My heart goes out to President Obama on his thus far unrequited desire to form a more perfect union with the other party. I understand what he is trying to do, but I’m worried that he doesn’t understand why it won’t succeed just now.
Consensus is a beautiful idea. In Aristotle’s philosophy, everything has a telos, an end-purpose: for an acorn, it’s to become a mighty oak. In my way of thinking, the telos of politics is consensus—not unanimity, which is virtually impossible and probably dangerous for diverse human beings, but consensus, a noun that ought to be a verb. Just as in rising to its full height the oak needs both nourishment and something to push against, the body politic needs rich democratic dialogue and real contention to reach that moment in which the vast majority adopt a common position, either because they find it the best available alternative or because their own reservations are such that deferring to others does not offend their integrity.
For much of my professional life I assisted organizations and communities in reaching consensus on important questions of culture and development. I’ve found few things more satisfying that presiding as midwife over that moment in which a decision is born in the clear and unmistakeable light of the common welfare and greatest good. I know why Barack Obama reveres consensus. I even think achieving it is a worthy ideal for our country at a moment so marked by political venom as our own.
But the trouble with consensus is that you can only reach it with people who have reasons as strong as your own for entering fully into the process and attaining a good result. Absent such reasons, absent a powerful and mutual goodwill, persisting in the consensus process does little more heighten divisions and make problems worse.
Many signs point to President Obama’s reluctance to accept this. Because he wants consensus far more than the other party, his stance has been defensive. He embraced a stimulus bill designed to placate the right with inadvisable tax cuts and too little money to effectively rebuild infrastructure and jump-start economic recovery. He tried to appoint Judd Gregg, a self-described “strong fiscal conservative,” as Commerce Secretary at a time when “conservative” policies such a tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of finance have already hurt the country more than can be measured. And his comments upon Gregg’s withdrawal, as quoted in the New York Times, make him sound like a true believer heedless of the evidence, rather than a clear thinker grounded in reality: “’I am going to keep working at this,’ said Mr. Obama, adding that the American people were ‘desperate’ for Democrats and Republicans to work together.”
Let me tell you a cautionary tale about the way people of bad faith use love of consensus as a weapon to defeat those who threaten their privilege. In 1992, my husband and I were engaged by the Mendocino, California, County Board of Supervisors to design and facilitate a process that might save a well-intentioned attempt to create consensus on sustaining that rural county’s timber resource and jobs while protecting the environment. (If you have patience for all the details, you can read a blow-by-blow description we wrote in 1992: just go to the Essays & Talks page of my Web site and scroll down to the bottom of the “Essays & Articles” section to download “Hard Lessons: Mendocino’s Forest Advisory Committee.”)
In brief, the Supervisors created a task force comprising timber company representatives, environmentalists and people from public agencies such as the Forest Service, giving it the charge of hammering out a win-win solution in light of then-current economic and environmental reality. Corporate timber had just about logged out the local forests; if clear-cutting continued, there would be no future resource; but if logging ended, there would be no jobs for the substantial segment employed in that industry, long known locally as “King Timber” for its large footprint on the land and economy.
The task force met for two years. It was a strain on the environmentalists, who paid their own way and volunteered their own time for the arduous process (while the agency people and corporate employees performed their roles as part of salaried jobs). Sometimes the level of compromise was pretty strenuous too. But when consensus recommendations were issued, they felt it had been worth the effort.
That feeling didn’t last long. Unbeknownst to other members of the task force, those associated with timber corporations had been crafting a secret plan. They gave every appearance of entering fully into negotiations, but behind the scenes, they’d been seeking advice from the “Wise Use” movement, a shrewd effort to use pro-environmental language and imagery to package its exact opposite. They issued a surprise minority report, charging that the consensus document did not represent them, that they had been railroaded. They used all the media savvy and manipulation at their disposal to portray themselves as an oppressed minority. They mobilized busloads of workers bearing yellow ribbons and family pictures to pack hearing rooms when the recommendations were considered, training them to stamp their feet in unison to drown out countervailing views.
And the people who’d sought consensus in good faith? They were left at the altar, alone and bereft.
We designed a process that made it possible to hold public meetings and deliberate without undue disruption, and the recommendations ultimately came to a vote, failing by one vote to pass the Board of Supervisors. So in the short term, the bad-faith contingent succeeded. But the story didn’t end there. Corporate timber took the remaining trees, then departed for the global south where labor is cheaper and trees more plentiful, callously ending those well-paying jobs in Mendocino County its spokespeople promised to preserve. When the truth became evident, some new Supervisors were elected and a version of the sustainable forestry principles was adopted, so the ultimate policy outcome owed very little to consensus politics and much to electing a principled majority. Without a major corporate presence remaining, small landowners in Mendocino County now work toward sustainable forestry in various ways.
In his 1945 essay, “Reflections on Drawing the Line,” my intellectual hero Paul Goodman tells a joke:
“Tom says to Jerry: ‘Do you want to fight? Cross that line!’ and Jerry does. ‘Now,’ cries Tom, ‘you’re on my side!'”
Turning oppositional energy into alignment is the highest political achievement. Perhaps that is why it is also the rarest. If Barack Obama asked my advice today, I’d tell him to hold onto his conviction of the beauty and necessity of consensus, but face the facts of the moment. If his intended partners aren’t willing to enter fully into the dance, return them to the sidelines, then rejoin those who take to the floor with enthusiasm.
The trouble with my warning about overreaching for consensus, though, is that it can lead to the opposite, extreme polarization conditioned on judging one’s opponent incapable of good faith. Saturday’s New York Times featured a cynical piece chiding Obama for not learning from prior exectives’ disappointments with cross-party collaboration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this thinking generates a policy of shoot first, ask questions later, as we see around the globe and at home. So I have the utmost respect for the necessity of trying for consensus. Having done that and failed, if I were President Obama, here’s what I’d say now:
“In this moment of crisis and pain for so many Americans and so many others around the world, the best path is to let go of petty rivalries and unearned loyalties and work together for the common good, which is what I’ve been trying to do. It’s hard to see why anyone would act otherwise, but if you’ve been following the news, you’ve seen people who put party before nation, a sad thing for America. Here’s what I say to any and all: if you join me with full faith and credit in committing to seeking real consensus, I will welcome you as partners and willingly enter into reasonable compromise. If you can’t do that, don’t waste our nation’s time when we haven’t got time to spare. Get out of the way, because we’re coming through!”
President Obama is a smart man. I hope he’s smart enough to let go of illusion, but that remains to be seen.