, non-party governance. In the recent pro-democracy movements in Africa, many of these institutions displayed a political vitality that took some African dictators altogether by surprise. This seems actually to have been a rekindling of the historical continuity between civil society and the state in traditional African culture.
The above mentioned organizations and others like them can have a further utility in a consensual polity. This is in connection with elections. Under a consensus system, the term ‘free elections’ will not mean an electoral competition contested by duly registered parties. Of course, individuals as well as political associations will be free to exert themselves in the persuasion of the electorate. Such associations or movements can be the driving force of social change and regeneration. But the associations will not be contestants in elections; only individuals will. Furthermore, because decisions will be taken in the governing assembly by consensus, people will tend not to read too much into any ad hoc blocs of opinion that might become visible.
These last remarks might seem to share the high valuation of elections in democratic theory. I do not, in fact, share that valuation. Preparing for elections is the point at which representative democracy becomes riddled with many of its iniquities. Elections in their customary conception are a highly majoritarian procedure. The voters who vote for the triumphant candidate belonging to the triumphant party are in some kind of ascendancy over those of the minority. In some parts of Africa democratically elected governments are known to make a good note of areas that failed to vote for them so as to calmly skip them when the time comes for the apportionment of development projects.
Nevertheless, perhaps, elections cannot be avoided in a modern representative democracy, as already noted. Even so, it should be feasible to diversify the basis of representation by drawing upon civil society. The kinds of associations mentioned above could become valuable sources of representation in addition to the electoral constituencies, as we now know them. Those civil organizations might be assigned some agreed number of representatives in the governing body. This plan should raise the probability of any given individual being in at least one extra voting group.
It is obvious, furthermore, that in addition to all the good things that are credited to decentralization even in majoritarian thinking, diversifying the basis of representation points also towards giving more power and scope to local government. As noted earlier, it is at the local level that representation is most direct and participation most real. It is there also that the link with civil society is most palpable.
It bears further emphasis, perhaps, that democracy by consensus as advocated here is a structurally different system from democracy by the majority principle. As systems, they might be operated with varying degrees of efficiency and success in different times and places. By no stretch of the imagination can those traditional African societies that in historical times operated a consensual polity be called paradigms of unbroken harmony. Neither can one suppose that a consensual system can be speedily devised in Africa to end all political evils. Actually, it may well be that government in itself is an evil, necessary only for the time being. In any case, we will have to reckon with resistances both from within and without Africa. Perhaps all we may hope for in the near future is the elimination of the gross blemishes of majoritarian democracy that have been so utterly crippling in their effects in post-colonial Africa. Still any such effort will have to be in the direction of consensualism. And so it may not be amiss to try, as we have, to be clear about what it is.
I cannot forbear subjoining another note of caution. As earlier hinted, consensus is much more difficult to obtain than a majority in the art of decision making. It cannot be got at all unless the individuals concerned have the appropriate habits of mind: belief in dialogue, respect for others, patience, freedom from overweening ambitions for power, and so on. In those African countries where consensus was the basis of politics in pre-colonial times, that kind of polity was, in fact, an epiphenomenon of a general culture of consensus in interpersonal relations. By all the visible signs in Africa now, we need to re-learn the ways of consensus, both conceptually and existentially. Political consensus might then be added unto us.