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The Case Against Consensus
Can polarization actually be good?
Wisdom of Crowds launched on Substack earlier this week. Read our announcement letter for more on our mission and vision. To mark the launch, Shadi Hamid has written an important and ambitious essay on why division—and even hate—may be all we have left. We hope you enjoy it. Damir Marusic responds here. Other responses to come soon. Sign up for free to get them straight to your inbox.
In almost every major democracy today, citizens dislike each other. This is normal enough. You should like your family and friends; liking people you don’t know or haven’t even met is a more challenging endeavor. What’s different today, though, is that mere dislike is giving way to feelings of disgust and even hatred. A growing number of Americans see their fellow citizens as irredeemable, as threats to be monitored and enemies to be vanquished.
The reasons behind this hate, if not the hate itself, are often “legitimate.” It’s not pretense, and it’s not just performative. Citizens do, in fact, have fundamentally different conceptions of what is just, right, and good. These are the sorts of issues that are exceedingly difficult to resolve. I have called this phenomenon “existential politics”—the heightened state in which political competition becomes anchored around identity rather than policy.
If this existential tenor reflects real foundational divides over ultimate questions of the Good, then it cannot—and probably shouldn’t—be wished away, papered over, or transcended. After all, how can you “transcend” deep differences if they are deep enough that they can’t be transcended? Too often, we are beholden to the fantastical idea that with the right knowledge, the right information, and the right intentions, consensus can be reached among “reasonable” people who duly exercise their reason.
As a matter of observed reality, however, this is quite obviously not the case—certainly not in large ethnically and religiously diverse societies such as our own. It might actually be closer to the opposite. It is precisely when we are being reasonable that consensus can drift further out of reach. As the philosopher John Gray notes in Two Faces of Liberalism, reason is enlightening but not in the way the most enlightened among us might assume. “Reason can enlighten us as to our ethical conflicts,” he writes. “Often, it shows them to be deeper than we thought, and leaves us in the lurch as to how to resolve them.”
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There are two primary objections, then, to the notion of a rational consensus sought after by rational people. First, consensus is only possible in homogeneous societies with a strong, shared national identity, something that most Western democracies can no longer claim. And because Western democracies tend to have strong enough liberal streaks, there’s no plausible path back to sameness, whether real or imagined. It’s too late, in other words. Homogeneity is only possible in ethnic democracies, of which there are only a few—Japan being the most notable exception. Arguably the only other successful ethnic democracy, Israel, cannot impose ethnic sameness, try as it might. It is generally difficult for democracies, should they hope to stay democratic, to engage in large-scale projects of ethnic cleansing.
These are concessions to reality. They are not value judgments.
Consensus is Overrated
Now, onto the second objection, which is a value judgment. To put it bluntly, consensus is overrated. Moreover, consensus—if pursued with the zeal of the convert—can be dangerous. The “center” is generally located between two supposedly immoderate poles. But when the center is pursued for its own sake, without regard to the costs, the center can become radical, hence the otherwise oxymoronic notion of the “radical center.”
This darker side of consensus is not merely a hypothetical, a product of either my imagination or, worse, contrarian sensibilities run amok. Over the course of several years, I followed and studied a particular case where the unconditional pursuit of consensus poisoned an entire country’s politics. Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia was considered a model precisely because of its prioritization of consensus over conflict between ideologically opposed forces. Secular and Islamist parties put aside their differences to find common ground, which allowed them to form and sustain a national unity government that survived for nearly 5 years. Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist-lite Ennahda party and one of the most influential Muslim intellectuals of recent decades, described it to me in 2015 as “our big trip to the center.” Earlier this week, he was arrested, offering further confirmation of the end of Tunisia’s once hopeful democracy.
The details of how this played out are detailed at length in a 2019 paper I wrote with Sharan Grewal, suggestively titled “The Dark Side of Consensus.” In brief, despite obvious enmity and accumulating disagreements, the largest Islamist and secular parties insisted on staying together for the people. In practice, this meant that there was no effective opposition, which in turn contributed to growing public disillusionment with political parties and the very idea of democracy itself. Consensus was meant to help solve the problem of ideological polarization. The thinking went that if the fortunes of Islamist and secular counterparts were intertwined, they would find it more difficult to attack and undermine each other on specifically ideological grounds. It made sense. But in practice, consensus merely postponed rather than resolved the underlying Islamist-secular tensions.
One of the key lessons of Tunisia’s aborted democratic transition repeated itself in any number of countries, irrespective of culture, religion, or region: Foundational disagreements cannot be transcended through sheer force of will. Yes, the task of confronting divergent premises—or what we at Wisdom of Crowds call “first principles”—can be postponed. But be careful what you wish for, because it can’t be postponed forever.
If there can be such a thing as too much consensus, can there also be too little of it? Yes. While polarization is not precisely the opposite of consensus, it does suggest its absence. If consensus is overrated, then presumably polarization is underrated. Of course, some forms of polarization are best avoided (and exhausting), but polarization, for all its faults, is a tonic for complacency, providing the evidence that a democracy is, well, democratic. Passionate disagreement—and the political divisiveness that often results—is the beating heart of a free society. At this stage in the history of the democratic idea, there’s simply no point in denying this. Democracy is messy and unwieldy, just as it should be. After all, a certain kind of chaos is precisely what allows for wildly contrasting views to be considered. And sometimes, even “bad” ideas should be considered in good faith.
Reckless Intellectuals and Political Dreams
It might seem odd that existential politics is peaking now. With economic inequality worsening across the globe, one might have expected economic divides—the sorts of things that lend themselves to empirical data, expert advice, and government intervention—to grow more salient. They haven’t. In the place of class, there is one thing: a forever culture war, where even relatively boring economic questions become questions of identity. In this respect, the Middle East was ahead of its time. In countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, the phenomenon of what the political scientist Hesham Sallam calls “more identity, less class” was making an appearance decades before it was cool.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the poor or even the poorly educated who drive this polarization. The rise of identity politics is, in part, the result of educational attainment and of people becoming more knowledgeable, aware, and aware of their own knowledge. Ideologues, after all, become ideological for a reason. The more you become aware of your (supposed) intelligence, the more intensely held both your opinions and ambitions become. This might not be intuitive, but it should be.
Being and becoming an ideologue requires effort, time, as well as a developed sense of one’s own movement in history. All of these things require a level of financial security—or at least a room of one’s own to think, read, write, and to pronounce on events of world historical importance. To be persuaded of your own genius, while necessary, is not sufficient. You also need enough disposable income to indulge in the luxury of saying and thinking crazy things, a point conveyed powerfully in Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind, a frightening compendium of brilliant yet destructive intellectuals who should have known better but didn’t.
In contrast to these reckless intellectuals, ordinary voters say they believe in crazy things, but they don’t behave as if they do, at least not in their day-to-day lives. The gulf between rhetorical and actual political insanity can be quite large. Part of the problem is that experts and analysts, despite being experts and analysts, have difficulty understanding polling data, particularly when the people being polled are conservatives. When they aren’t busy “owning the libs” through more direct means, right-leaning Americans own the libs by misrepresenting their views to nice, well-meaning pollsters. This is a real thing. Call it poll-trolling if you like. As the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argued in a brilliant if unsettling piece in The Guardian:
We are not living in a “post-truth” world. We are not on the brink of a civil war. The perception that we are is almost purely an artifact of people taking poll and survey data at face value despite overwhelming evidence that we probably shouldn’t.
These naughty pranksters are, more often than not, engaging in what the Portuguese authorcalls “dreampolitik.” Was it a good idea for me to go on 's podcast just weeks before January 6th to opine on the strength of American democracy? I’m not sure. I may have said some foolish things, but I stand by this basic point, which I’ll repeat here:
How much does it matter in practice [that Trump voters rejected the results of the 2020 election]? It’s one thing for someone on the street to say ‘I voted for Trump and I think the election was fraudulent.’ But then they go about their daily life, and they kind of live with a Biden administration. They’re not that angry, they have some weird conspiracy theories, but life goes on.
Many of these Trump voters, members of the so-called “white working class,” may be ordinary citizens, but ordinary people shouldn’t be idealized. They’re “normal,” and normalcy—like anything else, really—is both a blessing and a curse. The point here is that their “hatred” is much more provisional than we might like to admit.
A Question of Hate
If haters are going to hate, so to speak, what should we do about it? I’m not entirely sure what to make of this question. I’m a bit torn, so let me try to explain why. Here, at Wisdom of Crowds, we might both disagree and be disagreeable, but we are driven by a shared appreciation that humans, at their core, are believers. Most of us desire—and need, as a matter of both temperament and survival—a “pivot” to use the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper’s evocative term. There are exceptions of course, but the desire for meaning, belonging, identity, and transcendence is as close to universal as you can get. It’s only a question of how these desires manifest themselves, a pointmakes powerfully in his book Wanting.
This is to say that hatred is one potential expression of a wholly natural impulse. If one feels something deeply and strongly—and if one assesses that the political stakes are truly existential—then hatred towards adversaries can be the result. In other words, hatred comes from something real, even if that “reality” is a matter of perception. It is not merely a sign of disordered mind. The problem with hatred isn’t just that it’s overwhelming (although it is). It’s that it can also be oddly pleasurable. There is a certain thrill to having an enemy. This thrill means that enemies can be found if only one looks hard enough.
The solution, then, isn’t to imagine a world where hatred ends, since it won’t. As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes it: "Every order is temporary and precarious. . .There are conflicts which no rational solution could ever exist, hence the dimension of antagonism that characterizes human societies.” Antagonism can’t be eliminated, and it is often the desire to force a consensus where none exists that produces violent conflict. Consensus is only possible when there is already a consensus, and there rarely is.
The resolution to the problem of mutual antagonism is to realize, first, that it cannot be resolved. Nor does it need to be resolved. Instead, it can and should be channeled, managed, and absorbed within the framework of legal, democratic politics. But that requires that each side, in the throes of political combat, come to terms with a sobering reality. There are no final victories, at least not in this life. In a society as raucous and unwieldy as ours, there will be no permanent majorities and no permanent minorities. Instead, if we are lucky, there will just be politics, perpetually.
Damir Marusic responds:
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