Voting peace

Democracy: rule by majority, hence defeat of minority. No wonder minorities want to secede! But there are ways of voting that overcome this disadvantage

By Metta Spencer | 1993-06-01 12:00:00

The world is witnessing both an upsurge in democracy and an epidemic of secessionist wars in such places as Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Sri Lanka. By the time such a war has started it cannot truly be resolved. Perhaps we can, however, invent new democratic institutions that will prevent such wars. I have some suggestions to offer. The success of these inventions requires that they be implemented before a demand for "self-determination" gathers momentum.

About ten percent of all existing nations are ethnically homogeneous and need not worry about partition. This paper will relate to the prospects for democracy in the remaining 90 percent of all nations-the multi-ethnic ones. Just when democracy is sweeping the world, the meaning of the word is changing. Democracy is coming to be seen as promising "human rights" not only to individuals but also to groups. Such group rights include "self-determination," which to many means the right to secede. The existing "old" democracies do not have constitutional solutions to these problems, and unless new alternative structures are invented, our world will continue to fragment into smaller and smaller states. Small states cannot solve the grave economic and environmental problems that confront us-problems that are increasingly global in scale-and so it is urgent to invent political structures that will meet the rising expectations in pluralistic societies.

Two Types Of Multi-Ethnic Societies

Let us begin by comparing two antithetical types of multi-ethnic societies, one "Modern" and the other typical of the Middle East or the Orient a few hundred years ago, which we will call the "Ancient Asian" type.

Our hypothetical "Modern" multiethnic society prizes individualism and universalism. The individual is the social unit. There are ethnic groups, to be sure, but presumably they are temporary and in the background, for in the "melting pot" people are expected gradually to shed their national identities and come to share a single, homogeneous culture. Individuals' rights are protected. They can choose a spouse from any linguistic or religious background. They can be hired and promoted in firms that do not discriminate with respect to race, ethnicity, or gender. They may identify with an ethnic community as much or as little as they like, for ethnicity is an individual option, not fixed and mandatory. Their church is also a voluntary organization that can impose its canon laws only so long as they willingly belong, and at any moment they can quit. Only the rules of the wider society are compulsory, uniform and equally binding on all citizens. The rule of law is universalistic, for justice is supposed to be blind, not discriminatory.

At the opposite extreme, the "Ancient Asian" model, we find the "particularistic" society, a very different kind of multi-ethnic society that was common in the past. Particularism is the principle that people should not all be treated alike, but rather according to the standards and rules of their various groups. In such societies, groups lived in close physical proximity but interacted only in the marketplace, if indeed at all. In a city, five or six ethnic communities might live side by side, speaking different languages and maintaining their own separate customs, laws, schools, temples, charities, shops, and political structures. There was no shared political system, no common law, no common economic or cultural institutions. Everyone belonged to one (and only one) community and was subject to its laws and its standards. To lose membership in one's community was tragic, for only through it could one gain access to a job, a mate, education, or charity in hard times. To be sure, all these people were ruled by the same emperor, but he lived far away and had no influence in local affairs, apart from despatching tax collectors, whom the people regarded as bandits. In some such societies groups harbored resentments, but more often harmony prevailed.

All existing societies today lie somewhere between these two hypothetical extreme types. The United States is somewhat more universalistic and individualistic than Canada, which is officially committed to the relatively particularistic ideal called "multiculturalism." Canada provides separate school systems for Protestants and Catholics, for Francophones and Anglophones. Public schools teach the children of immigrants their "heritage languages" and public funds pay for ethnic newspapers and television programming. Even more particularistic than Canada is India, whose Muslim and Hindu communities are governed by different sets of family and property laws.

When the system of nation-states formed, nationalism emerged, proposing that there should be a single, culturally unified state foreach ethnic community. The new states replaced the patchwork of regional dialects with a standardized national language, with official spellings and grammar, to facilitate communication throughout the realm. Today nationalists are continuing to urge that their groups have their own states. The fact that 90 percent of existing nations are ethnically mixed dims the prospects of their success.

Besides, although millions of people around the world are demanding democratic governments, few of them want to merge into a single national entity resembling the "Modern" model. Mostly they want democracy for their separate ethnic communities. In the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, it has become impossible to give local republics enough autonomy to satisfy this aspiration while remaining within a federal structure. Can a particularistic society be democratic? Can a democratic nation-state comprise several ethnic communities, each with its own distinct laws and economic institutions? Perhaps not. Particularism is discrimination; it violates the ideals of equality and fairness. Yet contemporary nationalism is a particularistic ideology that, using the rhetoric of democracy, calls the "self-determination" of groups a basic "human right."

Group Rights?

The concept of "human rights" originally applied only to individuals. Such documents as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the American Bill of Rights assert that every individual has a right to assemble with others, to practice any religion, to publish ideas, and so on. What is new is the frequency with which it is claimed that not only individuals, but also groups, are entitled to human rights. The debate itself is old, for liberals have long upheld the principle of individual rights against the arguments of communitarians, who claim that groups must have means of defending their own traditions, above and beyond the rights of their members.

Group and individual rights are often incompatible. Consider, for instance, the controversy that surrounded the Quebec law prohibiting the display of signs in all languages other than French. This rule contradicts the principle that every individual should be allowed to choose his or her language. Those who defend the law argue that Francophones are frequently under great social pressure to speak English, and that individually they will abandon their mother tongue, one by one, unless strong measures are taken to preserve it-measures that curtail the rights of individuals to choose. The Quebec government opted to protect the "group right" at the expense of individual rights. When group rights do clash with individual rights, the outcome often is a reduction in freedom. Therefore, many political theorists (and I tend to agree with them) hold that only individual human rights should be guaranteed; further, individual rights can provide as much protection as human beings may reasonably expect. Nevertheless, this liberal position is becoming less popular, whereas group rights are more often regarded as legitimate, as for example in the official Canadian policy of multiculturalism. Canadians maintain that all communities, even small ones, should protect their own distinctive identities and customs.

But in fact, a modern, pluralistic society cannot be wholly particularistic. The Ancient Asian model simply will not do, for several reasons. People refuse to stay in their original ethnic communities, but intermarry or reject their traditions. Multi-ethnic societies rapidly become unequal, with some groups lording it over others and resentment building up. Multiple ethnic groups cannot maintain their own separate hospitals, welfare systems, universities, corporations, and airlines, but must share resources and make collective decisions through national politics. Many groups would like to live side by side in a modern society on an equal basis, making their own decisions and running their own institutions separately, but such efforts regularly fail.

Yet the political alternatives are no better. Minority communities cannot attain their distinctive goals in an integrated, universalistic nation-state. The reason is obvious. Democracy is defined as "rule by the majority." The corollary is implied: "democracy is submission by the minority." An ethnic group that is numerically small will forever lack the votes to win elections. Their disappointment must be handled for the sake of preventing the partition of states and the consequent bloodshed and economic failure.

Democracy For The Minority

Minority communities in multi-ethnic societies do not benefit from democracy. Only in minor respects can they make their own decisions autonomously. The rest of the time, they must expect to be outvoted in nation-wide elections. That is why minorities often do not try to advance their interests through democratic elections but rather by issuing human rights claims. Human rights are supposed to be equally available to all-not just to election winners. And if the recognized set of individual rights do not justify the claims of the minority group, the next step is to call for recognition of a "group human right."

Not all issues, however, can be called a human right-not even all issues about which a minority group feels deeply. When that remedy fails and a minority's most intense wishes are disregarded, what other options are available to it? The group's members may protest. They may resist nonviolently. They may emigrate. They may try to emigrate and take their territory with them by seceding and setting up a nation-state of their own. This last approach is risky, but when it seems likely to succeed, it seems more advantageous than any other approach.

If a minority is concentrated in a single region of the country, its leaders see possibilities. Their group may be a minority in the country as a whole, but if they can detach their region from that country, they will instantly become a majority in their own homeland. Democracy would then be attractive; instead of always losing elections they would always win. To make a case for seceding, the ethnic group's leaders must demonstrate their entitlement to the territory that they intend to slice off. The most promising argument is to show that their land was annexed by the larger state through an historical injustice. Such an argument was advanced by Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, which were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union through a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Other republics cannot make an equally strong case. Moreover, every effort to redress historical injustice is problematic, for history contains no natural cut-off points. If we are allowed to look far enough backward, we can show that almost every patch of land on earth used to be inhabited by a different people, and that the present inhabitants obtained control by fraud or aggression. Not all such historical facts can justify claims for territory, and international law provides few answers. To grant one case is to invite new, more, farfetched appeals for secession, which explains why Gorbachev resisted granting independence to the Baltic states. Attempts at secession almost always result in bloodshed. Anyone considering that option should first read Robert Schaeffer's compelling book, Warpaths: The Politics of Partition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), which recounts the disastrous outcomes of the best-known historical cases of national partition.

Even after secession is accomplished, the side effects are so deplorable that one would hardly call the result successful. For example, the new "sibling" states still contain minorities, and these people are treated even worse than the minorities in the larger state who originally complained and demanded secession. The new governments rejoice in their hardwon right to decide matters independently, without regard for the other side. They urge the new minorities to move if they don't like the new chauvinistic policies. Many do leave; there is a tragic flow of refugees from all partitioned states. People abandon homes and families that, all too often, have been broken apart by the conflicts.

The outcome of partition is usually so terrible that by now all nations should have learned what to do. The rule should be: No state may be partitioned except by the mutual consent of all its constituent communities. If a republic decides unilaterally to secede, it should not be recognized by other nations and not be defended in the war that its decision will provoke. Besides warning against secession, the world should vigorously support human rights and assist the victims of abuse. Had this stand been taken before the breakup of Yugoslavia, countless deaths would have been prevented.

Territory And Its Alternatives

Territorial disputes may have been the source of more wars than any other issue-not because people intend to do anything special with the soil that they claim, but because the lines on the maps will determine how populations and voters shall be aggregated. In democracies, electoral outcomes are often influenced by "gerrymandering" the shapes of districts to manipulate the aggregation of votes. Both international borders and the constituencies within nationstates are determined on a territorial basis. Deciding where to draw a line on a map is, at best, somewhat arbitrary and may provoke angry resistance. Territorial definitions often deprive people of having their legitimate interests taken into account by politicians in adjacent polities. Moreover, ethnic minorities may be dispersed so thinly that they can never be represented in a parliament that is based on territorial ridings.

Such problems can be solved. Votes can be aggregated in a variety of non-territorial ways. And if alternative, fair methods are adopted for defining political entities, there will be few occasions for waging wars over territory.

In democracies, minorities are now deprived of political power. What would it take to satisfy them? Can we meet their needs and remove the incentives for them to secede? Yes. Four innovations are required-all of which are shown concretely below in the HCA pages.

1. Problem: Minorities need ways of forming constituencies to aggregate their own votes without moving borders inside states or seceding and forming their own states. Any proposed new ways should be flexible so that, as group identities change, constituencies can also change. Solution: Let people, wherever they live, sign up to join constituencies on the basis of their shared ethnicity-or for that matter, any other group identity or common concern. A constituency might be large or small, and would elect a number of parliamentarians in proportion to its size. Some of these constituencies would form on the basis of single-issue political concerns, but others would not. They would not replace political parties. 2. Problem: Minorities need opportunities to exercise direct democracy in addition to parliamentary government.

Solution: Hold a referendum every year for the entire society. Many democracies do so, notably California and Switzerland. This supplements but does not replace the work of parliament and of political parties. 3. Problem: Minorities need ways of putting their issues onto the political agenda of the entire nation instead of being ignored.

Solution: Guarantee every constituency, large or small, the right to place one issue on the referendum each year. The only way to place issues on the referendum would be through such constituencies.

4. Problem: Minorities need the possibility of winning elections sometimes-at least when they care deeply about an issue toward which the majority feels relatively indifferent.

Solution: Allow all voters to "spend" their votes by distributing them as they choose across the entire list of referendum issues. Thus if the referendum contained fifteen propositions, each voter would have fifteen votes to spend. She could cast all of them to vote for her group's proposition, or cast five votes on three propositions, or ten votes on one issue and one on each of five other propositions, and so on. This would be equalitarian; all voters would have the same amount of influence. Nevertheless, if a minority group cared deeply about a single proposition that was not very important to other citizens, they would have a chance to win it, leaving the other propositions to be decided by voters who cared more about them.

The advantage of this system is that no longer would minorities invariably be defeated at the polls. And not only minorities would benefit. All citizens would gain more influence over the decisions about which they held strong opinions. If a minority's referendum proposition carried, we can be sure that the rest of the society would be satisfied with that outcome, for had they not been satisfied, they would have voted against it and blocked it. This innovation is a "win-win" solution: Everyone benefits, no one loses..

Toward Innovation

The proposals that have been suggested a not the ultimate word on the subject. The purpose here has been to begin a search for democratic procedures that meet the needs of minorities and remove incentives that prompt them to secede. Secessionist wars occur because something is wrong. Let us set it right.

If you dislike my proposals, please suggest other solutions for these problems. Peace activists must prevent the breakup of the world into small warring tribes. To accomplish this, we must find ways of giving minorities and majorities alike more control over

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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