Is Consensus Democratic?

Democratic Consensus
A man is holding a sign that says, “We Are The 99%” at a Occupy Wall Street protest. Photo by Paul Stein

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Democratic Consensus

Let’s start with an admission. Consensus is never simple. On the surface, it feels democratic. It comes across as a meeting of the minds where disagreements are overcome. However, large groups will never reach true consensus. Even the assemblies at Zuccotti Park did not require unanimous consent. They discovered a small minority would always resist agreement. So, any appeal to consensus has limits. Nonetheless, this does not mean consensus does not exist or that it is meaningless. The difference between a simple majority and two-thirds shapes the political process. It affects coalition strategies and negotiations.

Rachel Beatty Riedl describes Benin’s democracy as a consensus rule. Consensus was important for different elite actors and groups to accept the democratic process. It made the transition to democracy palatable, because nobody felt left out. Moreover, it was not simply helpful, but absolutely necessary. Beatty Riedl writes, “Without inclusive power-sharing, Benin teeters on the edge of political violence and a return to its ethno-regional paralysis of the post-independence years.” Still, power-sharing arrangements do not ensure democratic inclusion. They often limit the distribution of power to a handful of elites. So, consensus can counterintuitively restrict opportunities for participation.

Benin overcame this danger through what Beatty Riedl describes as “low barriers to entry for political parties and candidates.” In other words, Benin made it easy for new voices to earn a seat at the table through elections or citizen mobilization. Still, consensus makes governance difficult. Francis Fukuyama describes America as a “vetocracy” because it includes many choke points designed to encourage consensus. However, in practice it empowers powerful minorities to kill efforts for reform. Of course, Benin itself has found its consensus rule challenged under the presidency of Patrice Talon. Consensus opens many possibilities for democracy, but at its worst can make it unsustainable.

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Rachel Beatty Riedl on Benin. Democracy in Hard Places.

Ashutosh Varshney on India. Democracy in Hard Places

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