If you want to build durable policy, you have to build from consensus. This fact used to be common knowledge, but these days pundits and partisans frequently argue that consensus is either not needed or not desirable in the first place. That’s a problem.
We live in a consensus-based system, after all, so cooperation is a necessary instrument, baked into almost every high-level branch of government. Five out of nine, 51 out of 100 – slender majorities are an absolute requirement to get almost anything meaningful done, and even that often falls short. A lot of the time, you need some kind of super-majority to really make something stick. Welcome to democracy.
Given how little effort is spent these days defending American consensus, it’s no surprise that our government has nearly ground to a halt, failing to accomplish much of note in recent years. We blame our Congress for “gridlock,” but in an important sense this is by design. The real gridlock is in the electorate.
On both sides of the divide – though in varying degrees – we have been sending politicians to Washington specifically to halt the work of government. To obstruct. Even to dismantle. Strange then, that we chide that very same government for being the most unproductive in history, for failing to do anything more than rollback a few executive orders here and there. Without any effort to build from the center, we should expect most accomplishments to be small and, ultimately, short-lived.
Nowhere can this be seen clearer than in the weakening and potential unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal. We can be forgiven for thinking that of all areas, foreign policy is the one where consensus is least necessary. But even under the sole purview of the executive branch, where voting majorities might seem irrelevant, a lack of consensus can still doom a policy to sudden failure.
The Iran deal was not built from consensus. It was unpopular and vehemently opposed by Congress. But Obama managed to thread the needle and get it signed, making some questionable decisions along the way. This kind of “ends justify the means” approach is something we are all too familiar with these days. If we can just squeak this past by the narrowest margin, the thinking goes, maybe we can get something – anything – done.
But now, in the bipartisan fervor to show strength against Russia, the Democrats who previously supported the Iran deal have all but folded, or maybe even forgotten, at the slightest provocation. The bill throws the nuclear treaty into doubt at a time when both sides seem uninterested in defending it. This is not an unexpected position for such a generally weak policy. In fact, we can expect many more bumps like this on the road ahead.
Oddly, I’m actually a supporter of the Iran deal, at least at the level of wonkish policy detail. It’s not a bad idea to encourage regimes to shut down their nuclear weapons programs, and overall I was convinced by nuclear physicists making the case that the deal was enforceable and violations would be observable. But in terms of politics, it was an absolute disaster.
The Obama administration under-estimated their weak position domestically. They also made a mistake by displaying no public attempts to get Israeli leadership on board, our closest ally in the region. It was pitifully easy for Congress and Republican opposition to paint the Iran deal as a single-minded effort to secure a “legacy” item, while also claiming any contested detail as a fatal flaw. To the extent that the administration defended the move, those efforts were heard on mostly liberal airwaves. Ultimately, this dynamic left the Obama administration with a policy opposed by Americans 2-to-1.
In that light, it’s easy to see why Republicans faced no challenge to putting the deal at risk, in this instance by slipping the new Iran sanctions into last week’s Russia bill. If this were a policy built on any sort of consensus, you would have seen immediate push back. There would have been arguments at the ready, ones already familiar to the general public. Supporters would have come out in droves championing the deal on major networks – anything to move the needle of public opinion and push for Congress to change course. Instead? Crickets.
That total lack of support illustrates how policy without consensus can be like building on quicksand. Obama is out of office, and with no one left vying to defend the Iran deal domestically, its future is unclear. A lack of support in both Iran and the US is a major hurdle to overcome. Perhaps it can succeed purely on the basis of policy strength, but at best that prospect is highly uncertain. But hey, crazier things have happened.