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Schubart: Consensus

Vermont has a “consensus” problem. We don’t understand the concept. This confusion manifests itself especially when leadership is weak.

For example, there’s broad agreement that we need more affordable and market-rate housing that’s environmentally efficient, affordable, and more compact than last century’s housing.

But ask housing officials what impediments they confront when planning new projects and they’ll tell you about the tens of thousands of dollars in approval and regulatory costs and the years that accrue prior to any construction. If housing is indeed a priority, we need to revisit the consensus process that finally allows us to put shovel to earth.

Consensus doesn’t mean universal agreement. Democracy runs amok when individual rights impede community good. Neither democracy, business management, or life works like that. If consensus meant that all parties had to agree before any action was taken, we’d never see progress. Everyone’s say does matter, but it may not be the sole factor that determines the outcome. There, I said it.

In consensus, an initiative or policy is considered by a representative body for action in the form of acceptance, amendment, or rejection. In the discussion, all points of review are explored and discussed. After discussion. majority vote determines the course of action. Dissenting opinion may be articulated in the final decision but the majority rules and it is understood that all parties will accept with grace the newly formed “consensus.” Surprisingly, one presidential candidate has invented a new definition of the national electoral consensus. “If I win, I’ll accept it.” This definition, of course, leads to anarchy.

Our misconceptions about consensus have also given rise to the Don Quixote figure –an absolutist on whatever his or her favorite cause has become – be it new housing location, renewable energy, or healthcare. Determined to save us from ourselves, their ego’s deeply vested in their absolute righteousness and they truck no debate. Sadly, they themselves may even have something important to say, but they’re deaf when it comes to listening and compromise, and blind to the necessity of finding common ground on which a community might build a productive path forward.

Consensus, which presumes compromise, is essential to solving problems. If we’re going to make progress advancing healthy communities, we need to reeducate ourselves on what consensus really means in a democracy.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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