Consensus Is What Direct Democracy Looks Like

By Evan O’Neil

October 19, 2011


If curiosity or solidarity has yet to carry you to Wall Street or one of the other occupied cities, this video gives a good sense of how the groups discuss ideas and make decisions. The General Assembly meetings rely on a process of consensus. Consent is the backbone of democracy; it’s what we withdraw from the system in times of crisis.

Here is the New York GA in its own words:

The General Assembly is a gathering of people committed to making decisions based upon a collective agreement or "consensus."

There is no single leader or governing body of the General Assembly—everyone’s voice is equal. Anyone is free to propose an idea or express an opinion as part of the General Assembly.

Each proposal follows the same basic format—an individual shares what is being proposed, why it is being proposed, and, if there is enough agreement, how it can be carried out.

The Assembly will express its opinion for each proposal through a series of hand gestures…. If there is positive consensus for a proposal—meaning no outright opposition—then it is accepted and direct action begins.

If there is not consensus, the responsible group or individual is asked to revise the proposal and submit again at the following General Assembly until a majority consensus is achieved.


It’s hard to make yourself heard over the trucks, construction, honking, and continual din of New York’s humming energy. To deal with this acoustic impediment, made worse by a police prohibition on amplification such as megaphones, the General Assembly uses a call-and-response technique called the People’s Mic. The crowd repeats the speaker’s thoughts so that everyone can hear.

The hand gestures they use include: up for agreement, down for disagreement, a triangle of thumbs and fingertips for interjecting an important point, and crossed fists and forearms to block an idea that can’t be abided.

In the era of digital technology we have the potential for an entirely different citizen-government relationship.

That the protesters have to resort to such low-tech means (albeit alongside digital communications such as livestreaming) hearkens back to a simpler time when, say, you had to ride your horse to the Continental Congress. The structure of American representative democracy was determined at a time when citizen power was limited by physical presence.

Now in the era of digital technology we have the potential for an entirely different relationship between citizens and governments. We have seen some great preliminary progress in areas like digital campaign fundraising, app competitions, open government databases, and crowdsourcing of policy ideas and citizen feedback, yet it still feels like we are nibbling around the edges.

What the new technologies have unleashed is the sense that an entire branch of government has been missing, or just floating there all along like a powerless ghost. I’m talking about The People. If the Occupy phenomenon somehow leads to a larger (r)evolution in our direct participation, then this will be its major achievement.