Reaching Consensus: Democracy and Rules of Order




Robert’s Rules of Order probably seem to many, especially the younger of us, to be ancient and nearly irrelevant. But these rules are comparatively recent, and far more modern and adaptable than you may realize. Henry Martyn Robert published his pamphlet of “Rules” in 1876, a mere 145 years ago, and almost 100 years after the adoption of the US Constitution. (Read the Wikipedia entry on him to see what sort of chap he was. You may be surprised.) I’ll get back to Robert’s Rules in due time, but first let’s zoom out on the subject of democracy itself. 

Our organization is called Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”). Most of us concentrate harder on understanding what socialism is than we do on understanding what democracy is. Some of us don’t think all that much of “democracy” anyway, considering it an overrated system. Or even if we profess to revere democracy, we may assume we know all about it, like fish know water, and not inquire into it very deeply. 

I have to confess, I’m just the opposite. I feel like, once I broke the chains of ignorance about socialism forged in my youthful years at the height of the Cold War, I pretty much understood socialism intuitively. But, to me, democracy is a bigger subject, one that’s less understood, or taken for granted, or both(!) and then unfairly maligned on top of that. Maligned for being things that it’s not, or failing to be what it should be, because of the stronger opposition of little-understood anti-democratic forces. 

This essay is an attempt to reframe the subjects of democracy, consensus, group dynamics, leadership, anarchy, power and hierarchy in a way that I hope will get comrades to put a little more thought into how we are doing democracy in DSA. (Not that I’m seeking to change what we do; I think we do democracy as well as anyone, but more to change our thoughts about it, and gain new tools for evaluating its uses and outcomes.) 

One place to start is to understand that democracy is not a system of government. It’s a quality by which systems of government can be graded. Republicans are actually right when they say the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But modern-day Republicans are saying this to say that democracy itself is a weakness, and they are doing this because they fear “too much” democracy. 

As democratic socialists, I think we should look at the United States as a republic, which it is, and then evaluate it at any given time as to how much democracy (and how much socialism) it has. And as DSA, we always want to increase both of those measures. We (or at least I) don’t think there is such a thing as “too much” democracy in the constitution of a nation. Although there can be poorly designed democracy, one that’s consequently inefficient and hard to use to accomplish what the majority actually want and need. 

Now that we’ve zoomed out to consider democracy at the international and national level, let’s zoom back in to consider democracy as a quality or goal of group decision making. 

If you look up Democracy in Wikipedia, there are no fewer than 50 variants of democracy listed in the right-hand margin notes, with links to their separate Wikipedia entries. There are also an approximately equal number of related topics, ranging from Anarchism through Democratic Socialism and Ochlocracy* to our old friend, The Tyranny of the Majority. 

*Mob rule or ochlocracy (Greek: ὀχλοκρατία, romanized: okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) is the rule of government by a mob or mass of people and the intimidation of legitimate authorities. Insofar as it represents a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, meaning “the fickle crowd”, from which the English term “mob” originally was derived in the 1680s.(Wikipedia)

And then, of course, if you follow those links, there are innumerable internal links in the articles, leading you to such tidbits as the Iroquois Confederation (claims that their system of government influenced the US Constitution have been largely debunked) and the term  “polyarchy” and its coiner, the late Prof. Robert Dahl. Dahl was a major influence in the field of modern democratic theory, using behavioral science concepts to classify and describe modern forms of governance.  

The immediate takeaway is that–of course–democracy is way too big a subject for a short essay. At this point, therefore, we will zero in on decision-making in meetings of associations, such as DSA. Theorists distinguish between the democracy and forms of small associations, and parliamentary forms of the deliberative bodies of states and nations. Ruling bodies of local authorities, and government councils whether elected or appointed, fall somewhere between,  but mostly use the rules and forms of small associations.  

In the US, a large majority of the staggering array of small associations, from unions and political organizations, to church councils, sports associations, charities, advocacy groups,  foundations, cooperatives, fraternal orders, scouting associations, PTAs, social clubs, and neighborhood associations, use Robert’s Rules of Order in some form, either exclusively, or as a fallback for a situation where their own rules don’t apply. 

The US Congress, on the other hand, uses its own manuals–the House uses the House Rules and Manual, which is prefaced by the entire US Constitution and the full text of Jefferson’s Manual of Rules (yes, by that Jefferson) before getting into specific House Rules. The US Senate has a standing Rules Committee which meets during recess to revise Rules of the Senate, a document dating back to 1789 and that has only had seven general revisions, the last in 1979. Cute factoid: the US Congress has an official Parliamentarian, but the “mother of Parliaments” in the UK does not. But then it doesn’t have a written constitution either, and its upper chamber wears wigs and fur-trimmed robes, so I guess that’s no surprise. 

Twin Cities DSA, like most nonprofits, operates under member-written and adopted bylaws and a constitution, modeled on the National DSA constitution, that satisfies the role of “articles of confederation” required by the State in order to be legally recognized. Our bylaws specify Robert’s Rules of Order as the authority in cases where the bylaws are silent.  

So who is Robert and why have his rules persisted so long in use in the US? Henry Martyn Robert was born in 1837 in South Carolina into a family of devout abolitionist Christians. His father was a Baptist minister who later became the founding president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. The family moved to Ohio shortly after his birth, when life in South Carolina became untenable for outspoken white abolitionists. Robert was nominated to West Point, and began there a distinguished career as a military civil engineer, which culminated in his election as President of the Board of Engineers, and as a so-called “tombstone promotion” to Brigadier General upon his retirement in 1901. 

His other claim to fame was when just after his retirement, he was one of the three civil engineers recruited by the government to design protections for the city of Galveston TX. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the greatest one-day natural disaster in US history, having killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people when a storm surge completely flooded the island and destroyed all but a handful of the buildings. The team of engineers designed and built the Galveston Sea Wall. 

But it was in the seemingly mundane role of chairing a church council meeting in 1863, in the Quaker and abolitionist stronghold New Bedford MA, that Robert was inspired to write his manual of rules, published in 1876. The meeting erupted into conflict and chaos amid fears of a Confederate assault on the church, and Robert, a young man with no experience of conducting meetings, vowed never to do it again until he had learned about parliamentary procedure.

Although the Rules are loosely based on Robert’s study of the US Congress rules of the era, it is explicitly not meant for state or national assemblies, but rather for gatherings of ordinary citizens in voluntary associations. The Rules undergo constant minor changes, via the Robert’s Rules Association, and the manual has been thoroughly revised several times. The current edition is the 12th edition, and there are many adaptations available such as Robert’s Rules in Plain English (2009) by Doris Zimmerman, or the official RROO In Brief editions, designed for those completely unfamiliar with rules of procedure. 

I believe RROO has persisted as an authority because it is useful and usable, adaptable and flexible. The Rules are not meant to rule over members, but to allow members to reach self-rule by fairly sorting out conflicts. We can (and do) still use techniques borrowed from more libertarian sources, such as circles, rotating leadership roles, progressive stack, and consent voting, without in any way running afoul of Robert and his amazing rules.   

Deb KR

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