Coronavirus Response: Politicians Cannot Achieve Consent to a Policy Consensus



(Leah Millis/Reuters)

The two major tribes of American life cannot achieve widespread consent to a policy consensus during a time of acute national emergency.


ithout consensus, there is no consent — that’s almost a redundancy: The two words come from the same Latin root meaning “agree,” but each has its own special role in the political lexicon. We speak of “consensus” as a generally agreed-upon fact or set of facts, often with the qualifier “expert” or the mock-qualifier “elite,” but we consent to a course of action, a regime, or a state, which can deploy force legitimately only with “the consent of the governed.” That’s Liberal Democracy 101.

When you lose the ability to forge consensus, you begin to forfeit consent, and effective governance becomes difficult if not impossible — as we are seeing right now in the coronavirus response.

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Consensus, with its suggestions of compromise and trans-partisanship, is an idea not at the apex of its career. On the left, progressives and populists spent years mocking and lamenting the so-called Washington Consensus, under the aegis of which such despised institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund clucked their tongues at the world’s poor countries, with their profligate governments and public debts. Who are these pointy-headed, green-eye-shaded bean-counters to tell the diverse nations of the world how to run their own affairs? During the debate over the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic saluted Barack Obama for finally taking “a stand against bipartisanship,” concluding: “The important thing is that Obama has drawn the line in the sand, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other.”

On the right, “elite consensus” plays roughly the same role that “patriarchy” plays among feminists — an infinitely adaptable scapegoat. For instance, in the debate over the rise of Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, our friend Ben Domenech insisted that an “elite consensus in Washington, a bipartisan consensus,” had kept Republicans from acting on illegal immigration, bottling up legitimate demands for action and resentment until they exploded in the form of the Trump campaign. Rush Limbaugh sums up the Right’s ideas about seeking consensus: “To me, defeating, politically, people I disagree with is the order of the day, and I don’t think I defeat them by compromising with them.” There are many conservatives whose reverence for the Constitution approaches bibliomancy — they view it as a kind of magical item, to be sworn on, rather than a document — but the Constitution is itself famously the result of a series of difficult political compromises, some of them distasteful. We are fortunate that the men who negotiated it ultimately were able to turn their attention to projects other than defeating their political enemies, for instance building the national institutions of the country and its federal government.

Our inability to forge a policy consensus is the result of our inability to forge a necessary prior consensus about certain facts and realities. “Elite consensus” has done much to earn its low reputation. For example, a great deal of damage has been done to our political culture by the school of progressive constitutional jurisprudence that seems to have been extracted from “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: It holds that rights explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights — especially those in the First and Second Amendments — are barely there, if they are there at all, while progressive political priorities, such as the right to abortion, are not only obviously there in the text where they obviously are not but also are fixed and unquestionable in a way that explicitly enumerated rights such as keeping and bearing arms are not. “What, you can’t see it there in the text? There must be something wrong with you!” This goes beyond interpreting the law: “You can’t see that your uncle is actually your aunt, and always has been? You’re a bigot.” “You think that taxes should be lower or that there’s too much crime? You’re a racist. Oh, you may think you’re not a racist, that you don’t have any ill will toward members of other races or assumptions of superiority about your own, but, trust us, you’re a racist. And we have doctorates.” Etc.

The theme continues. Conservatives can be bores on the subject of media bias, but they are not wrong about it. The double standards, ignorance, and outright lies (see, for example, Paul Krugman’s most recent fictions) that mark too much of the reporting and commentary in institutions such as the New York Times are a serious impediment to journalism doing what it is journalism is supposed to do. Retreating into bias-affirming echo-chambers is the wrong response, and a destructive one, but it is not a surprising one. How many times do you have to catch someone lying to you before you decide he’s a liar?

This works itself out in both obvious and subtle ways. Consider the case of modeling policy outcomes. In the case of the so-called Affordable Care Act, the Congressional Budget Office was asked to make projections based on absurd assumptions, and so it put out a paper saying, in effect, “Here’s what you get with these absurd assumptions, but let’s not forget the part where the assumptions are absurd.” The heavily qualified claims in that forecast became unquestionable truths. In the matter of climate change, we have seen the partisans of Science! suggest that scientists should offer the public carefully dramatized alarmist scenarios in the service of the greater good, calculating what “the right balance is between being effective and being honest,” as climatologist Stephen Schneider put it in that famous Discover essay.

Some models and forecasts are based in dishonesty and bad faith, others are the result of honest incompetence, and others simply err by failing to account for this or that, as all models must do. And there are still more complications: We will never know what the actual worst-case scenario for the coronavirus epidemic in the United States would have looked like, because people did engage in social distancing and other prophylactic measures. That is complicated still further by the fact that the behavior of the man on the street is not neatly aligned with national or local policies — there are people blowing off the rules in states with stricter on-paper responses and people taking extra steps in states with less risk-averse rules in place. But for many people, all they will see is that some credentialed somebody somewhere predicted millions of deaths that did not (let us pray, will not) come to pass. The coronavirus death projections will simply be another version of the myth, beloved on the right, that the 2016 election polls were wildly inaccurate, which they weren’t.

In sum, this ends up being an excuse for people to simply ignore reporting or scholarship they don’t want to think about. Healthy skepticism becomes partisan-inflected motivated skepticism. “If you want me to believe that the sun is going to rise in the east, you’ll need a more credible source than” the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the CBO, the FBI . . .

The Right’s indictment of “elite consensus” is on solid ground in that it was progressives who in the postwar era captured and perverted the consensus-producing institutions: the newspapers and other media, the universities and other educational institutions, the courts (partly reversing that has been one of the Right’s critical domestic political victories in this generation), etc. Of course it is possible to overstate the case or to present the case in unfair terms, but the diminished credibility of the major news media, the courts, the political professionals, and the academics is not the result of histrionic right-wing criticism. It is the result of shoddy work by the people entrusted with the care and development of those institutions, of corruption and intellectual dishonesty at the highest levels filtering down to high-school history classrooms.

It is hardly surprising that, as we have seen in recent weeks, the two major tribes of American life cannot achieve widespread consent to a policy consensus during a time of acute national emergency — because there is no consensus about the facts of the case, which is itself the result of there being no consensus about who it is we can trust to document and adjudicate those facts. The falling dominoes of institutional failure and intellectual malfeasance have left standing very little of the institutional credibility we need to develop and implement useful and necessary public policies. The dangers and harm resulting from that are obvious even to a fringe libertarian like me. I do not want government to do very much, but I want government to do the things that we need it to do, and to do them effectively.

With the economy cratering, unemployment at unthinkable highs, tens of thousands dead and thousands more to die, it is almost impossible to write this, but: We are lucky that this epidemic is not a great deal worse than it is, because we are not ready for it and do not seem to have the capacity to get ourselves ready for it.


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