This article looks at why current democratic structures are often, in effect, harmful; and then discusses a more inclusive and beneficial polity, a vital component, it may be argued, of any holistic programme for the survival of our species.

In the words of Karl von Clausewitz, “War is [indeed]… the continuation of politics by different means,” and democracy is far too adversarial. This is mainly because we take decisions by majority vote, and this despite the fact that the yes-or-no, for-or-against vote is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. Its widespread use means that nearly everything is reduced to a choice of two options, or a series of such choices, and, as in war, people take sides.

When used by the ancient Greeks, majority voting seemed to work fairly well. This was partly due to the fact that there was “nothing resembling a ‘party system’ in sixth/fifth century Athens or any other Greek state” (Ste Croix 2005: 198). Persons could agree on one day, and disagree on the morrow; that did not mean that they fell into two camps in permanent opposition.

The first people to question the majority vote, then, were the Romans. In AD 105, Pliny the Younger realised that it was inadequate, if and when there were three or more options ‘on the table’, (Emerson 2012: 168). But then came the dark ages.

In modern times, as in ancient Greece, politics was initially conceived as an inclusive process. In England, for example, there were at first no political parties. Sadly, however, decisions were taken by majority vote. Hence sides were taken, (not least because of the geography of the House of Commons). Thus one group started to criticise the other, and parties emerged. Initially, however, the names they adopted were terms of abuse from the other side: a ‘whig’ was a ‘money-grabbing Scots Presbyterian’ while a ‘tory’ was an ‘Irish papist bandit’ (Churchill 1956: Book II, 294). The original US system was also meant to be inclusive: their first presidential elections were designed to allow the winner to become the president, and the runner-up the vice. Indeed, their opposition to any form of party politics was extreme: “the alternate domination of one faction over the other… has perpetrated the most horrid enormities [and] is itself a frightful despotism,” was how George Washington described the British two-party system in his farewell address of 1796. (Emerson 2012: 54). Democracy was for everybody – a term which later included women and former slaves – not just 50% and a bit.

Today, however, party politics is the norm, not only in western democracies but, with the notable exceptions of China, a few small jurisdictions like Nauru, Guernsey and Nunavut, and a few less reputable countries such as North Korea, pretty well everywhere. Thus in countless forums, in most courts of law, in many company boards, and in umpteen political meetings both national and international, even complex questions are often reduced to dichotomies.

The question of the question

Now in conflict zones, the question is invariably binary: are you Catholic or Protestant? They asked in Belfast; Serb or Croat? In Zagreb; Hutu or Tutsi? In Kigali, and so on. The question itself, so obviously closed, was part of the problem, and part of the subsequent violence. In the Balkans, for example, “…all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a [majority vote] referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999). In other words, majority voting was a – not ‘the’ but ‘a’ – cause of the subsequent wars.

But it is the same in non-conflict zones, in politics generally, both nationally and internationally: many a domestic argument has been seen in terms of left-wing versus right; and the Cold War itself was also based on the closed question, are you communist or capitalist? As was pointed out in 1921 by the Russian ecologist, A.P. Semenov-tian-shanskii, the two creeds are however so similar: “…the socialist idea was just [another] striving grounded in base self-interest…” (Weiner, 1988: 35).

In most (non-political) human relationships, questions are open, and the choice is multi-optional. What would you like for breakfast? the parent asks the child, and even a 3-year old can usually cope with a multi-option choice of cereal. The question is definitely open in any mediation work, be the dispute domestic between two persons, industrial between hundreds, or political between millions. In politics, alas, the questions are often closed: yes-or-no, for-or-against. Thus, in many instances, the question is part of the problem.

In 2002, for example, the UN Security Council debated Iraq. The question – a most complex matter involving sanctions, inspections, diplomatic efforts and threats of force, was reduced to a dichotomy: resolution 1441, for or against. All 15 members voted in favour but at least one, France, thus voted for something she did not like. (Emerson, 2012: 43). In other words, again, majority voting was a – not ‘the’ but ‘a’ – cause of the subsequent war.

A more inclusive polity

If the world is to survive, we must come to collective decisions. The individual’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ and the individual nation’s self-interest must be inferior to the collective will of humankind, as expressed in the decisions of UN conferences, general assemblies and security councils. Logically, mathematically, if there are (or should be) more than two options on the table, the collective will cannot be identified by means of a majority vote. It can, however, be done by preference voting.

If the debate is multi-optional – (which on any contentious topic it is almost bound to be, in any international forum or, for that matter, in any democracy which aspires to the adjective ‘plural’) – there then comes the question of how to analyse the people’s (or their representatives) preferences: do we take the option with the most first preferences or the one with the least last preferences? do we use a points system or a run-off? or do we run a league system? The possibilities are numerous… but not if we first define democracy as being for everyone rather than just 50% and a bit.

Most voting procedures used in decision-making are of the win-or-lose variety. Democracy, however, is indeed for everyone. The process, therefore, should be one by which all may influence that which thus becomes the confluence, so the outcome will thus be at the very least the best possible compromise, and at most the collective wisdom. The appropriate methodology is the Modified Borda Count (MBC), which works like this.

Let us consider Iraq again. All concerned – (and not just Messrs Blair and Bush) – may choose the options – (a draft 1441 is option A; if France has other ideas, she may produce a complete package with the appropriate articles amended, as option B; and so on). All concerned may then join in debate, asking questions, proposing amendments, or even having new ideas, while a team of consensors draws up and then maintains a balanced list of all the various options ‘on the table’. If in debate the participants come to a verbal consensus, the latter may be regarded as the final decision. If not – which in many forums is the more likely scenario – the consensors produce their final (short) list and, if the participants agree that this represents the full scope of the debate, with all relevant options included whether verbatim or in composite, then those involved may move to a preference vote.

The outcome is the option with the highest average preference, and an average, of course, involves everybody, not just 50% and a bit. The MBC is non-majoritarian; it is inclusive, in the best sense of the word: it is win-win.

Taking the UN Security Council as our continuing example, it may be assumed that certain countries will form into blocks. The UK and USA move option A. France joins Germany and Russia to move option B. Ireland, a member of the Council at that time, might adopt a more neutral stance, option C. Syria, another member, might offer a more Middle-Eastern perspective, option D. And so on. Let us assume the debate ends with five options ‘on the table’ and computer screen: A, B, C, D and E.

The country which moved option E will hope that its policy comes to be seen as the most popular. To do so, it will need if not lots of 1st preferences, then a good number of 2nd’s and 3rd’s, and very few 4th’s and 5th’s. It will therefore be worth that country’s representative’s while to talk to those who are the opponents of option E, to persuade them to give this option not a 4th or 5th, but a 3rd or even a 2nd. The MBC in effect promotes dialogue or, to use a more appropriate term, ‘polylogue’. In other words, the voting procedure to be used at the end of the debate affects the nature of that debate. People do not fall into opposing camps so readily as they would in any majoritarian debate.

Come the vote, each may cast a 1st preference for their favourite option, but they may also state their compromise options. And if everyone does that, then it will be possible to identify the collective compromise… which is what democracy is all about.


If the world is to come to collective agreements, in UN conferences in Copenhagen and Rio de Janiero, for example, every country must be allowed to participate. Rather than letting a few rich countries dominate proceedings, all options must be ‘on the table’. Doubtless, countries will fall into groups: the low-lying coastal countries, for example, may form one bloc; the Sahel belt another; oil producers a third, and so on. But all should be enabled to draft a complete treaty on climate change, to then exchange ideas and suggestions from other groups, in a word, to participate, to feel included, both in workshops and in plenary. In the almost inevitable absence of a verbal consensus, countries could proceed to a consensus vote; all preferences cast would be in the public domain; if the outcome failed to achieve the necessary consensus coefficient, (Emerson 2007: 160-1), the vote could be used as a straw poll, to see which options are considered to be worthy of further debate.

In consensus decision-making, nothing ends in stalemate. At the very least, participants engage in a useful discussion; and at most, if not at one meeting then at a subsequent gathering, they identify their common consensus, the sine qua non of the survival of our species.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.