Among the dictionary definitions of consensus are “general agreement”; “the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned”; and “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.”
I have a problem with the use of the word, especially in the political context. Does it describe all, a majority, a lot, most, or some? To Merriam-Webster, unity is a synonym for consensus and unity implies no dissent.
These quantitative measures are important in the political process and other areas where people are polled in order to determine a preference. A majority requires more than 50 percent. The increment above the half mark can be anything.
Plurality is another concept which plays a role in political or policy-making processes. This is also a nebulous concept. It can mean a “large number or quantity” or “a number greater than another.” In the latter context, it means a candidate winning without gaining a majority of the vote, as Clinton did in both his elections.
Consensus has been frequently mentioned in the news and commentaries over the past week, mostly prompted by the tragic shooting in Tucson. We are counseled to move toward a Rodney King moment when we all can get along. The call for consensus politics is accompanied by a call for increased civility.
This has led to some quirky proposals. Momentum is building to mix the traditionally partisan seating arrangements at the State of the Union speech, even though there’s no clear plan for how to actually make that happen. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall kicked it off when he said he was going to head across the aisle and sit with Republicans. Udall’s request for a “symbolic gesture of unity” is gaining support.
Is this really a gesture of unity? Do legislators really believe that this will lead to congressional unity and that civility will be increased? Should chocolate lovers forego chocolate ice cream to show unity with vanilla ice cream lovers?
Is unity achievable or desirable in the political process? This would require all people to have the same position.
I recently experienced this process in a smaller context. Every year, prior to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum, the JCPA circulates proposed resolutions to Jewish community relations committees. The local CRCs discuss whether to support, oppose, or request modification of the draft resolutions. Some resolutions are controversial and discussions of them are sometimes heated and reflect the diversity of Jewish opinion.
One draft resolution had to do with the Middle East peace process, a controversial subject.
The draft praised the administration for its position on, and support of, the peace process. It spoke about settlements, the need for negotiations, and self-determination, among other things. If there was unity, or even a consensus, position on this resolution, it would be that every one — no matter what their positions on the individual components of a peace plan — would like peace in the Middle East. That said, how do we get there, and is it even possible to achieve this desirable goal?
Both AIPAC and J Street say they support the peace process. Does this make it a consensus position?
The administration pushed the settlement issue to the fore. What is a “settlement?” Does it include construction inside Jerusalem or even construction inside the admittedly Jewish portions of Jerusalem? Does expansion of an existing building constitute a violation of a freeze on settlements? Is it all right for Jews to be removed, by force, from the Palestinian state, making it essentially judenrein, while allowing Palestinians, a potential fifth column, inside of Israel?
What would be the binding effect of an agreement signed by Mahmoud Abbas, who while supposedly representing the Palestinian Authority, represents only Fatah? Abbas’ term as president of the PA expired in 2009. He unilaterally extended the term for another year, and even that extension has expired. Does he represent a consensus position of Fatah and Hamas?
These were some of the issues brought up as part of the discussion of the resolution. We were ahead of Congress because people of differing views were seated randomly at the same table. A sign of unity?
The discussion was impassioned. Did that mean the discussion was not civil?
Consider the complexity of reaching a consensus among people ostensibly seeking the same policy goal. As to civility, can it be objectively defined, so it can be enforced, which seems to be the goal of many of its advocates?
Better to continue to bumble through with the current system of debate, warts and all, which has served America well for two centuries.
Correction: In my last column, “Ecuador: Pageantry, socialism, and insecurity,” I inadvertently stated that Ecuador’s time zone was the same as the United States. This obviously is incorrect. What I meant to say is that, with the exception of the Galapagos, Ecuador is in the same time zone as New York.