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Government Without Consensus

ISSUE:  Autumn 1978

There is one simple test of any government: how well does it advance the order, security, prosperity, and welfare of its citizens at home and defend their interests abroad? Such challenges, if easily stated, demand hard decisions, requiring taxes, regulations, and impositions on some to the advantage of others. Thus democracy and despotism are distinguishable less by their exercise of power than by the processes through which they intend to fulfill their responsibilities. Autocratic governments might serve the interests of their citizens fairly and efficiently, but only at the indulgence of the rulers, In a functioning democracy, however, the public retains the power to determine the purposes, behavior, and personnel of government through its ultimate right to record its preferences at the ballot box. Democracy comprised the final achievement in the evolution of political institutions because, at least in theory, it rested on the combined intelligence and virtue of its citizens. Democracy proclaimed majority rule, subject to constitutional restraints, not because the majority possessed the greater power in society, but because it was, under the free expression of ideas, more apt to be right. Policies democratically formed would satisfy the broad interests of society even while they protected the inherent rights of the minority.

Still, even in a democracy, the relationship between governmental decisions and both public and private welfare is elusive, for the true interests of any nation are not necessarily embodied in the clear will of the majority. The Founding Fathers observed that factionalism would dominate their comparatively simple society and obfuscate the broad interests of society in like measure. “In every free and deliberating society,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissentions and discords. . . .” Citizens, he saw, would hold diverse opinions in matters of religion, government, political leadership, and public policy. For James Madison, the most durable source of faction was the unequal distribution of talent, ambition, and property. As he noted in Federalist No, 10: “ A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.” John Adams feared that in any society rich and poor, aristocrats and commoners, would everlastingly threaten each other with destruction. Expanding opportunities for the profitable employment of mind and energy would merely aggravate the conflicts which already existed. For the authors of The Federalist,especially Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the regulation and limitation of internal conflict to serve the interests of the whole comprised the overriding burden of government.

How a democratic country, so divided, could achieve fairness in government was not clear, for the factions that comprised it were indeed unequal in power, wealth, and influence. Some obviously would be the special beneficiaries of governmental power inasmuch as national policies could not reflect the interests of all. Adams and Hamilton assumed that the strong, capable, and ambitious would rule both by maintaining their necessary class solidarity and by protecting the social and economic order which gave them their special advantages. True, factions, singly or in combination, could not govern without majority control, but majorities in a divided electorate were no guarantee of just or wise behavior. Adams and Hamilton agreed that men were evil, selfish, and aggressive, and that factions, whether large or small, would reveal no greater disinterestedness than would individuals, “A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men,” warned Hamilton, “will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.” It was not strange that Adams spoke of “the tyranny of the majority,” for the majority did not necessarily reflect the general will. Madison saw the danger to good government in the propensity of the powerful to determine public measures, not according to the dictates of justice, but through “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Whether political power reflected the purposes of the few or the many, its assertion could lead to massive infringements on the rights and interests of others. This posed the central issue confronting all governments: how can society limit the ambitions and injustices of the powerful?


For the problem of competition in which some wielded power to the disadvantage of others, there were two possible answers: a state that curbed the ambitions of some to further the welfare of all, or a public and private virtue of sufficient force to create society’s necessary restraints without a massive infringement of public regulation. Edmund Burke, the British philosopher and statesman, recognized the issue when he wrote: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Adams, as a disciple of Burke, believed that law should be linked to moral norms and reflect a natural justice. He hoped that individuals and even factions would subordinate their personal interests to fixed moral principles. Jefferson recognized no common morality; he believed rather that the will of the nation, as reflected in public policy, would serve the common interest and thereby achieve a legitimacy of its own.

Democracy would meet these requirements as long as the public shared common perceptions of justice and necessity— and was willing to act on them. Even a concerned, well-informed public would not restrain all passions, ambitions, and abuses, but it could limit the unfair and destructive exercise of power, Nothing would corrupt a democratic order more assuredly than coercion, obscurantism, and public addiction to private ends. For Jefferson, then, the necessary guide to political order lay not in fundamental principles of justice, but in the people’s understanding of the common interests of society.

Jefferson recognized the conflicts in society. Still he viewed the people as one, undifferentiated in their capacity to discern the public good and to act in its behalf. He did not share the Federalist fear of the masses. He trusted majority rule above the free exercise of power by the more capable, ambitious, and influential minorities operating through a centralized state.”I have never,” he wrote, “observed men’s honesty to increase with their riches.” In his first inaugural Jefferson committed the country to the democratic process of free and open debate, popular participation in government, and absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority. The strength of the American government, he said, lay in “the affections, the opinions, and the suffrages of the people.” Jefferson had an implicit faith in the capacity of mankind to direct society harmoniously toward the greatest happiness of all. That he saw no conflict in varying definitions of happiness or in different readings of the moral law he made clear in his noted letter to Thomas Law in 1814: “[N]ature has constituted utility to man, the standard and test of virtue. Men living in different countries, under different circumstances, different habits and regimens, may have different utilities; the same act, therefore, may be useful, and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced. I sincerely, then, believe with you in the general existence of a moral instinct. I think it the brightest gem with which the human character is studded, and the want of it as more degrading than the most hideous of the bodily deformities,”

Here Jefferson argued that the general moral instinct conformed to the prevailing views of happiness in every society. But this rendered moral law considerably less than universal. Perhaps even within one society the standards of what comprised a moral order were subject to disagreement. It was not certain in Jefferson’s day that the pursuit of happiness assured the common good of society. Even then individual and group interests were more powerful determinants of public and private action than was the moral sense which Jefferson attributed to all men. As society became more complex, the moral certainties on questions of public policy became increasingly elusive.

Amid society’s moral uncertainties, the Founders agreed that justice required the proper application of those public restraints on individual and group behavior which flowed from the constitutional system itself. Hamilton, who distrusted society, regarded governmental power as the ultimate guarantee of public order.”Why has government been instituted at all?” he asked.”Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without restraint.” For Hamilton, a government avowedly based on class interest created no moral dilemma, for the end of government was not justice but national wealth and power. Hamilton, moreover, assigned to the rich the major portion of whatever virtue existed in society. Adams placed far less trust in a government of the rich, for he doubted that men of property were necessarily men of principle. Adams would control the invidious competition between classes of society through the Gothic principle of thrust and counterthrust in which one interest countered another in a constitutional separation of power. Madison took solace in the size and diversity of the country, for the greater the number of citizens and the greater the extent of territory, the less need the weaker fear the factious combinations of the powerful.”Extend the sphere,” he wrote in Federalist No.10, “ and you take on a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their strength, and act in unison with each other.” For such men, the guarantee of fairness and the defense of mass interests lay somewhere in the American political order.


In practice the restraints on power lay in principle or no-where. Without clear majority agreement on what comprised justice or the common good, government could be no more than a reflection of power. The Constitution recognized only the will of those who controlled the country’s political institutions. Laws might be constitutional and still be unjust. There was little room for justice in a system which recognized the existence and even the legitimacy of factions or groups which had the right to assert their special interests in the formulation of national policy. James Wilson of Pennsylvania saw this clearly when he observed that the Constitution, which he believed worthy of support, would nevertheless permit laws that “may be unjust, may be unwise, may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet not be so unconstitutional as to justify the judges in refusing to give them effect.” Leading Supreme Court justices, throughout the nation’s history, have denied that constitutionality, wisdom, or fairness were necessarily linked to one another. They have made no effort to reconcile the notion of diversity with Burke’s supposition that a just society demanded some uniform rules of conduct, some fundamental principles to which all men must adhere. America’s diverse society has seldom agreed on the boundaries of what constitutes fairness. What is justice for some becomes tyranny for others. What has maintained a high level of order amid policies neither fair nor responsive to the common good is the general assumption that political and social stability comprises a morality of its own. In the absence of moral norms law became the only force capable of binding the community together. It is this necessary function that has sustained the country’s historic reverence for law.

Burke once defined the proper role of a representative government before a Bristol audience: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests. Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation with one interest—that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.” But the American experience soon demonstrated that men of power could gain the allegiance of congressional majorities for the most narrow of purposes. Two broad categories of governmental action contributed to the advantages enjoyed by men of wealth and influence. One long and complex body of decisions determined that the common natural resources would move into the hands of private individuals and corporations. Such decisions extended to relatively few citizens the power to command the energies of tens of thousands of others and to acquire untold fortunes through that control. Second, governmental policy permitted the rise of the limited liability corporation, perhaps the greatest single example of special privilege in the nation’s history, This device permitted individuals, who already possessed competitive advantage, to pool their resources in large aggregates of limited liability and legal immortality and thus increase their control of labor, raw materials, technology, and markets. Such aggregates of power vastly restricted individual opportunity in the nation’s economy. By the end of the 19th century, the power of the ballot could no longer defend the exploited majority from the far greater political and economic influence of the country’s minority of bankers and industrialists.

Thereafter the government subsidized a variety of special groups through cash payments, tax and credit subsidies, and specific services paid for by government. The latter included water projects, job-training programs, food stamps, and medical aid for the aged. A subsidy, by official definition, is “the provision of Federal economic assistance, at the expense of others in the economy, to the private sector producers or consumers of a particular good, service, or factor of production.” Whether this redistribution of income to the needy achieved benefits to society commensurate with the cost is not clear.

Gross profiteering and the limitless exertion of special advantages repeatedly produced some form of public retribution, American constitutionalism provided government the power to define and enforce good behavior, at least to the extent that those in power believed some form of restraint required by public sentiment or minimum standards of fairness. Through time the federal government accepted the obligation to protect the public and business alike from the undesirable externalities of a complex industrial and economic system. That protective effort created a growing federal superstructure of regulatory agencies. Thus the bureaucracy did not grow by accident. At every step in its growth, the United States government responded to the demands and influence of organized groups which could not protect their interests in the free market. The growth of federal power in the 20th century was one measure of the relative absence of virtue in some areas of American life. The effort was expensive; it achieved only limited success. The process of defending society through public action was one that had no end. However large the federal bureaucracy, however pervading its encroachment on American freedom and initiative, there remained countless elements in society who required additional protections from those with the power to infringe on their rights and interests. Only a society subject to moral restraints, Burke made clear, could regulate itself without the massive infusion of public power and the dangers to freedom and democracy that it entails.

Increasingly, those who wield influence in Congress do so not to achieve new legislation but to prevent the passage of laws designed to terminate special abuses or the misuse of power, Many of the great centers of influence in the country are old, experienced, and entrenched; often they prefer existent policies because those policies have served their interests admirably. It is the power of some to compel the avoidance of potentially burdensome issues by denying the social or economic necessity for change that separates politics, no less than advertising, from the realities of life. For a full decade the country’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines have delineated the evidences of trouble in American society without equivocation. Yet the country continues to tolerate highly visible levels of crime and domestic insecurity, racial tension and unemployment, poverty and even hunger, ghettos and slums, pollution and urban decay, the use of hard drugs, public and private corruption, inequitable taxes and waste, inflation and soft currency, and a government that returns little to the nation commensurate with its vast expenditures. Without exception these issues touch the long-range interests of all Americans; without exception they affect the quality of national life. Still the federal government has scarcely moved against them at all.


Perhaps Madison saw more clearly than most that the government would fall to the ambitious and self-seeking, causing it to become the nation’s chief reflection of human avarice. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” he wrote, “the difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Even a democratic government required close public scrutiny, for only an attentive populace could enforce the general welfare. Madison discovered the genuine defense of the public interest in a general will which, on major issues, could encompass much of society. He warned readers of the National Gazette in 1792 that any government would respond to an apathetic and voiceless public by consolidating the interests of those who controlled it. Governmental processes would continue, whatever the interests or concerns of the public. If the public failed to determine the direction of ongoing federal action, those with direct access to governmental agencies and Congress would do so, Only an alert citizenry, actively participating in public affairs, could counter the resultant consolidation by expressing “the sense of the people” on important public questions. Madison believed that men of influence, as they pursued interests of their own, would respond to more enduring concerns only when an aroused public denied them success.

Democracy implies majority rule. Still, as Madison discerned so clearly, on matters of major significance—such as the pervading issues now confronting the United States— national policy requires more: a broad accord between majority and minority known as consensus. In facing problems of national consequence, no government can function without it. Countries such as Russia, Italy, and Germany simply created an artificial consensus by suppressing their irreconcilable minorities. What has troubled American society, except in scattered moments of great crisis, has been the elusiveness of the consensus, based on commonly perceived notions of justice and necessity, which Jefferson believed necessary for the proper functioning of the country’s democratic order. Social cleavages, class animosities, and inescapable conflicts of interest decreed that the American people would remain divided in purpose even on questions of crucial importance to the nation, As early as 1927, John Dewey, the American philosopher, observed that the American reality was not consensus or commonality, but pluralism. The American public comprised countless publics which had little in common. The traditional minorities—blacks, Orientals, Indians—because distinguishable by race, were symbolic of the fragmentation. But the conflicts in perception and purpose ran through the white population as well, separating rich from poor, the skilled from the unskilled, the educated from the uneducated, urban dwellers from farmers, those who cherished the ideal of hard work from those without hope. It was not clear even then what historic, religious, or corporate ethic could overcome such social and economic fragmentation.

Time and the complexities of American life have merely magnified those divisions. Together they have muted the appeals to public conscience which might give direction to national life. New culture patterns and life styles accentuate the pluralism. The youth culture, the drug culture, the disaffected generally strain the elusive cohesion. No less so do the demands of the special interest groups—business, labor, racial, ethnic, intellectual, and sexual—which favor their own brands of liberty, equality, and justice. There is no agreement on the status of society. Some see their cup half full, some see it half empty. Events and experiences convey a wide variety of meanings. Some find everything the same; others perceive vast, disturbing changes in American civilization. Whatever the consensus among the intellectuals on matters such as environmentalism, it has not been conveyed to the masses. Americans see the accumulating garbage, the discarded junk, the rusting automobiles and refrigerators, the smog and pollution. But even among the affluent, the recipients of unprecedented incomes, security, and leisure, there is often little time or concern for problems that do not affect their lives directly. Environmentalism has not captured the support of the blue-collar laboring groups, the poor, or even most suburbanites. It has remained a matter of deep concern only for upper middle-class professionals. Environmentalism, no less than other of the more subtle public programs, began and remains elitist in nature.

Not one issue before the American people—not even inflation and unemployment which impinge directly on the public’s economic well-being—has created the necessary consensus on a proper national response. The issues which concern most Americans remain narrow; those rooted in history or geography, or which apply more directly to other people at other places, fail to capture attention. The major issues of the present assume too many forms, remaining for most Americans a bundle of abstractions of no immediate concern. Beyond inflation and unemployment, the threats to American society embrace matters which scarcely touch the lives of most people. The potential price for environmental reconstruction in increased taxes, public restraints, and reduced standards of living appears disproportionate to the capacity of the average American to tolerate social ills and a slowly diminishing environment. People seem incapable of determining their remote self-interests. E. B. White wrote in another pessimistic age, “[M]ost of the special matters people now discuss are pressing, but taken singly, or added together, do not point in a steady direction . . .that gets me up in the morning to pull on my marching boots.” Individual Americans find themselves in the grip of immense forces whose workings and consequences appear to lie outside their power to understand. The profound complexities in national life eliminate almost every possibility for some degree of national unity.


This absence of consensus in American life has sustained the chasm between national necessity and the performance of government. Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois has written: “Government simply can’t direct a society that doesn’t know where it wants to go,” Congress passes legislation in profusion, but much of it serves the public only coincidentally if at all. Issues of major importance remain almost as untouchable as the Milky Way. Without public guidance, elected officials can scarcely perform even the most prosaic tasks of governing. What divides a people and negates its effectiveness will, in no lesser measure, create confusion in government. As one Democratic Congressman observed: “There is no way you’re going to get a consensus in the House when you don’t have a consensus in the country.” The nation’s leaders, never confronted with any popular uprising, can only assume that they are giving most Americans what they want.

Politicians, performing outside a recognizable national consensus, embrace or dodge issues in a manner best calculated to guarantee re-election. For most members of Congress, the problem of winning has little relationship to the performance of Congress itself. As one member of the House phrased it, “I don’t care what my district thinks of Congress as long as it likes me.” Whatever their contributions to the nation’s welfare, House members have little difficulty in maintaining the support of their constituents. Over 90 percent win re-election every two years. To remain in office indefinitely, most public officials maintain a low profile, keeping their political fences mended by avoiding issues that might damage their support among leading constituents. Under no public compulsion, those seeking office seldom dwell on major national issues at all. The public has direct control of the White House on only one day each four years. Even that control becomes a nullity in direct proportion to the victorious candidate’s success in shielding both himself and his program from public scrutiny. Most elections simply create no mandate.

In traditional democratic practice, the public chooses from among alternate policies by selecting from among different candidates for office. Democracy suffers its first serious loss when candidates compete for power, not to achieve specific goals, but as an end in itself. People may still retain the right to choose in terms of the personal qualities of the candidates, but their choice has no meaning in terms of the substance of policies. Elections still determine who holds office; they do not determine the course of national policy. Thus it is not strange that many who vote care little who wins, or that half of the citizenry does not bother to vote at all. The percentage of Americans who went to the polls in presidential elections declined steadily after mid-century and in 1976 reached the smallest proportion since 1948.Theodore White once explained this attitude of resignation in the electorate: “Something in this turn of time had made Americans feel that their votes were unconnected with the control they should have over their lives. . . .’Alienation’ was the fashionable word for the vague feeling. What is meant was that . . .you had lost the right to vote on when your son should be drafted, and where he should be sent to fight. Most of the major problems that affected ‘you— from taxes to smog, from busing to war— you could not reach by voting for anyone.”

That same absence of consensus which denies the government any clear definition of the majority will renders both Congress and the Executive far more sensitive to the special interests, including the dominant corporations, than to the public; to producers rather than consumers; to the representatives of the defense industries than to those who favor arms reduction. The government, in short, responds most acutely to those with high expectations and who are organ J7ed to define and defend their policy preferences. Increasingly, national policy has become a compromise worked out among those interest groups which appear to have special legitimacy. Consensus becomes, by definition, not general agreement on national needs but agreement among the few in positions of power who establish national policy with a minimum of public involvement and controversy. The ease whereby federal officials and the spokesmen of industry and labor arrive at basic decisions suggests the existence of a broad mutual interest among them. Seldom does a congressional majority choose to oppose such organized power. Senator Frank Church of Idaho commented recently: “I sometimes think that the Senate resembles a fudge factory, where we shape each piece, slicing a little here, adding a little there, but where the recipe never changes and the candy stays the same. Whenever the big interests line up together, by which I mean big government, big business, and big labor, they seem always able to command a majority, no matter how unprincipled or outrageous their legislative proposal might be.”


Madison’s forebodings proved to be accurate. A government which faces no direct public constraints will consolidate the interests of those who control it. Still countless citizens— perhaps a majority—continue to take their government for granted, tolerant of its excesses, oblivious to the issues it ignores. Problems of governmental inefficiency, waste, and favoritism arouse little reaction among the well-employed and the moderately prosperous. What underwrites the general public acceptance of the dominant influence of the few on congressional and bureaucratic decisions is the fact that the benefits, whatever their magnitude, are always specific, whereas the costs to society are distributed so widely that often they comprise no burden at all. If the chief goals of most Americans remain convenience, comfort, and tranquillity, it is not strange that they prefer the prevailing tendencies in national life to costly forms of social and economic restraint. Public wrath focuses only on those whose policy proposals threaten daily routines or job security. The disenchanted accept quietly what they abhor, usually from deep convictions of futility. Together complacency and cynicism have freed the powerful from any public restraint. Former Canadian leader W. L. Mackenzie King saw the resultant price to democracy: “Government, in the last analysis, is organized opinion. Where there is little or no public opinion, there is likely to be bad government, which sooner or later becomes autocratic government,”

Central to the nation’s challenge is Clive Bell’s observation that any civilization can be judged by its capacity to consider the future, by its willingness to postpone, curtail, and restrict in judging its long-range interests. For many years the United States government nourished the illusion that the country had escaped the constraints of scarcity. Recently, however, the nation has experienced the impact of threatening forces which seem to be moving beyond its control. To protect its physical habitat from pollution and decay, to conserve its energy and resources, the country faces the imperative of restrained tastes. Indeed, the struggle for adequate economic, environmental, and energy policies will ultimately test the character and cohesion of the American people. The issues are not of brief duration; each one, unless mitigated through national limitations on living standards, will trouble future generations far more than the present one. Still, the contemplated sacrifices necessary to deal with such challenges have managed to produce only a wild clash of conflicting ideas and special interests.

For economist Gabriel Hauge, there was only one solution for the exorbitant demands which Americans made on government and society.”The place to begin . . . .,” he wrote, “is to play our part in rebuilding what we used to call “the general public.” Over the years we have splintered into countless minipublics devoted to the attainment of noble but narrow purposes, increasingly through the public sector.” That general public—the essential element in a democratic order— never required less than the willing submergence of the most narrow and potentially destructive personal and corporate ambitions to a broad concern for society as a whole. Americans once responded intelligently to the arguments of The Federalist.Now a far more educated public could respond with equal intelligence to the same high level of argument when directed at the current deficiencies of American society, to the injustices and inequities which still exist, and to the complex but neglected challenges to the quality of national life. If conflicts of purpose cannot be resolved in the forum of reason and conscience, they will be resolved in the boardrooms of those who wield the requisite power. Without some capacity for understanding and some common measure of judgment, political communication can have little or no consequence.

That needed consensus cannot generate itself. Leadership alone can forge a collection of individuals with many special concerns into a civic entity which can act in behalf of public purposes. Any leader must have confidence in his educative role, and a badly divided, even splintered, public offers no assurance of adequate support, whatever the quality of the educational endeavor. As Benjamin Barber once noted in Harper s: “ It is no good for us to go looking for leaders; we must first rediscover citizens. It will not help to indict the faceless system if we are without common purpose that can be used to challenge facelessness and turn systems back into servants. If America is to have leaders, it will have to agree upon goals. If we wish to have leaders to follow, we will have to show them the way.” That consensus which will at last give direction to government will come either as the result of an intelligent examination of alternate courses or in the wake of catastrophe. Only when the American people, as Jefferson once suggested, accept their full democratic responsibilities will the country meet the outsized requirements of its future through collective intelligence. Democracy serves the nation most assuredly when it increases the wisdom and rationality of national decisions; the ultimate purpose of a free, democratic government is the creation of a superior human society.


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