WHY TYRANTS LOVE CONSENSUS Book Chapter for comments

This is a chapter of the new Book “Organize to Win” a handbook for grassroots enviro activists. It has four chapters on the problems and pitfalls of partnerships consensus groups , roundtables, win-win and other so called modern means of decision making. I can’t include the footnotes in this cut and paste but can furnish them. This is chapter 4 of volume 3. The book will be available in a month or so. It is written from a US perspective for US activists.

The enforcement of our environmental laws has been characterized by a reluctance of both Republican and Democratic administrations to obey federal laws, forcing courts to step in. Whether it was illegally clear-cutting national forests under Clinton, or permitting the hunting of wolves from helicopters under Trump, it has been courts, rather than politicians, that enforce the laws. The tendency to sympathize with anti-environmental interests in environmental disputes is much worse under Trump, but both political parties have always used the same rhetorical devices to justify not enforcing laws while simultaneously presenting the appearance that they take environmental concerns very seriously.
Following are some of the myths used to justify non-enforcement of environmental laws which are widely accepted by the public and even the environmental community, which ought to know better.
Three Myths About “Gridlock”
MYTH 1. The federal government should not impose its will from Washington upon the unwilling, sometimes expressed as, “We can no longer simply ram laws down people throats.”
FACT: The argument that the federal government must always be responsive to complaints by rural people to policies that disrupt their way of life is nothing more than a modern reworking of North Carolina Senator John Calhoun’s doctrine of “nullification,” which he created in the 1840s to organize the Southern states to resist the Abolitionist movement.
When you hear the cry of “you can’t ram things down people’s throats” from ranchers in Oregon (who refuse to pay their grazing lease bills) and from ATV riders in Utah (who want to illegally enter national monuments to illegally collect Native American artifacts), you can be assured that the specific federal law they oppose cannot be attacked on its merits. Generations of political demagogues have learned that you can’t get citizens in the 1990s to rise up and defend the right of distant corporations to ruin their local rivers and water supplies any more than you could get citizens in the 1850s to defend the flogging and branding of slaves. But you can get people to passionately defend these policies if you cloak them with the soothing bromides of states’ rights, local control, and a free man’s duty to resist distant tyrannies.
MYTH 2. A “win-win” process is always superior to the now hopelessly outmoded, unenlightened and thoroughly discredited win-lose approach, which has proved contentious, divisive and unworkable.
FACT: The “win-win” strategy is a product of 1950s game theory research which found that in some game scenarios it produced much better outcomes for all parties than “win-lose.” However, it is not appropriate for all games, particularly some where the players do not have shared interests. For example, if a swimmer in the ocean met a shark, to use “win-win” to perhaps compromise on, say, an arm or half a leg, might not be a viable outcome for the swimmer. In dealing with corporate sharks we embrace “win-win” at our peril.
In modern times, a good example of the effectiveness of win-lose was in the early ’40s when Truman, then chairman of the Senate committee overseeing government war contracts, found a few defense contractors had deliberately overcharged us about $100 billion in today’s money. Truman simply forced them, with very blunt threats, to give all the money back. Truman knew what every farmer knows: to get a pig out of a trough, you use a 2x4. You don’t invite pigs into a consensus process, and you don’t tiptoe around barnyards in three-piece suits and wingtip shoes with the media setting up a photo op for the piglets.
MYTH 3. Consensus-based decision making allows new and creative approaches to arise from local groups as it empowers minority views, and frees people from the mechanical operations of Robert’s Rules, which allow simple voting majorities to impose their will on hapless minorities. Consensus decision making is modern, creative, flexible, and forward-looking, while Robert’s Rules-based decision making is tedious, time-consuming, bureaucratic, cumbersome, old fashioned, authoritarian and perhaps even paternalistic.
FACT: Consensus-based deliberation processes are wonderful tools in the appropriate context. When people need to come together to do something for which there is common agreement, a formal decision process is often awkward and unnecessary. I am involved with consensus processes all the time and find some very productive. But consensus-based processes are highly inappropriate in deliberative assemblies expected to persist in time, where a body of law and regulation about the issues on the table already exists, and some of the parties have personal financial interests. For deliberations in “civilized” societies, consensus decision making has been found wanting for over 1,500 years, as tyrants and despots can use it to silence the rights of minorities. Why would environmentalists ever agree to replace proscriptive enforceable federal regulations with a deliberative process in which those subject to regulation can block group decisions adverse to their financial interests by merely withholding agreement?
Consensus Decision Making in Deliberative Bodies Contrasted with Robert’s Rules of Order
A “consensus meeting” is basically one that does not use Robert’s Rules of Order as its formal procedure. While perhaps useful in situations where people have unlimited time to talk and in which all participants share values, for deliberative bodies of any kind, consensus can easily be used to abridge the rights of minorities. In the history of deliberative assemblies, no approach is considered as dangerous and problem prone as the consensus style. The experience of observing millions of meetings over thousands of years taught parliamentarians about the pitfalls you can expect when assemblies deliberate without formal written procedures which explicitly provide for motions, voting, and the like.
Robert’s Rules of Order were designed specifically and primarily to protect the voice and rights of minorities by depersonalizing the conflicts that arise in the meeting process. Parliamentarians noted that when conflict is allowed to become personal, minority voices tend to get silenced. The U.S. Senate rules, for example, are an incredibly complex system specifically designed to eliminate direct communication between the members on the floor. Under Robert’s Rules, a “No” vote should never be any more than simple opposition to a specific motion before the body, and can be cast without explaining the reason for or the strength of the dissenting view. On the other hand, when there is a strong minority or dissenting opinion in a consensus meeting, it will often be required to be expressed in the form of opposition to the leader and/or the collective will of the body. This is a fundamental difference because it can personalize conflict.
Consensus tends to disempower and marginalize the weak, inarticulate and less aggressive members in a meeting. That is why it is best used where there are family or “tribal” norms to protect the weak and vulnerable. Absent these protections, consensus will greatly increase the personal power of: the jealous, those with hidden agendas and grudges, and the unbalanced and misfits we always seem to have with us. Here is what parliamentarians say will happen absent a strong parliamentary procedure like Robert’s:

  1. Leaders of meetings will try to suppress the views of minorities.
  2. A “strong” minority cannot force the proceeding to “deliberate.”
  3. Conflicts of interest will be concealed and people will vote on issues in which they have a direct financial interest.
  4. People will try to pass motions which conflict with higher laws or the rules of their own body.
    Even today within deliberative bodies, some of the most dangerous moves are:
  • consensus type motions,
  • chair’s rulings to adopt by consensus or acclamation, or
  • suspension of voting rules.
    The use of these motions is hedged about with a number of special safeguards that do not apply to other moves.
    Robert’s Rules creates a web of carefully designed procedures to ensure that:
  • Members of meetings can formally challenge and deny the ability of a person to vote on matters on which they have a financial interest.
  • Members focus primarily on their relation to the issue or motion before them, not the other people in the meeting.
  • A vote on a motion is narrowly addressed to the immediate matter of the issue before the body.
  • Meeting minutes accurately record the body’s decisions.
  • Meetings do not pass motions which conflict with legally passed laws of governmental bodies that have jurisdiction over them.
  • Motions which address unfair representation or conflicts of interest, unfair proceedings and minority abridging procedures will get precedence.
    Conflict over the administration of our federal environmental laws will not be eliminated by local folks sitting down in consensus-based partnerships to decide the disposition of local federal resources because undue influence of the strong over the weak in federal environmental policy is what got us into trouble in the first place.
    Finally, control over federal resources must never be delegated in any way to local communities because conflict of interest is endemic. The entire structure of local deliberative bodies that bear on land at the county and regional level have conflicts of interest woven into their warp and woof. We have seen with long established rural deliberative processes (economic development commissions, planning bodies, soil conservation districts, and grazing boards) that not only are personal pecuniary interests allowed into the deliberations, they are often the basis upon which these bodies were established. Combine this with the reluctance of most rural newspapers to muckrake and for local people to live and let live, and you have a recipe for a level of conflict of interest incomprehensible to urban people. Paradoxically, it is just this dense intersection and blurring of personal, community, and business interests that give rural communities their stability and sense of community, which appears so attractive to urban dwellers.
    Environmental consensus groups as envisioned by the Congress today would transfer responsibility for federal enforcement of our laws to out-gunned, unfunded environmentalists. While they may reflect the prevailing majority sentiment of the country, they will be a weak minority in any community in which these consensus groups are established. To allow any form of local consensus group to decide anything about the disposition of local federal assets, when consensus has proven that it cannot always protect “strong” minorities (let alone weak ones), will essentially create a federally sponsored “free store” for public assets.
    In the past, one of the three branches of government was always able to stop the most egregious efforts to give away our public lands. Any time they are all in far right conservative hands we are subject to getting a reminder on the great unwritten rule of the West, “The tough guys always get the ground.”

I appreciate this discussion of consensus processes vs parliamentary procedured. I often find myself explaining to board members that Robert’s Rules of Order was designed to bring parliamentary procedure into common societies at a time when people were so divided that a meeting could easily come to blows unless “rules of order” were strictly enforced. Many modern boards stick slavishly to these rules designed to prevent bullying and violence even though their meetings are otherwise congenial. I recommend they back off on the rules, because if your board members aren’t fighting, you don’t need to treat them like they are.

I know I’m far from alone in sharing that advice. What gets lost in the interpretation is the converse. If the people assembled represent strongly divided and opposing interests, in other words if they are fighting, use the rules! The rules have nearly a 1000 years of practice refinement behind them. A meeting run in strict adherence to the rules is usually more boring, but isn’t that worth enduring when you know you can walk out with a more balanced result?