I saw someone arguing that the structure U.S. legislature is not borrowed from the natives because the native system was all about reaching a consensus rather than a majority opinion. This got me to thinking, how would a modern-ish legislature based on consensus work?

The way I picture it is that for a law to pass, the opposing arguments must be addressed rather than just being voted down. There would obviously have to be some way of determining whether the arguments were adequately addressed or even valid in the first place. I'm imagining a supreme mugwump of the legislative assembly who holds the power to initially dismiss arguments as invalid, and a later option to challenge the law in the supreme court on whether or not the consensus was there.

What sort of issues would this system face? And conversely, what issues of the majority-vote based legislature wouldn't this system face?


Consensus decision-making is already a current system for several democratic institutions, namely changes to the United States Constitution as well as certain aspects of the functioning of the European Union. In the case of the EU, consensus-based democratic decision-making requires the agreement of all member states when signing new treaties as well as in certain situations. A good example of this in action are the current UK Brexit negotiations - cancelling or postponing Brexit requires a consensus, as well as any final treaty on the new economic relations between EU and UK.

The issues that come up:

  • General policy is discussed and proposed according to consensus goals
  • After a specific policy is proposed, each voting member contributes their own suggestions and feedback.
  • After modifications if consensus is not reached, concessions/exceptions are offered to individual abstaining/rejecting parties. Originally consenting parties may then apply for their own conscessions.
  • Often this is sufficient for consensus, if not the policy is rejected.
  • For this reasons, policy proposals often already contain exceptions or modifiers based on the economic/social situation of likely nonconsenting members.

So if such a system were replicated in a smaller democratic government body (where each politician would be required to agree), one could expect similar issues:

  • Any legislative action would require an aknowledgement of and agreement on common goals.
  • Individual members would apply for exceptions and advantages for their representative constituents.
  • There would be much larger social, media and political pressure on individual politicians.
  • Significant changes to the whole system would be almost impossible, or happen on a timescale of multiple decades rather than year-to-year.
  • Laws enacted would tend to have a much broader scope, and leave much more to the executive implementation or legal interpretations based on the constitution.
  • For these reasons the executive and judiciary would have much more power, since they would be the fastest response to current or urgent problems.
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See the sad tragedy of the Polish parliament after the introduction of the liberum veto. Basically what happended was that the maleficent enemies needed to bribe only one member in order to render the Parliament ineffective; this greatly reduced the cost of paralizing the working of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, leading eventually to the partitions of Poland. A noble idea led to Poland being erased from the map in 1795.

A new Polish state was created in 1918, after WW1, and this time they made sure to have a regular Parliament which could pass bills with plain ordinary majority.

I see no difference between the supreme mugwump of the question and a dictator. That is exactly how Roman emperors ruled during the Principate, when the Roman state was legally a republic exactly as before. The Latin for supreme mugwump was tribunicia potestas, the power of a tribune of the people; it enabled them to block any bill (and in general any government action) which they found inconvenient, thus giving them absolute control over the state. When we say that, e.g., Claudius became emperor on 24 January 41 CE we mean that on that day the Senate made him supreme mugwump by giving him tribunicia potestas...

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  • $\begingroup$ This is why I added the part about the supreme mugwump having the power to dismiss arguments as frivolous or declare them properly addressed. Of course, that just limits the liberum veto to the supreme mugwump's party. $\endgroup$ – HAEM Aug 4 '17 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @HeikkiMäenpää: That was also done. Roman emperors were not actually emperors (not until the 3rd century anyway), they were supreme mugwumps in a state which was otherwise a republic. Edited the answer to address this. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 4 '17 at 13:34

The biggest issue your system faces is a quasi-guaranteed stalemate for almost any topic.

On the other hand, any democracy that does not protect their minorities is not a democracy at all, but an Ochlocracy (the tyranny of the majority), so your system, while inoperable, would at least not fail in that aspect.

Your system would work if benevolence of all members of parliament could be guaranteed. This, of course, is impossible with humans.
But if you look at contries with more than two parties, like for example Germany, where there's typically four to five parties, you normally have coalitions formed from the party that got the most votes and whichever other party can help form a majority and is wiling to cooperate.
To protect minorities, there is a court of law that makes sure all laws passed respect the constitution (well, in theory, but that is a somewhat different story), plus there is a second chamber with different majorities, to balance the first. The coalitions already help with balancing things, not least because after the next election, you may need to form a new coalition, so it's best not to offend the other parties too much. After all, such a system always mean that you can have a valid coalition without the strongest party, as long as they are below 50%, which would be normal in most multi-party systems.

What does that mean for your question:
Unless you find a way to solve the benevolence problem, you should not allow a single opinion to block legislature. Your supreme Mugwup has the same problem. If he was guaranteed to be benevolent, you would not even need parliament. And if he's not, the entire veto thing is already down the drain. You should want a political system that allows for more parties. That will probably mean representative seats for the different parties, and no winner-takes-it-all systems. It will also mean you need a careful set of checks and balances.
All in all, a "good" political system is one that prevents an individual group or institution from amassing too much power. And it will need constant fine-tuning, while still allowing for actual decisions to be made in a reasonable time frame.

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