Roy Pinchot

The Illusion of Political Consensus

Every day, the politicians, TV commentators, and newspaper reporters stress that all this civil strife would go away if the political parties could reach a compromise through wide political consensus on the revisions to Israeli Judicial Reform. Consensus, to this way of thinking, becomes the only legitimate stamp for implementing changes deemed to be fundamental to the state.

However, history shows that such wide political divisions are almost never solved by achieving consensus. A look at the history of changes in governmental structure shows that such changes are written and enacted by a small majority of the population – and seldom if ever through any form of universal or super-majority consensus.

In the United States of America, the inadequacies of the initial government were understood by only a small group of people from various states who met in Philadelphia to fix the governing constitution: the Articles of Confederation. However, this group, led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, recognized that simple revision to the existing structure would be inadequate, and only a new and revolutionary governmental structure could successfully govern the new nation. The convention delegates realized from the start that what they were about to do far exceeded their initial assignment and, in reality, constituted an act of “treason” against the current government.

To protect themselves and their work, the delegates voted to close the doors, conduct their deliberations in secrecy, shut out all contact with the public and news media, and bound themselves to utter not a word about their deliberations, even after their work was done. They knew that public discussion would destroy any possibility of swaying a majority of the delegates to make fundamental changes in the governing structure.

Even then, major conflicts broke out among the delegates over representation and slavery. Compromises were finally achieved, and the delegates signed the new United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. It was published in newspapers across the country three days later. The fight for ratification of the Constitution now commenced. The critical number however was not a broad consensus: the new Constitution required the approval of only 9 of the 13 states to become effective for all.

This proposed overhaul of the government was immediately opposed by a very large percentage of the population, led by many of the most important and famous people who had led the revolution against Great Britain. Calling themselves the “anti-federalists”, they organized opposition to the new Constitution in every state, sometimes promoting violence to get their point across.

The convention delegates understood that asking the current elected government officials in every state to ratify the new Constitution would make ratification impossible. It would be asking those elected officials to give up power and vote themselves out of office. So instead, the convention delegates proposed a separate ratifying convention in each state, where a group of delegates would be appointed solely for the purpose of ratifying or rejecting the new government. At these state conventions, pro-Constitution forces would now have a chance to send delegates that would approve the radical overhaul.

Both sides to this conflict then lobbied the public through demonstrations, lectures, and the publishing of hundreds of articles either defending or attacking the new proposal. On the pro-side, delegates Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote and published 85 articles defending and explaining the proposed Constitution in newspaper articles published across the country. Their collected articles were called The Federalist Papers and became a most famous text on governance and political philosophy.

By March 1788, only six of the thirteen states had ratified the Constitution when Rhode Island overwhelmingly rejected the new form of government, and the anti-federalists in New York published a blistering attack on the new proposal, calling it “more arbitrary and despotic than that of Great Britain.”

Two more states ratified before New Hampshire became the 9th and Virginia the 10th to ratify the new Constitution. In June 1788, it was announced as the new law of the land, as the Constitution became the new form of government for all 13 states when ratified by only 9. But everyone knew that there could be no United States without ratification by the critical state of New York. The pro-Constitution activists held their breath as the vote in New York state went down to the wire in a fight between Hamilton and the anti-federalists. Both sides knew that this would be the critical vote and applied maximum force to move the vote their way. In a nail-biter, the final vote was 30 for and 27 votes against. The US Constitution was approved by the slim margin of three votes.

In other words, the entire form of the US Government radically reset itself by the final margin of only three individual New York votes. If the margin and threshold had to be general consensus, there would likely be no United States of America as we know it. Instead, a small majority of states adopted (on behalf of all the states) the US Constitution as the law of the land – and that document became a model that nations all over the world would look to emulate.

If America had attempted to make everyone happy by seeking a wide consensus, that country would still be governed by its Articles of Confederation – if America could have survived this long. Big picture changes defy consensus, since sweeping change means someone – even many – will lose status, power, money and rights. That is why change is always generated by a small minority and, if finally accepted, it is by only a slim majority of the voters – and almost never by a wide consensus. We would do well to remember history – what has worked and what has not – when looking to improve our precious state. The future of Israel may depend on it.

About the Author
Previously Editor in Chief, USNews & World Report/books, President, US History Society, Inc. author or editor of 42 books and multiple articles published inluding: The Human Body (16 vols), Vietnam Order of Battle, Encyclopedia of American History (23 vols), Famous Americans (12 vols), etc.
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