Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Democratic vs. Elite Consensus by Alon Levy

[ Here is part two of Alon Levy’s series on consensus. Hopefully it stirs you to the type of robust public debate he encourages – even if by completely repudiating his views! – Aaron. ]

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on September 7, 2011.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Tel Aviv

10 Responses to “Democratic vs. Elite Consensus by Alon Levy”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Of all the posts on my blog, I think this is the most dated. And I have a post on my blog about how to allocate money to California HSR based on the old cost estimates.

  2. Jason says:

    The problem with this is that popular opinion is guided by elites. People look for elites within their groups and trust information from them.

    The thing is there’s a lot of different groups, and each group has elites and non-elites. It’s not elites vs. non-elites, it’s elites + non-elites vs. elites + non-elites.

  3. John Morris says:

    It’s somewhat interesting that the one big example he gives of achieved consensus, at least among elites resulted in widespread destruction and things many of us consider huge mistakes.

    I’m not sure if Alon explains exactly why consensus, in itself is a good in itself.

    The primary, good is good decisions–or decisions with results most people can see as good. Of course, this is subjective but there are normally some pretty strong criteria–financial sustainability being a big one.

    It’s like the elevator pitch people practice. The purpose isn’t just that you get money, but that you, yourself deeply understand the pros and cons of what one is planning.

  4. Matthew Hall says:

    Fascination. I’ve long been interested in the relationship of local, regional and national elites and the people they claim to represent. The Southern elite is probably most interesting, but the northeast/northwest elite’s sophisticated institutionalization of their values and interests actually make it more influential. Think Harvard, Yale, etc. On the local level I’ve wondered if southern elitism has actually fostered southern cities in ways the midwest doesn’t. Midwesterners try to spread the wealth evenly while southerner focus their resources on the “best” of society, which are often in cities.

  5. TMLutas says:

    The idea that there is one good decision is nonsense. At a particular time and place, there may be a decision that works for a majority but the very choice creates space for people to make a very good choice “bucking the system”. In transport terms when everybody’s going into the central city for work, getting a job with a reverse commute is advantageous for exactly as long as you are bucking the system. When the system changes and there are no appreciable differences between “normal” and “reverse” commuter numbers, there is no advantage to one over the other. In this particular decision, consensus, of whatever stripe, is the worst solution because it increases wasted transport opportunities.

    Nature is rife with situations where diversity of choice yields real benefits. Striving for consensus instead of letting good decisions emerge in a marketplace of ideas and the successful ones be imitated is not a good idea in my opinion.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Consensus does not mean one choice for everyone. It means that local choices regarding urbanism, land use, etc. are made with consultation with all stakeholders, and there’s a robust bottom-up process by which interested citizens can propose ideas and have them heard by the people in charge. It’s how people who talk about local control in the US imagine local government works (and not the reality, which is feudal).

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, I assume by “feudal” you mean that in the US, superior units of government control the range of choices, solutions, and often the funding streams available to the smaller, more local units.

    I am not from the Charles Beard school, but clearly there is some economic determinism at work: as the US’ local and regional economies evolved into a generally continental-scale one, the resulting continental and world-scale enterprises lobbied for a nationally-consistent economic regulatory framework (wage/hour/contracts, worker-safety, environmental, food-labeling and safety, anti-discrimination rules, etc.).

    This leads to a less-federal and more-centralized national decision-making: “the” United States instead of “these” United States. The commerce clause specifically vested the power in Congress, an elite institution…so it is in the US’ political-economic DNA.

    You seem to be rehashing the Federalism arguments of the 18th and 19th century US. One might say that the process of republicanism (representative democracy) is a way of elevating arguments beyond the loud and messy “process of consensus” in cafe or street culture. Or perhaps “distilling” arguments to their essence by sacrificing the kind of nuance that comes from endless process.

    I like to believe that in community-development work, we are at the ground floor of engagement and democracy. Over and over, one sees clearly that everyone doesn’t care the same amount about anything, so self-appointed elites do rise: the roots of NIMBYism. It is unavoidable: no one can force anyone else to show up at a meeting or read a paper or blog and then offer an informed (as opposed to inflamed) opinion. Local decisions most often are made or strongly influenced by those who care enough to show up.

  8. Chris, I gather that what Alon is getting at in saying “feudal” is that a handful of elite power players at the local level made all the critical decisions (e.g., Mayor Richard M. Daley) in a manner that didn’t take into consideration the various stakeholders on the ground.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Chris: yes, it’s what Aaron said. Literally what I mean is that every local player has his own fief, and then the game is about expanding one’s fief, asserting control of other fiefs, and preventing others from controlling your own fief. For example, in the Bay Area, the BART fief has enough power to divert other agencies’ money into its own expansion projects, regardless of whether BART is the best agency or technology for them (I’m talking specifically about BART to San Jose here). The most powerful lords, in this case power brokers behind past BART extensions such as Quentin Kopp, amass greater power and get further ahead in state and local politics, and get to perpetuate the system. This includes social programs: the debate is about who gets to control the money and plan things his way rather than about ideology as on the national level.

  10. Mike says:

    The whole notion that a few newspapers are “elites” and major capitalist (or labor union back when they had more power) lobbies aren’t is so moronic that it taints everything else here.

    The so-called populists are often doing the bidder of somebody with big money and a big megaphone.

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