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June 5, 2007

the power of consensus

(Portsmouth, NH) I've been in New Hampshire for a meeting to help launch something called the Democracy Imperative. The participants are a mix of professors, college administrators, and activists based outside of universities. It is fairly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, training, and profession. I knew about 10 of the 34 participants quite well before I came, and I knew everyone at least a little by the end of the second day. There are many overlapping networks and mutual friends.

It has been an intense meeting with much positive emotion and collaborative work. By the end of the second full day, the room was covered with big sheets of handwritten notes, action steps, mission statements, concerns and hopes. As is common at such meetings, we went around the large room and asked everyone to reflect on the meeting so far, in preparation for the third and final day. One after another, people spoke of their gratitude for the gathering, their commitment to the common cause, and their enthusiasm for the process. It struck me that if any participants had been disgruntled--or even a little dissatisfied--they would have been hard pressed to express those concerns, once 10 or 20 other people had spoken in emotional and positive terms.

Even though participants are not required, paid, or otherwise rewarded for attending, they have come under intense pressure to pledge support for the group. That pressure comes from the group itself. One could view such pressure as oppressive--as the tyranny of the majority. But participants in our meeting have the option of quiet, polite exit after the conference disbands. Thus one can view consensus as a form of democratic pressure or power that elicits contributions to a collective enterprise without threats or payments. (Jenny Mansbridge's Beyond Adversary Democracy is the classic text on such power.)

June 5, 2007 9:57 PM | category: none


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