A Political System for a Good Society

[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published June, 2006.]

{ This paper was prepared for the June 1 – 7 2006 first Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These sessions gather activists from around the world to share ideas and experiences regarding social vision and strategy. }

What sort of political institutions and practices would be appropriate for a good society? Let me exclude executive and judicial institutions, and narrow the question down to ask, What sorts of decision-making institutions and practices would be appropriate for a good society?
Over the years, the Left has offered a variety of answers to this question, all of which in my view are seriously flawed in one respect or another, even though they each have valuable insights to offer


One popular answer on the Left has been Leninism. While naïve Russian peasants in the early 20th Century used to say "If only the Czar knew…," Lenin said instead "If only I were the Czar." When Lenin declared that "unquestioning submission to a single will" is necessary for modern large-scale industry, he was reflecting the perspective and interests of the coordinator class, not the working class. The Bolsheviks established a political system that evolved into the horrors of Stalinism, but even earlier it was inconsistent with basic democratic values.

Leninists replied to those who criticized their lack of democracy by arguing that society ought to serve the objective interests of the working class, not its perceived interests, not what the working class with its false consciousness believes to be its interests. So the vanguard — who have true revolutionary consciousness — often have to impose their will on the ignorant population. This notion of false consciousness has been used to justify some of history’s most grotesque dictatorships, but the concept is not entirely phony. The Leninist error was not in thinking that there is lots of ignorance out there; nor in thinking that debilitating life circumstances often interfere with people understanding their true interests. Their mistake was in assuming that they were free of self-interest or ignorance, and that they knew the interests of others, with enough certainty to warrant suppressing those who disagreed.

So while we must reject the dictatorial Leninist position, we want a political system that doesn’t just take people’s attitudes as fixed, but as a work in progress, improving as people function in a humane society.

Representative Democracy

A second political system is representative democracy, a system whereby people vote for other people — representatives — who will rule in their names. Representative democracy has several serious defects.

First, it treats politics as strictly instrumental — that is, as a means to an end, instead of a value in its own right. But political participation is intrinsically worthwhile: it gives people the experience of controlling their own lives. The more that the task of thinking about how we can collectively manage our lives is delegated to others, the less knowledgeable we become regarding our society, the less we determine our own destinies, and the weaker our ties of solidarity to our fellow citizens.

A second problem with representative democracy is that representatives for many reasons don’t in fact represent their constituents. Representatives say one thing to get elected and then change their positions once in office. They have no real connection to the hundreds of thousands of people they represent. Their different life circumstances lead them to develop different interests from those of their constituents.

Now it’s true that we could mandate representatives to keep their campaign promises. But what happens when circumstances change? Do we want representatives to be required to carry out policies that new developments have made inappropriate or even harmful? Alternatively, we could mandate all representatives to follow the evolving wishes of their constituents as reflected in public opinion polls. But if we do this, then the representatives are rendered technically irrelevant. There is no need for representatives to study or debate the issues because it doesn’t matter what they think. All that matters is that they vote according to their constituents’ stated wishes. In short, mandated representatives could simply be replaced by a computer that compiles the opinions of the people and then votes accordingly. But this is really nothing more than a system of direct (referendum) democracy. So if representatives are mandated, they are irrelevant, and if they are not mandated then they will often not be truly representative of their constituents.

Advocates of representative democracy do make some legitimate arguments, however. They claim that it would take too much time for everyone to decide everything. I think this point is often exaggerated — people’s tolerance for meetings, for example, cannot be judged by their reaction to meaningless meetings today where they have no real power — nevertheless, it is true that not everyone has, or ever will have, the same enthusiasm for politics as do political activists. We don’t want a political system that requires everyone to value political participation as much as full-time politicos do today. But though we’ll want a lesser degree of participation than that favored by political fanatics, this is not an argument against institutionalizing substantially more political participation than is experienced by most citizens of capitalist democracies.

A second argument on behalf of representative democracy is that representative legislatures are deliberative bodies that debate and negotiate complex resolutions that fairly capture the essence of an issue, whereas the citizenry as a whole would be incapable of such fine tuning. They have to vote a ballot question up or down; they can’t reword or amend, even though we know that the precise wording of a ballot question can often skew the results. This is a valid point, one which any alternative to representative democracy needs to take account of.

Referendum Democracy

Direct democracy is an alternative to representative democracy. Under direct democracy people make decisions themselves rather than choosing others to do it for them. There are several variants of direct democracy. One of these is referendum democracy where every issue is put to the population as a whole. In the past such an approach was simply impossible: there was no mechanism for allowing millions of people to cast ballots on a nearly daily basis. But modern technology makes this possible. People could use the internet first to access as much background information as they wanted and then to vote on their preferred options.

But even if technically possible, would you really want to spend all this time exhaustively studying the many hundreds of issues that national legislatures currently take up each year. Those legislators are doing this more or less full-time. Do you want to invest that same amount of time (while doing some other job as well)? Legislators typically have a staff to make the work manageable. Would each citizen have a staff person? Clearly some means is needed to separate the important issues out from all the rather routine issues that legislators currently deal with.

Beyond this time problem, referendum democracy suffers from the defects noted previously. When people make decisions that do not emerge from participation in some sort of deliberative process, their off-the-cuff opinions are more likely to be intolerant and uninformed. While deliberation encourages people to seek common ground and find ways to take seriously the opinions of others, voting in a referendum encourages people to express their pre-existing views on polarized positions. In referendum democracy, when you lose a vote you don’t feel better for having participated; you feel trampled on, that no one gave serious consideration to your concerns. When you win a vote you feel self-righteous, with no need to consider the concerns of those you defeated.

Autonomous Communities

A second type of direct democracy is where all decisions are made directly by the people living in fully autonomous small communities. Here we can have the benefits of participation and the benefits of deliberation. But there are nevertheless serious shortcomings.

First, not all problems are susceptible to small-scale solutions. Avian flu calls for a global solution. Environmental problems need a large scale response. Small communities cannot afford their own MRI equipment. (Yes, I like Echinacea too, but who can doubt that life expectancy has been enhanced by access to modern, high-tech medicine compared to societies that depended solely on herbs and roots.) It is true that some large-scale technologies create great harm — like nuclear power plants — and that much technology is horrendously misused in current society to serve the interests of elites. But this is no reason for us to reject technology entirely. Technology — one of our species’ great accomplishments — has the potential to reduce human drudgery and provides us the opportunity of undertaking more creative work and leading fuller lives.

Advocates of autonomous communities often reply that their preference for small scale does not prevent communities from cooperating, whether to address environmental problems or to share an MRI machine. But how do we decide how to share scarce medical resources among communities if not with some decision-making procedure involving multiple communities? And if we have such procedures, then we no longer have autonomous communities.

A second problem with small autonomous communities involves the question of how small is small. Kirkpatrick Sale, for example, recommends communities of about 10,000 people each. These, it seems to me, will be too small to accomplish many important social purposes and too boring to provide adequate variety. At the same time, however, they are too large to permit face-to-face direct democracy. A meeting of the community’s 5,000 adults would not be a very participatory experience. Few would get to speak, to share their insights and concerns, or to participate. No doubt, after several of these alienating mega-meetings, attendance would drop off sharply, eventually reaching a manageable size, but this might result in participation rates even lower than currently obtain in the United States.

Nested Councils

A third type of direct democracy is to reject both the self-sufficiency and the referendum models and instead have small councils, linked to one another. The logic of this system of nested councils is three-fold.

First, everyone gets to participate in a council that is small enough for face-to-face decision making and for real deliberation.

Second, many decisions will be made in these councils. That is, there are many decisions that should be made at this lowest level council because the decision affects only or overwhelmingly the members of that council.

Third, because there are many decisions that affect more than the people in a single council, the councils affected will have to coordinate their decision-making. This means that councils will have to send delegates to a higher level council. (And, if the decision affects more than one of these higher level councils, they would in turn send delegates to a third-level council. And so on.)

How would these higher level councils operate? We don’t want to have delegates mandated by their sending councils, for then the higher level councils will not be deliberative bodies. As noted previously, there would be no point to anyone speaking or trying to persuade others, or passionately explaining one’s special concerns, because all the delegates would have zero leeway — they have to vote the way their sending council told them to. This means that no one from council A gets to hear the perspective of people from council B, and there is no possibility of coming to a better position than either A or B alone proposed. On the other hand, if the delegates are not mandated and just do what they want, then we have the problem of delegates becoming like the unrepresentative representatives that characterize representative democracy.

What makes more sense is to send a delegate who, because she or he has been part of a council and participated in a deliberative process with its members, understands their sentiments and concerns, and is authorized to deliberate on their behalf with other delegates. But what will prevent this unmandated delegate from becoming an unrepresentative representative? First, the connection between delegates and their sending councils is an organic one, not at all like the connection between members of the U.S. Congress and their 600,000-member constituencies. The delegates are part of — and constantly returning to — their sending council. Second, delegates will be rotated; no one will be permitted to serve continuously as a council’s delegate. Third, delegates will subject to immediate recall. If ever a council believes that its delegate no longer adequately reflects its concerns and sentiments (and all higher-level council meetings are videotaped and easily monitored), then it may immediately replace the delegate with someone else. Fourth, the higher-level councils will only vote on matters that are relatively non-controversial. Whenever a vote is close (or when enough lower councils insist), the decision is returned to the lower councils for a decision.
It might be asked, why not send all issues back to the primary-level councils for a vote? But this is where our concern to avoid overdoing participation with excessive time demands comes in. By sending back contentious issues or those so requested by the lower-level councils, we have a check on abuse of power by the delegates to the higher-level councils. But to send everything back would simply be a waste of time.


I’ve used the word "voting" several times, but this raises the question of whether the decision-making procedure requires consensus, majority rule, or some other percentage.

Consensus decision-making — where discussion continues until everyone agrees — has much to recommend it. It allows and encourages mutual respect, deliberation, and tolerance. An impassioned minority should not be ignored. Consensus particularly works well in small groups with a common outlook. But to rely exclusively on consensus doesn’t make sense for a large scale society, or even for smaller groups which did not come together on the basis of common views. To reject consensus is to override the often deeply-held concerns of a few. But to insist on consensus is to override the often deeply-held concerns of the many.

Take the issue of abortion, an issue not likely to disappear even after the establishment of a new society based on humane, including feminist, values. A proposal is made to open a new abortion clinic. A small minority opposes the proposal on the basis that they sincerely consider abortion to be murder. The others, however, hold equally sincere views that to prohibit abortion is to violate women’s most fundamental rights. They talk, they debate, they respect the moral seriousness of one another, they find some areas of common agreement (say on the need to provide resources for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term), but at the end of the day they cannot reach a consensus. In that case, a vote, decided by majority rule, is the only just option. To allow the few dissenters to block action is to deny the overwhelming majority ultimate authority to decide their own fates. There is nothing magical about 50 percent plus one, but it does deserve more moral weight than 50 percent minus one.

Decision-making in councils should proceed by consensus when possible, majority rule when not. This said, in fact the dynamics of small groups strongly incline towards consensus. People who find themselves in the minority on some issue are likely to be willing to go along with the majority because they know they’ll be in the majority on some other issue. In large, anonymous groups this sense of reciprocity is unlikely to be as strong, but where there is face-to-face contact, social pressure will tend to encourage people to avoid votes and to go along with the sense of the meeting. But on some occasions this will not be the case, and then it makes sense — after appropriate deliberation — to have a vote. The vote is of benefit not just to the majority, which gets its policy preference, but to the minority as well, which can officially register its dissenting view. The minority is not forced into the position where it has to either block the majority or falsely indicate its agreement with the majority view.

Protecting Minority Rights

Given that I’ve proposed following majority rule in contentious cases, how will the rights of minorities be protected in such a system? Many societies have constitutions that spell out limitations on the authority of the majority: the majority cannot tell people what religion to practice, what they can say, what they can think; the majority cannot deny individuals the right to a trial, the right to vote, and so on. A good society would of course have some sort of charter that specified these sorts of limitations. But the best constitution in the world is not going to be specific enough to define and resolve every circumstance that might arise. If a council votes that hate speech is illegal, is this a violation of free speech? If a council votes that parents cannot send their children to religious schools that preach sexism, is this a violation of religious freedom? These sorts of issues will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But by whom? If the decisions are made by the councils, then the majority is essentially charged with providing a check on itself — which won’t be very reassuring to minorities. In many societies, these decisions are made by judges, but then the question is, How are the judges chosen?

If judges are elected, then they are likely to be subject to the same majoritarian passions as the council that made the contested decision. Judges in the United States who campaign for election promising to be tough on crime, clamp down on immorality, and so on, are hardly the most reliable defenders of minority rights against an intolerant majority. On the other hand, if judges are appointed for life terms (as a way to remove them from the immediate whims of the majority), then they are an undemocratic body, often sticking up not for the oppressed minority but for the privileged minority.

This problem of how to check the abuse of power by the majority has been a vexing one in democratic theory. If majorities oppress minorities, that’s not democracy. Yet if minorities can block majorities, that too is undemocratic.

The approach I propose is analogous to the jury model. Choose a small group at random from the population to constitute what I call the council courts. These courts will review decisions made by councils to see if they interfere with basic rights and constitutional protections. Each level council above the primary-level will be assigned a court, with the court assigned to the highest level council being the High Council Court. Like current-day juries, these courts will be deliberative bodies, though unlike juries they would have a term longer than a single case — perhaps staggered two year terms. As a cross-section of the population, these will be democratic bodies: democratic bodies serving to check the democratic councils.

Why won’t these randomly chosen council courts simply reflect the worst prejudices of the majority? No system can guarantee that justice will always prevail, but there is good evidence that when people deliberate together, more intelligent and more tolerant views emerge. This would especially be the case in a society without serious economic deprivation.

To sum up my position: I reject Leninism, representative democracy, referendum democracy, and small autonomous communities. Instead I urge us to support a system of nested councils. At each level, councils proceed not by consensus, nor by strict majority rule, but by a deliberative process that seeks consensus where possible, and majority rule where necessary. My proposal includes a court system that limits the majority, thereby protecting minority rights, but these courts are neither elected nor appointed, but chosen randomly from the population to constitute a deliberative body modeled on the jury system.

I am sure that my proposals can use many refinements and perhaps serious revisions. But at a first approximation I think they show how we can have a political system that incorporates the values we would like to see in a good society.

[This paper shamelessly summarizes ideas developed in two previous articles of mine: "ParPolity: Political Vision for a Good Society," Revised: Nov. 2005,  http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=9178, and "Political Vision: Making Decisions in a Good Society," Z Magazine, Oct. 2004, http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Oct2004/shalompr1004.html.]

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