Monday, November 05, 2012

Finding Unity: Beyond Majority Rule

On this election day, I’m thinking about “Beyond Majority Rule,” Michael Sheeran's classic about the vote-less Quaker decision-making process.

Today’s voting, if it is conclusive, presumably will assert the will of the majority. Of course, the vagrancies of our anachronistic Electoral College may get in the way of that. And there is always the possibility of multiple recounts and legal determinations of legitimate ballots and voters etc.

Sooner or later there will be winners and losers.

That's a problem for the nation. Moreover, the winners will inherit a losing, divided system of governance. In a sense they will lose to the system. The winners in one branch of government will be the losers in the other.

Some call this "balance" of power "brilliant," but in these challenging times and from my own experience with Quaker decision-making, I'm finding it increasingly absurd and even dangerous.

The Quaker process is refreshingly different and simple. It forbids voting per se because the unity of the Quaker meeting is far more valuable than deciding winners and losers.

In secular terms, the Quaker process calls for reaching consensus. But that doesn’t capture the essence of how Friends decide what to do.

The decision is an amalgam of views that emerge in the course of finding common ground and then articulating it in the form of a motion for action. An action "minute" is read. If someone disagrees, that person is asked to explain and suggest alternative language that will address the concern. Once that is offered, Friends are asked again whether they are “in agreement.” The process continues until agreement is reached by all.

(There is a spiritual side to this as well. Indeed, Friends, as Quakers call themselves, often settle into  meditative silence to seek the solution to the issue at hand. If all goes well, they are “spirit-led” to "finding unity.")

After much discussion and contemplation, some Friends may choose to “stand aside,” an acknowledgement that a “sense of the meeting” has been reached even though those stepping aside may not fully agree with it. They realize that the decision is the meeting's, not that of a collection of individuals.

Could this process work in the governance of a nation — in choosing a president and Congress as we will do today?

For starters, polarized, hardened partisan politics seems antithetical to the Quaker approach. To reform our present system, parties would have to be abolished. More likely, they would simply be made irrelevant. If the object is no longer to win an election but to find agreement for the greater good, non-partisanship seems the only alternative.

Likewise, the process is not about politicians but about ideas and actions. Those ideas and actions shouldn’t be voted on but forged in public by those valuing the public interest first and foremost. Paid lobbyists for private interests, whose views would be heard and weighed, would be barred from deliberations as their motives clearly would be compromised by money.

The executive branch, in our case the presidency, would have the sole function of executing the agreed-upon results of the deliberations. A president would be chosen by an independent group skilled at assessing administrative skills. That body also would arrive at its choice by consensus. There would be no majority or minority view. All would be winners; none would lose.

The composition of the independent selection group would be determined using the same process. Any slate offered to the community must be approved in its entirety. No need to single out those opposed. The whole slate would be rejected and then a new one brought forward for consideration. Without comment, some of the previous names might appear, some might not. In all cases, reputations are respected and protected.

How very alien this is to the exercise we will participate in tomorrow. How far this is from what will happen over the next four years.

Obviously this short essay doesn’t begin to address all the relevant questions, but it may suggest a new way of thinking about governance and government. It begins to address to offer a desperate need in our nation: finding unity.

That's what Quakers have, more of less, managed to do for 350 years.

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