A consensus emerges when all participants or parties who are discussing a common problem agree on a solution or a course of action. Essentially consensus means agreement. If consensus is part of a deliberative process, consensus seeking implies that all participants talk for as long as it takes for common understandings to emerge and finding a solution that everyone thinks is the best regarding not only his or her own but everybody's interests. Consensus thus emerges if the discussion is oriented towards the common good. Participants need to be open learn from each other, immerse in the perspective of others and be willing to regard the interests of others as important as the own interests. Often the word consensus is, however, used in non-deliberative discursive contexts where negotiations along self-interests is the mode of communication. Here consensus can simply mean compromise – a solution all parties can accept in the face of no other solution that would benefit them more. This notion of consensus is at the heart of so called "consensus democracies" – democratic states in which workers' unions and other employee representatives on the one side negotiate political compromise with employer representatives on the other side as part of the legislative process.
Consensus is rather an outcome and a goal than a specific democratic tool. However, consensus is of major concern in some democratic innovations like consensus conferences.
Problems and Purpose
Consensus seeking in the deliberative sense aims at overcoming the problem of majority rule in modern day democracies. Majority rule implies that the minority loses or is suppressed. Democratic theorists have called this phenomenon the "tyranny of the majority". If, in contrast, everybody agrees, then there is no minority to be dominated. This is why deliberative democratic theory suggests to not simply count votes which express the self-interest of each, but rather to talk to each other until interests transform and converge.
Consensus decision-making can be traced to the early forms of humanity. Hunters and gatherers made decisions within their tribes with the consent of all adult males, who gathered in a council, as Jane Mansbridge (1983) describes. Later more compitetive modes dominated the development of modern democracies with party competition and elections. Ideas of consensus were promoted by Anarchrist movements in Europe in the 1960s and 70s. Student occupations of universities and the autonomous movement occupying deserted buildings also practiced and still practice forms of consensus decision-making. These practical experiences of consensus seeking also inspired current discussions of deliberative democracy.
Analysis and Criticism
While the advantages of consensus – to avoid a minority of "losers" and to promote reciprocal learning and understanding – are widely acknowledged, some disadvantages, however, also become apparant. So called "difference democrats" criticize consensus for potentially benefitting stronger participants in discussions. If there is no clear vote that measures every ones' self-interest and if everyone is supposed to decide regarding the interests of others (common good) than those who are less confident and less articulate might be at a disadvantage. Charismatic and loud-mouthed participants might dominate the conversation. As a result, the consensus everyone agrees on in the end might be biased in the interest of more verbal participants.
Many empirical studies show, that women, ethnic and sexual minorities and other groups in society who suffer from a history of domination and suppression tend to be less verbal in discursive settings. On average, they tend to speak less, ask more questions instead of giving statements and are more easily swayed by dominating participants.
Moreover, the orientation toward the common good tends to limit diversity of ideas, topics and interests. Consensus seeking implies homogenizing tendencies. These tendencies are amplified through an understanding implicit in epistemic deliberative democratic conceptions that there is an objective best solution to any given problem. Thus experts can more aptly find the best solutions with the help of science, which discovers objective truth. These implications of consensus lead into the direction of expert rule, which is, in the opinion of many, anything but democratic.
Mansbridge, J. (1983). Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.