Reaching Consensus | March 1999

FMBR Editorial: March, 1999

Reaching Consensus

Marshall Pease

Last month in “The Adversarial Life” I discussed the essentially adversarial nature of governments and other institutions. It would be nice if we could change this so that major decisions are more usually the result of consensus. This would take a radical shift of the systems, however, and probably of a major fraction of the people involved. It would seem to require that the “lion lie down with the lamb.” This seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. Still, even in the present times, a consensual resolution is sometimes obtained. Perhaps, if we better understand how a shift to consensus sometimes occurs, we will be able to make such solutions more likely. If we are able to do this for some of the more intractable and dangerous problems of the world it will be a major accomplishment.

As a case history that may prove enlightening, consider the impeachment trial just concluded. It seems generally accepted that the House was far too partisan (read adversarial) in its deliberations. Many believe, in fact, that, by doing so, the Republicans did severe damage to their own reputation and perhaps to that of the House and country. The Republican defense is that the Democrats also voted as a block. There is a problem with this answer, however. This is that the Republican partisanship was evident, not only in the final vote, but at every step along the way. Having the votes, they forced their own agenda every time without any gesture towards compromise. It is, I think, a vital principle that, if a dispute is to be moved towards consensus, it is the side with the power which must make the first move towards compromise. If they do not, there will be no compromise and no consensus. The weaker party cannot take the first step.

The reasons for this principle are clear. If the weaker side offers a compromise, it may be interpreted as weakness. This creates a grave danger that the move will be jumped on by the stronger side and used as an opportunity to grind the weaker down further. On the other hand, the stronger side can offer a compromise since the weaker one does not have the strength to exploit it as weakness. If the offer is ignored, the strong side can resume its hard line without significant loss. Therefore only the strong side can afford to explore the possibility of compromise, admitting it might accept something less than its maximum demand. Only it can afford an effort to reach consensus.

This is a principle well illustrated in international relations. In the Middle East, Israel is the militarily powerful one. Yet its government has generally seemed quite unwilling to compromise. In consequence, the problem has persisted to the harm of both sides. In Ireland, also, the stalemate persisted for decades until the strong side – some of the Protestants backed by the English – began to seek compromise. Currently, Kosovo seems unresolvable other than by force. Consider also the persistence of our own standoff with Cuba.

The difficulty is that, in a democratic society, the leaders are answerable to the public. Any offer of a compromise from strength is apt to be exploited by their political opponents as “giving away” what is the country’s right. It takes a true statesman – one who can rise above all immediate political advantage – to see what must be done. In addition, he must be a true leader able to persuade the public to accept what will be seen as a sacrifice of immediate advantage. Yet it is only by such sacrifices that there may be the chance to break out of the stalemates which threaten the world. It is only by such courage that the world can hope to move towards consensus.

Marshall Pease