The Limits of Consensus

In the previous discussions some attempt has been made to generalise the idea and scope of any consensus, which might be sought within some form of political and economic framework. While these discussions were not intended to be either authoritative or exhaustive, they were hopefully enough to highlight some of the issues and assumptions that would influence the development of opinions, while not necessarily representing a majority consensus.

So, what limits the possibility of some majority consensus?

In terms of an initial response to this question, we might recognise that in many situations the idea of consensus actually becomes a compromise, often weighted in favour of the most powerful group. However, before pursuing this suggestion, we might first return to how individuals come to have a different perspective of the world, where it has been suggested that most individuals are born into a collective worldview, such that they invariably identify themselves in terms of cultural norms that surround them. While this process might be described in terms of a formative education, it may also reflect a form of indoctrination, which can be further compounded by the system of political governance, if it suppresses any wider perspective of the whole. Of course, anybody educated, or indoctrinated, into a different system might immediately perceive a problem in another worldview, but then immediately reject the possible limitation of their own worldview. In this context, we might also see the limitations of any consensus, either at the level of an individual or nation state, when it comes to defining a globalised worldview.

Note: The discussion entitled Information Control highlighted a further danger, if future technology should develop the means to monitor and enforce the conformance of a population to accept the dictates of an authoritative government. See George Orwell’s 1984 novel as one potential consequence of this idea.

Of course, under the circumstances suggested in the note above, the idea of a consensus would cease to be an issue, as consensus would simply become an illusion. However, practical limits may also be placed on the scope of any consensus, even within fundamentally democratic systems, if the opinion of certain sections of society can either be ignored or have inadequate representation. In part, this issue was first discussed in terms of the political and economic framework in which we might initially assume seeks to develop a consensus through open debate. However, democratic systems also attempt to manipulate the illusion of a consensus, possibly by the design of its voting system and the use of what might be described as ‘scare-tactics’. By this means, many individuals can be ‘persuaded’ of the dire and adverse consequences of not supporting a specific position, which allows the self-interest or ideology of a smaller minority to be pursued. We might attempt to highlight some of these issues in terms of the UK political system and the 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU).

Note: It might also be useful to highlight that the UK parliamentary system is one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world. However, any examination of its near 1000-year history suggests that the development of this system essentially never required the consensus of a majority, such that we might question its credentials as a democracy.

While we will not even attempt to cite all the potential problems with the UK parliamentary system in terms of it being a consensus democracy, we might consider its present-day ‘first pass the post’ voting system, which elected a conservative government in 2015, prior to the 2016 referendum, even though they only received 37.8% of the votes casted, which reduced to 24.5% of the total population legible to vote.

Clearly, the idea of some consensus majority of the UK voting public supporting the political goals of a conservative government might be questioned, if potentially 75% did not directly give their support. Of course, if 33% did not bother to vote, then it might be assumed that this group did not belong to any consensus, i.e. they were simply indifferent to the outcome. However, this assumption might be too simplistic, if many people did not vote because they believed that their vote would not change the outcome.

Note: Of the 650 parliamentary seats up for election in 2015, it is estimated that there were possibly less than 100 marginal seats, which would decide the result. If so, 85% of the seats up for re-election might have been class as safe seats, many voters opposed to the incumbent candidate might assume that they were probably wasting their time in participating.

Of course, many will argue that the ‘first pass the post’ system produces more stable government in that it has a better chance of securing a working majority to pursue its published manifesto. However, analysis of the voting statistics suggests the government only represented a consensus of 25% of the voting population.

But what about the proportional representation (PR) vote as in the EU referendum?

In 2016, the UK referendum PR vote was based on a 72% turnout and resulted in a 52% to 48% majority in favour of leaving the EU. While this majority was based on the total UK wide population, 28% did not bother to vote, even though the PR process suggested that all votes would count. However, this nationwide process did not account for regional differences, where there was a majority to remain within the EU.

So, can even a PR vote represent a consensus?

In many respects, it might be argued that politics, even when assumed to be democratic, does not actually create a consensus or even proceed on the basis of a majority opinion of the population. However, while the UK ‘first pass the post’ electoral system might be questioned, it is clear that the PR referendum did not create a consensus. Of course, in the case of the post Brexit referendum, it appears that various political parties only highlighted the apparent inability for compromise, let alone consensus.

This somewhat selective example suggests that there are indeed limits to consensus, and compromise for that matter, in the domain of politics. However, it is clear that the limits of consensus are rooted in the opinions of individual for all manner of reasons explained in terms of their worldview, which may be weighted by religious, philosophical of scientific assumptions. However, the alignment of opinion suggested in the chart above suggest some form of consensus, albeit limited in scope within any population, i.e. national or global.           

What might this tell us about the nature, scope and limits of consensus?

From a historical perspective, small communities often shared a consensus worldview, although possibly limited in sophistication and scope. Over time, these smaller unified communities were invariably subsumed into more powerful groups, e.g. nation states, which on the plus side were possibly better able to satisfy the physiological, safety and social needs of its individuals. However, further reflection suggests that the benefits derived by larger social hierarchies are not necessarily equitable, and the needs of some individuals are better represented than others. Today, we might assume ourselves to have a more sophisticated worldview, although it would possibly be naïve to assume that a collective society is not still subject to the inference of a survival of the fittest. Of course, the definition of what constitutes the 'fittest' might now be revised to the ‘powerful’ within the collective structures of that society. Pursuing this line of thought, as the sophistication of society in the form of a nation state increased, political and economic power transcended the individual by taking on the persona of an institution.

How do institutions influence the collective worldview?

An institution can be described as being similar in scope to a society, i.e. it is a group of individuals united by a common aim, i.e. they have a consensus of opinion. So, while consensus within a wider society might be problematic unless enforced by authoritative governance, the membership of an institution, be it political or economic in scope, might simply be predicated on sharing a common ideology or goal. In the wider context of a growing multicultural society, we might recognise that the population comes to represent an ever-broader spectrum of beliefs. Again, one-way of avoiding the dilution of a common cultural or ideological identity is by means of an institution, where the acceptance of its worldview is a requirement of membership.

Note: From a historical perspective, we might cite the institutions of a monarchy or the church as examples of powerful institutions with a common worldview, which possibly demand allegiance to an existing class structure or ospecific religious belief.  Of course, in these cases, it might be recognised that these institutions not only attempted to influence the perception of a collective worldview, they actively sought to impose this worldview on the majority.

In this sense, it is probable that most worldviews are not based on any notion of it representing an overwhelming consensus, but rather that it is simply the preference of a powerful minority. Equally, we might recognise that as we expand the scope of issues seeking a consensus of opinion in the modern world, the likelihood for consensus between all the various religious, political and economic ideologies compounded by cultural and national self-interest probably falls exponentially. In this respect, it is assumed that the institutions, both national and global, which have the most power and influence will continue to dominate. If this is the case, the ‘ brave new world ’ of the future will continued to be defined by a new generation of ‘ winners and losers’ where the real nature of consensus will remain an illusion, which only serves the purpose of a small minority in any population.

Note: While much of this discussion surrounding the issue of consensus has been framed in terms of political and economic ideologies and disparate worldviews based on theology, philosophy and science, it was actually written in response to concerns about the climate change debate. In the context of this debate, it is often stated that there is a 97% consensus of scientific papers that support the idea that climate change is being caused by human CO2 emissions, where this certainty dictates that debate is now over. As the link above points to the start of the Mysearch review of this issue, its details will not be repeated, other than say that conclusions often expressed in terms of a 97% consensus may be misleading at best, possibly to the point that the claim is a total misrepresentation of the complexity of issues. As such, the idea of any consensus in this field of science may be as much of an illusion as in the area of politics, economics or even religion. The recent appeal by 15-year old Greta Thunberg in her 2018 speech at the UN on Climate Change possibly highlights another concern in which one side of this debate is attempting to create a consensus on the basis of subjective opinion rather than an examination of the scientific details. While this young girl is entitled to express her opinion, there is concern that she possibly has a very limited perspective of the wider scientific issues and is simply being used to appeal to a younger generation, who may in-turn be susceptible to such an emotive appeal without necessarily having had time, or possibly the inclination, to examine all the facts.