I had thought little more of this quote than any other witty saying, but lately I'm realizing more dimensions to it. Let's for a moment lump all consensus-driven systems under 'democracy' - organizations these days are as big as the societies that reformers of the past ages wrote about.
The quote posits quite a radical little idea, changing the focus from gains to losses: Democracy is a tool for minimizing loss - Every other form of government will result in even more losses to society. The way it does it is by taking away power from any one group of persons, and handing it to an abstract, nebulous entity called 'consensus'. This means limiting both good and bad changes. Nothing moves. In that sense, consensus is a fine thing to extol when one's coffers are full.
As an example of what happens when a non-consensus approach is attempted, P.V.Indiresan has an interesting take on one of our most deeply-valued concepts, the concept of Rama-rajya:
Many people extol Ram Rajya as the ultimate in governance. With due respect to Rama's devotees, I must point out that they do not enquire why Ram Rajya collapsed once King Rama passed away. It collapsed because it gave too much power without responsibility to persons of limited wisdom. It enabled an illiterate washerman to make wild accusations against Queen Sita and forced ultra-scrupulous King Rama to banish her.
However, one of the less obvious issues that this insistence on consensus effectively puts the burden of change on unknown unknowns and 'extreme' behaviour. Once one is past the stage of believing all the 'little drops make an ocean' bullshit, one realizes that virtually all change comes from these two sources. Either something from outside the system comes up, or an asshole (or someone who has little to lose) pushes his agenda because no one can stand up to him without losing something. Symmetrically, if one wants to introduce positive change, one has to depend upon the mercies of some eccentric who happens to have power; Abuse of power is common, but here we have the curious case of non-use of power. 'Consensus' never made a nail or a nation.
*Dec 29: Well look what the cat brought in! Behold, by the grace of Dileep, the fine process of consensus ably supporting the underbelly of the world's largest democracy:
Transcript of the Rajya Sabha - 1 [2 page PDF], 2 [1 page PDF], 3 [skip to page 29]
"पािण जी, बच्चे आपको देख रहे ह।
..(यवधान).. वे क्या सबक लेकर जाएँगे?
..(यवधान).. The House is adjourned to meet at 12.30 p.m."
"MR. CHAIRMAN: Hon. Members, the two hundred and twenty-first Session of the Rajya Sabha comes to a close. It displayed distinctive features: no debates or discussions on matters of public interest took place; no Special Mentions were made, or, laid on the Table of the House; no Zero Hour interventions were sought; no questions were answered orally and no supplementary questions were raised."
"The prohibition in the Rules about shouting slogans, displaying posters, obstructing
procedures by coming into the Well of the House was consistently ignored. Peace prevailed only when obituaries were read."