Democratic Versus Elite Consensus

This is part 2 of my series on consensus, following Consensus and Cities.

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.


  1. Beta Magellan

    As a nonbeliever whose background’s in the Earth sciences, I think you’ve pinpointed why on many issues I tend to lean technocratic—it’s actually kind of eerie. 😉

    Anyway, this is a beautiful piece. I sincerely hope you’re right.

    • Alon Levy

      It partly describes my own political evolution, too. I was at my most technocratic when my primary political interest was religion and science. The change came from a) starting to care about immigration (this was years before I cared about urbanism beyond having a visceral preference for walkability), an issue on which the elites are downright clueless, and b) reading too many of those technocrats say wrong or downright insane things about things I knew something about, for example treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of religion.

      • Nathanael

        Woo. I also think this is an excellent piece.

        Your thinking is aligning with mine. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about “what happens next” given that we seem to have some severely dysfunctional elites (mis)managing our society. Your analysis extends my very narrow section of thought into the realms of how it works when we *aren’t* in such a dysfunctional situation.

  2. Andre Lot

    One issue that should be considered is how fluid elites are, to stick to your terminology, and how much social ascension can one expect.

    This is important because accelerated transformations of societies that do not go backwards to a previous state only happen when you have the so-called technocrat consensus aligned with interests related to the elite, including interests of those willing to become part of the elite.

    In my opinion, this has to do with the fact that those at the extreme (low and high) echelons of income or social status have a very different risk aversion than those in the middle. This distinction of a middle group (not necessarily a middle class), who can’t relate to extremes, is paramount, with due respect to your analysis. Let me try to frame this in the context of the discussions we often read in your blog.

    Assume the tectonic shifts brought by accelerated urbanization in US between 1890 and 1920, which saw an unique combination of exploding industrialization based on massive manpower coupled with massive modernization of farms that freed millions of workers from farms so they could go to cities and work in factories. For the relatively stable elites of the Gilded Age, based on early industrialization and commerce, the spur that brought automobiles, radios, telegraph, railways was, at most, a mixed blessing, initially: new, emerging and much more powerful industrialists swept the former social order, and the massive influx of people to “their” cities disrupted certain social pecking order that once existed. For those on the bottom, the situation was not that comfortable either: many had never lived in cities, and conditions in slums of the turn of the century were far worse than that of most small farms, unless one were African American.The institutional changes needed to accommodate a new, industry-based society happened because there were a lot of people not at top nor at bottom that saw in that change big chances for improvement relative to their prior condition: blacks that had some basic education lessened their plight in northern cities, second-tier merchants saw opportunities to found banks etc.

    In this light, consensus in regard of urban planning, transportation, housing, zoning depends, to a certain extent, on the ability to find some critical masses in the middle that will benefit from it. Else, we risk a leveling at the bottom paradox: in a Third World city like Rio de Janeiro or Jakarta, if – contrary to what you say – people start being too condescending on squatters or those living in abject poverty in quasi-slums or so, we’ll model a city after the slum view point. In many cases of successful slum clearances in Europe in the 1950s, many people who were “cleared” didn’t like the immediate results because their social network (pun intended) that allowed them to have mostly illegal-menial-under the table jobs (hence no benefits, hence no ability to rent or buy legal housing, hence living in a slum first place) was dismantled and crushed. That happened because there was a huge support from nascent middle classes and those living near those slums but not in them, even if they were not rich, coupled with the interest of the very rich to clear up their cities and bring modernity on.

    In the US, this at the realm of failure of most grass-roots, “bottom-up” movements to influence planning, housing or transportation policy in any “non-elite” way. They either become hijacked by extremist views or become divided in different fractions, each pursuing single-issue (and often conflicting) goals. Take the almost standard case of gentrification in the context of rising housing prices during the 1999-2008 bubble: renters, likely from minority backgrounds, start feeling uneasy about newcomers who easily pay twice the “pre-gentrification market price” for their houses and evict them. They try to frame the issue as one of “OMG they are wiping out our community”. Then, those who are not from the largest minority are alienated because the race/immigration card is played on the table. Subsequently, those who own the place they live break off because they are benefiting, hugely, from increased prices for their properties (and called “traitors” when they double rents in 2 years for a family that had been living there for 20 years). Meanwhile, local entrepreneurs will split between surfing the new, higher, better paying wave or whining about their inability to compete for a rapidly changing clientele. Overall, it’s likely that those moving in are not even part of the Alon’s “elite”, but merely savvy professionals willing to move to the next cool place – they will be displaced by the “elite” only many years ahead when the place is transformed already. During all the process, there is no “carrot” that can convince a middle-class person (wouldn’t convince me) that it is a good cause to “fight” or support the right of a minority group to not be tempted by big money for their properties or so.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, the reason I bring up J14 as the ultimate example is that things in Israel have really gotten so bad that the middle class and the lower classes have a common enemy, and it’s no longer the Palestinians or leftist intellectuals. The government’s latest move, by the way, is to evict people who actually live in the tents on trumped-up or fraudulent charges of violence, to try to split the middle class (i.e. the savvy professionals willing to move to the next cool place) from people who are genuinely poor.

      By the way, for an example of a city that instead of demolishing the slums made them part of the city, look to Istanbul, where former slums are now municipalities in their own right. The reason behind it is the exact opposite of consensus: the legacy of Ottoman law protects tenants more than landowners, and in particular makes it hard to demolish structures that were built overnight. India instead has a British legacy, which is unusually harsh on squatters, which provides part, but not all, of the explanation for the harsh government reaction to Dharavi.

      I can’t really disagree with your observation about risk and class. You’re right, now that I think about it. The middle class is the most risk averse, since it on the one hand has a lot to lose but on the other hand doesn’t have enough money or power to hedge its bets.

  3. Wad

    Michael Lind, by the two articles linked here, comes off as a swaggering water-pourer. He’s associated with the New America Foundation, home of Teh Kotkin, so it’s not surprising.

    There’s a difference between a contrarian, a person willing to challenge a prevailing wisdom or sentiment, and a water-pourer, a person who works contrarianism into schtick.

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