Alright, it’s gonna get real abstract in here today.
Every coalition has a center, and the center’s job is always to foster, cultivate, and build consensus. Coalitions also have at least one area of engagement, one domain, usually more, and each domain presents its own challenges to consensus. It is the periphery’s job to identify, signal, and react to the problems presented by these domains – in terms of severity and impact – while the center determines feasibility and implements solutions.
If the center is able to generate a firm consensus in the face of domain challenges, we can say that the coalition is “coherent.” Coalitions will remain coherent so long as they produce outcomes that are (and continue to be) amenable to consensus. Incoherent coalitions have many problems and risk breaking apart entirely, unless external factors are marshalled to prevent it, often by themselves forming temporary or stopgap coalitions.
Consensus may seem like a somewhat “thin” or “empty” concept, but this is actually by design: The nature of every coalition is different, the challenges to consensus are unique to each domain, and the methods of building consensus do not necessarily translate from one domain to another. Add in the fact that most large coalitions consist of smaller coalitions which can themselves have sub-coalitions, which each have their own centers and can each span several domains, and it quickly becomes clear that consensus has to be a bit of a placeholder concept if we want it to be useable at all.
In other words, it’s complicated. But this is a framework we can implement if we want to understand the problems that a given coalition is having with building consensus. It’s a rubric we can apply. Really, consensus is only the outline of an idea – each “center” must fill it with the details, principles, and practices that are relevant to the domains spanned by that coalition. Yeesh. It sounds like a lot of work. And in practice, it is.
So, the first questions you should ask in a new ecosystem are the ones you would need answered to start filling in those details. What’s my coalition? Where is its center? Does it have one? How is it functioning? What’s working well? What isn’t? What domains does it span? What kinds of challenges do those domains present? Etc. In complex, uncertain, mixed-faith systems, doing this exercise is crucial to understanding the world around you, at least to the extent that it can be understood.
What happens when we try to apply this to America’s widest consensus-building coalition, the American public? Actually, what even is the American public?
Well, for one, it’s a very wobbly coalition, made up of a mind-boggling number of sub-coalitions. We can confidently say there is what we’d call a “right wing” and a “left wing” in this coalition, based on their ability to act in unison, but they are incredibly diverse factions that host all kinds of different groupings. It is hard to say whether or not there is a “center.” Maybe, maybe, if you squint hard enough, it’s there. But its signal is weak, at best. To the extent that they even exist, the left, right, and vanishing center of American politics are vague coalitions, held together by a tangled hodge podge of philosophical principles, social practices, political interests, religious affiliations, geographic preferences, educational approaches, economic opportunities, and cultural tastes.
Each one of the categories in the hodge podge are so complex they would need an anthology to do them justice. I’m much too lazy for that. And besides, I probably left a bunch out. These coalitions are BIG. And messy. But despite being so diffuse, there is one set of domain challenges that keep these coalitions coherent in light of their many problems: political power is dictated by election mechanisms that favor a two-party duopoly, so people are forced to pick a side against their better judgement. (Side note: let’s fix that.)
In addition to the high-level abstract breakdown, we also have to think about the technical details. The public can be broken out into many distinct cross-sections, or layers of propagation and exchange: television and cable news, print and online media, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and street-level interest organizations that are too numerous to count. All these groups do consensus-related work, and the technical distinctions matter here. Take Facebook and Twitter. One is amenable to long-form content, the other to rhetorical snippets and quips (things you might even call aphorisms). Facebook has more right-leaning materials, while Twitter is… where all the journalists are. There are no elegant symmetries here. It’s a mess of a system. Each medium has its own rules for interaction – their own policies, their own norms and expectations, their own etiquette. And that’s only looking at the knowledge-sharing part of it. Implementation is equally complex – just look at our branches of government and how they differ at the state, national, and municipal levels. Plus all the non-governmental actors that are in the mix. Yeesh.
This description could go on and on. Again, several anthologies would probably be insufficient. And I’m just a layman, so… no. This is my side gig. But this level of understanding should be sufficient to see the main problem: while the sub-coalitions of “right” and “left” are able to hold together just barely, the result is that the parent coalition, the American public itself, has become incoherent. The organs of consensus building that used to identify problems and offer up solutions, albeit imperfect ones, now only serve us with grievance, acrimony, and blame games. Partisanship. Tribalism. These used to be forces of dynamic tension, but now that dynamic has been shattered. The chronic symptoms have become inflamed. Polarization is bleeding over into radicalization.
It is clear, to me at least, that these forces need to be defused and neutralized, at least to the extent that we can regain some normal function. There will always be a role for grievance and acrimony to play in politics – I have a few “enemies” myself – but we kinda need to tone it down a bit. Just overall. I know partisans are frustrated that they can’t get their big-ticket ideas through our narrow Overton window, but if they keep trying to jam the opening then nothing can get through at all. And we’ve seen the kinds of people that take over when all the gears churn to a halt. It is not pretty.
However correct or accurate this vision might be, the problem with it is simply that it’s not appealing. It’s too difficult to explain, too long-winded. It is not satisfactory to partisans. Of course, reality has never cared all that much about satisfying partisans, but still – we need to if we want to respond to domain challenges in the American public. This is a critical problem we should be working on. We need a rhetorical approach that can win them over to the side of pragmatism. I sincerely hope someone out there is working on that. Wink.
That brings me back to the electoral mechanisms that are keeping the current two-party system held in place, even as it tries to break itself apart. From one perspective, you could say these electoral obstacles have been marshalled by a stopgap cross-coalition of office-holders and political consultants that has captured both major parties in order to keep themselves comfortably in power at the expense of… everybody else. That characterization would be accurate. You might even suggest that the solution to this problem is to marshal journalists in response (yes, on both sides) to form a countercoalition that will be robust enough (yes, that’s why we need everybody) to nudge just a little awareness of the necessary fixes into the broader American public. Once in the public at large, these fixes should really be a no-brainer. Election reform is a little bit tricky, sure, but it’s not that tough to explain. That said, we know what elected officials will say. “It’s not practical.” “It’s not feasible.” Hey, they’ve got their careers to worry about. But at the end of the day, either the voters will win – or we never really had a democracy to begin with. You either support the solutions, or you’re a part of the problem. Basically, it’s us versus them. What’s in our way?