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Consensus Hard to Come By

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 16, 2004
Latest Update: May 16, 2004

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Democracy is about working together in the best interest of the whole community. That means cooperation, collaboration, respect for the Other, and a willingness to limit one's greed. An article in the Los Angeles Times this morning reminded me that democracy isn't easy. It isn't logical, straightforward, fair, or "natural" in practice. (Neighborhood Councils Flexing Their Power. By Jessica Garrison, Sunday, May 16, 2004, California Section. Backup.

"Greg Nelson, the perpetually cheerful general manager of the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment" sees the local councils as a catalyst, promoting empowerment. But he also likens the process to that seen in Iraq and Russia. How can that be in a country founded on democracy hundreds of years ago?

Well, if you think about it, democracy isn't a static thing. It's people working together to make their world and life in it more caring and rewarding. Some of those people get greater rewards by exploiting others, and it's hard to convince them that is neither fair nor just. Democracy is also people working together to produce an infrastructure in which humanity can survive and achieve and create. Since there are readily recognized rewards floating around out there, like the $50,000 the City of Los Angeles gives each elected neighborhood council, there's conflict in how that money will be dispensed and power in the dispensing of it. All the elements of strife and greed and silencing of others, any others who try to take the reward that Person wants.

There are no answers to this tension. It is the condition of humankind. We are social; we need our social infrastructure. We are individual; we need individual freedom. The plot behind every story. And we are left to resolve the narrative to human advantage.

Iraq and post-Cold War-Russia and our own local neighborhood councils give us models of democracy happening. We squabble; we add laws; we squabble some more. Sometimes the laws work. But most of the time they don't. Sometimes we come to blows. Sometimes we give a war or a Living together isn't about laws; it's about inter-realtionships. Inter-relationships of individuals with each other, and with the infrastructure. Fellman speaks of "agency and structure." He speaks also of adverarialism and mutuality, the attitudes we cultivate to the others we live with.

Democracy isn't easy. It's an on-going struggle. We have to keep at it, if we want to be free.

And we have to practice at the logic of word games if we want the law to help make us free. Read about the legal hassle in 2002 in Vermont. What on earth is this squabble about? Well, it's a lot like the Presidential election of 2000, in which there was an electoral college vote. We didn't come to this same impasses, because the Supreme Court intervened and appointed Bush president by refusing the recount. But we've got a similar thing going on in Vermont in 2002.

Again, Democrats and Republicans. Again, the vote itself is not what decides the election. Instead, if there is no majority (50% + 1), the election decision goes to the legislature. They select the Governor from the top two candidates. Since there's a majority of Republicans in the legistlature, the Republicans are counting on making the Republican candidate governor, even if the Democratic candidate got more votes. And it's free, because their vote is by secret ballot, so no one will ever know how they voted. A democrat is trying to change the law, but there's another twist. The law would be changed by resolution, but a resolution requires the majority party, Republicans, to bring up the Resolution, and they can refuse to do so. Confused? Me, too. But those Iraqis just don't want democracy; it's so simple; they could just elect the good guys and get rid of the Ba'ath party. Right. Just like in Vermont, right?

Discussion Questions

  1. What's the problem in asking these local democratic groups to come to a consensus?

    Consider that answerability/a> is possible. This means that others have ideas and feelings, and that they will have learned, hopefully, in a democracy, to accept them. But Person and Other often want the same resources, and there are not enough to go around. This is when governance discourse, such as Habermas sees as the foundation of legitimacy and the ability to live together. Issues like relative morality and justice become primary factors. Does it matter to us in governance if one group takes all and leaves little for another group? Is that exploitation? Or is that the best way humans can use their resources to make more of something - - progress or oil or money or ???

    We are not likely to agree on such decisions. Agreement isn't the issue. Can we work out relative solutions that will stop us from killing each other? Answerability and Maria Pia Lara's illocutionary force, the understanding of an other for the sake of understanding, not for the instrumental reason of advancing one's own claim.

  2. Is it possible that we have neglected to learn how to "agree to disagree?"

    Consider that agreement and consensus deny the ever-present tension between the individual and the community. We have come to see tension as bad, and agreement as good. But a balance of tension may be necessary to the impetus to live. This is very Zen. Maybe we can't have "good" without "bad," the "head of the coin" without the "tail." Maybe evil grows with a resistance that gives it more power than it deserves. I dont think there are any "answers" to some of these questions. These are for thinking about.

  3. Does this set of examples, local neighborhood council, Vermont legislature, and Iraq, suggest that maybe there is a different picture of democracy from the one we're communicating?

    Maybe dissent is a part of agreement. Maybe resistance is essential to growth. Maybe not suppressing answerability would lead to different kinds of dialogue, especially since the squabbling seems to be the same all over the world, democracy or no.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, May 2004.
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