Tuesday, March 3, 2020

On Democracy: The Case for Consensus - and my experience in UFT opposition groups

With today being Super Tuesday and supposedly democratic let me make a few points about consensus and caucuses and also talk about my experiences in caucuses (not the same thing) inside the UFT and my differing experiences with democracy in those groups. (Yes I can say everything I learned about democracy I learned in the UFT and in ICE and MORE.)

One of the big gripes I had in the transition from the consensus ICE Caucus to the strict voting of MORE Caucus was how much more democratic and satisfying emotionally the ICE experience was compared to MORE where there was all sorts of manipulation of democracy, including agenda items, how much time was allotted, who was chairing meetings, etc. All designed to assure the people running the group could keep control. And when a time came that they felt they were losing that control they just blew it all up and purged the potential opposition.

I always tried to raise the issue of how some of us viewed democracy and was mocked by some for doing so.  Strict majority rule is oppressive and that was why when we established by-laws in MORE we put in provisions for super majorities to protect the interests of a minority. More ideal to me would have been attempts to find consensus like we did in ICE-UFT and in the previous group I belonged to in the 70s. On very rare occasions we On the ideologue left consensus is a no-no.

A big advantage of consensus is that everyone has to give something in order for the group to function. But when you have hard-edged ideologues in the group consensus will never happen. In ICE we were extreme in the sense that we would spend as much time talking things out as was necessary and we came up with some excellent understanding of issues - there wasn't one ICE meeting where I didn't learn something or get some insight. At MORE meetings I learned very little other than how some factions operated to control the group - actually a very valuable lesson. The argument against consensus was that we had too many people which was not really that true -- it was more about suppressing voices that might raise disagreement. In the early days of ICE we also had large groups and managed some consensus - even when people from groups like the open communist group, Progressive Labor were in the room and clearly disagreed with some policies they were given the chance to present their case and seemed fine if they didn't get their way and didn't veto - a key to consensus is viewing the health of the group as being more important at times than your own views.

Anyway, to get to the point - Today's NYT science section has an article (below) about how certain social animals make group decisions and it's fascinating - they use consensus - even bees. Thus I come to the conclusion that consensus is a natural state and I imagine back in the per-civilization days that was how small bands of humans made decisions.

Now I know that consensus is tough in large societies but I also believe that voting is in many ways undemocratic because 49% can be suppressed.  Proportional representation would solve some of that - something you will never see inside the undemocratic world of the UFT which has been organized from its very beginning along some of the same ideologue ways we've seen in other groups. Like we know full well that Randi will decide on which candidate to support and will then try to hape things to make it look democratic - and not succeed. (More on this point in a follow-up).

The caucus system which has been so vilified is an attempt to have a version of consensus - oh horrors, the political game the media wants played doesn't get done so let's toss out democracy.

How Animals Vote - The New York Times

Sneezing Dogs, Dancing Bees: How Animals Vote

The 2020 election is off to a complicated start. Maybe we can draw some comparative political lessons from the animal kingdom.

Are humans the only animals that caucus? As the early 2020 presidential election season suggests, there are probably more natural and efficient ways to make a group choice. But we’re certainly not the only animals on Earth that vote. We’re not even the only primates that primary.
Any animal living in a group needs to make decisions as a group, too. Even when they don’t agree with their companions, animals rely on one another for protection or help finding food. So they have to find ways to reach consensus about what the group should do next, or where it should live. While they may not conduct continent-spanning electoral contests like this coming Super Tuesday, species ranging from primates all the way to insects have methods for finding agreement that are surprisingly democratic.


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Credit...Miguel a Lopes/EPA, via Shutterstock
As meerkats start each day, they emerge from their burrows into the sunlight, then begin searching for food. Each meerkat forages for itself, digging in the dirt for bugs and other morsels, but they travel in loose groups, each animal up to about 30 feet from its neighbors, says Marta Manser, an animal-behavior scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Nonetheless, the meerkats move as one unit, drifting across the desert while they search and munch.
The meerkats call to one another as they travel. One of their sounds is a gentle mew that researchers have called a “move call.” It seems to mean, “I’m about ready to move on from this dirt patch. Who’s with me?”
In a 2010 study, Dr. Manser and her colleagues studied move calls in a dozen meerkat groups living in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. Groups ranged from six to 19 individuals. But the scientists found that only about three group members had to mew before the whole party decided to move along. The group didn’t change direction, but it would double its speed to reach better foraging grounds.
Biologists call this phenomenon — when animals change their behavior in response to a critical mass of their peers doing something — a quorum response. Dr. Manser thinks quorum responses show up in human decision making, too.
“If you’re in a group and somebody says, ‘Let’s go for a pizza,’ and nobody joins in, nothing’s going to happen,” she said. But if the pizza craver is joined by a couple of friends, their argument becomes much more convincing.
In another set of experiments, Dr. Manser and a co-author found that it didn’t matter whether meerkats making move calls were dominant or subordinate within the group. Rather, she said, “It depends on how determined an individual appears.”
She thinks this also has a human parallel. “Even if you don’t have the rank,” she said, as long as you pretend you know what you’re doing, “the group will follow.”
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Credit...Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
In the spring, you may discover a swarm of bees dangling from a tree branch like a dangerous bunch of grapes. These insects are in the middle of a tough real estate decision.
When a honeybee colony splits in two, a queen and several thousand workers fly away from a hive together. The swarm finds someplace to pause for hours or days while a few hundred scouts fan out to search for a new home. When a scout finds a promising hole or hollow, she inspects it thoroughly. Then she flies back to the swarm, still buzzing on its tree branch. Walking on the swarm’s surface, she does a waggling, repetitive dance that tells the other bees about the site she found — its quality, direction and how far away it is.
More scouts return to the swarm and do their own dances. Gradually, some of the scouts become convinced by others, and switch their choreography to match. Once every scout agrees, the swarm flies off to its new home.
In his 2010 book “Honeybee Democracy,” Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell University biologist, writes that we can learn a lesson from the bees:
“Even in a group composed of friendly individuals with common interests, conflict can be a useful element in a decision-making process.”
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Credit...Csaba Krizsan/EPA, via Shutterstock
Like pet dogs, African wild dogs spend some of their time enthusiastically socializing and some of it lazing around. Members of a pack jump up and greet one another in high-energy rituals called rallies. After a rally, the dogs may move off together to start a hunt — or they may go back to resting. In a 2017 study, researchers discovered that the decision to hunt or stay seems to be democratic. To cast a vote for hunting, the dogs sneeze.
The more sneezes there were during a rally, the more likely the dogs were to begin hunting afterward. If a dominant dog had gotten the rally started, the pack was easier to convince — just three sneezes might do the trick. But if a subordinate dog started the rally, it took a minimum of 10 sneezes to prompt a hunt.
The researchers note that dogs might actually cast their votes via some other, hidden signal. The sneezes could help the animals clear out their noses and get ready to sniff for prey. Either way, the wild dogs end their achoo-ing with a decision they all agree on.
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Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times
Primates, our closest relatives, have provided lots of material for researchers studying how groups make decisions. Scientists have seen gibbons following female leaders, mountain gorillas grunting when they’re ready to move and capuchins trilling to each other.
Sometimes the process is more subtle. A group may move across the landscape as a unit without any obvious signals from individuals about where they’d like to go next. To figure out how wild olive baboons manage this, the authors of a 2015 paper put GPS collars on 25 members of one troop in Kenya. They monitored the monkeys’ every step for two weeks. Then they studied the movements of each individual baboon in numerous combinations to see who was pulling the group in new directions.
The data showed that any baboon might start moving away from the others as if to draw them on a new course — male or female, dominant or subordinate. When multiple baboons moved in the same direction, others were even more likely to come along. When there was disagreement, with trailblazing baboons moving in totally different directions, others would eventually follow the majority. But if two would-be leaders were tugging in directions less than 90 degrees apart, followers would compromise on a middle path. No matter what, the whole group ended up together.
Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, an animal-behavior researcher at the University of Konstanz in Germany who led the baboon study, points out that unlike in humans, no one authority tallies up baboon votes and announces the result. The outcome emerges naturally. But the same kind of subtle consensus-building can be part of our voting process, too.
“For instance, we might influence one another’s decisions on who to vote for in the lead-up to an election, before any ballots are cast,” she said.
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Credit...Husni Che Ngah/Biosphoto, via Alamy
Like honeybees, ants often face important decisions about relocating their colonies. Rock ants, which live in stony crevices throughout Europe, use a caucus-like method to choose a new home.
Some rock ant scouts seem to be always on the lookout for better homes, writes Nigel Franks, an emeritus professor at the University of Bristol in England. These scouts investigate the quality of potential new nest sites. If enough scouts find themselves at the same site, they’ll reach the minimum number needed to relocate the colony. They can also try to build such a quorum by going back to the original nest and recruiting other ants to follow them to the new site. They lead these ants one at a time, a follower tapping a leader with her antennae to stay on course.
Either way, once a critical number of ants have gathered at one new site, the colony’s decision is official. The ants aren’t quite patient enough to let the electoral process take its course, though. They bring over the rest of the colony by simply picking up their sisters and hauling them to their new home.

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