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.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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