applying Beyond Adversary Democracy to solve problems

Jane Mansbridge published Beyond Adversary Democracy in 1983. This book has been cited thousands of times and has deeply influenced political theory, certainly including my own work. At the recent annual meeting of the American Political Science association, Mansbridge won the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award for a “work of exceptional quality by a living political theorist that is still considered significant after a time span of at least 15 years since the original date of publication.” Beyond Adversary Democracy was the book in question, although Mansbridge would also deserve the Lippincott for Why We Lost the ERA (1986). She gave a beautiful and interesting lecture on the future of political theory.

During her speech, Mansbridge recalled that she had been inspired to write Beyond Adversary Democracy to help the radically democratic organizations of the 1970s–the many co-ops and communes that sprang up in that era–to address the challenges of self-governance that seemed, sooner or later, to wreck most of them. Someone asked whether any group had ever used her book to solve such problems. She said: never!

Perhaps no one has developed, tested, improved, re-tested, refined, and disseminated a practical toolkit based on the theory of the book. Such a product would be useful not only for radically democratic organizations but for any group that employs democratic decision-making for some purposes and at some times. For instance: a department in a university.

The first draft of such a tool would be an experiment, requiring testing and improvement. The draft might start like this:

A friendly person who is independent of the organization should conduct an anonymous survey (derived from Jenny Mansbridge’s own instrument) to identify points of widespread agreement as well as conflicts of deeply felt interest within the group. “Interests” mean not only self-interested goals and needs (like raising one’s pay) but also ideals, such as committing the organization to a certain strategy.

The person who conducts the survey should then provide a public list of any issues that are not conflictual within the group. Members should not devote time to discussing these issues. Instead, they should delegate them to one person or a small team. The people who are put in charge of each non-conflictual issue should be required to report back periodically and to keep records, and they should be open to advice and complaints, but they should decide what to do without the whole group’s involvement. Rotating such responsibilities can be smart, but it can also be wise to give these tasks repeatedly to people who enjoy them and are good at them.

The survey should also generate a public list of issues that are contentious. The whole group should discuss these issues with a trusted moderator who can stay fairly neutral. An important purpose of such discussion is to help everyone better understand the contours of the disagreement by allowing individuals to voice their divergent values and needs. Some time should be spent looking for creative solutions that could satisfy most people. However, the group should be prepared to resolve such issues by voting anonymously after a finite amount of time spent on deliberation. Although majority rule cannot satisfy everyone, it is better than trying fruitlessly to reach consensus when interests actually diverge.

Once a vote is taken, the fact that a minority has lost should be explicitly acknowledged, and the group should formally thank them and resolve to try to make it up to them in some way later on. Then the group should shift to an issue that has been identified as non-controversial. They should explicitly mark this transition. “Well, that was a tough discussion, but now let’s talk about office furniture. Does everyone agree that Al can take care of that? Thanks so much, Al. Everyone, please contact Al if you have any special concerns.”

The survey should be designed to reveal whether differences of interest fall along identity lines. For example, women might be tend to differ from others on matters related to maternity. Or people of color might have specific concerns in a predominantly White organization. When that is the case, it is important for the people who hold leadership positions to represent both or all of the relevant identity groups. It may be both fair and necessary to reward them for serving on committees, since this burden can fall disproportionately on disadvantaged members of an organization.

On the other hand, when there are no differences of interest, or when differences do not fall along identity lines, then it is much less important for the decision-makers to be demographically representative. It becomes correspondingly more important to give tasks to willing volunteers, to individuals who have experience for the task at hand, or to people whose turn it is do more for the group.

These are principles or maxims, but they could be turned into flowcharts with diagnostic questions and suggestions. For instance: “Does this disagreement seem to divide your group by race, or gender, or job title, or some other identifiable characteristic? If so, what is the characteristic? Does the committee include people on both sides of that difference? How should we reward individuals who join the committee to make it more representative?” (etc.)

This kind of application by no means exhausts the value of Beyond Adversary Democracy, which is mainly a rich contribution to theory. For instance, the book can influence how we read Aristotle or Rousseau. However, applying insightful theories can improve the world; and the experience of applying them can further enrich theory.

Added later: a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups. See also: the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today; friendship and politics; needed: pragmatists for utopian experiments