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Against Consensus (in France)
Consensus isn't just overrated. It's dangerous. An illustration from France tells us why.
I have been in France this week. I was talking to a French journalist, and she made the (quite correct) point that there is broad consensus across the political and ideological spectrum against outward religiosity. Such a consensus, by definition, will disproportionately affect the "outwardly religious.” And the outwardly religious, whether we like it or not, are more likely to be Muslims. In other words, to the extent that there is a secular consensus in France, it is a secular consensus that excludes Muslims qua Muslims. How can a consensus be exclusionary? This would seem to be yet another paradox.
This is the thing about consensus, though. It doesn’t deliver on its promise, and it can’t. There is simply too much diversity and disagreement in modern societies. Consensus may have made sense in a village or a city in which the only people who had the vote were propertied elites. But, today, consensus on foundational questions is growing more difficult. These are the so-called “who we are” questions: what does it mean to be a nation? What does it mean to be a people? What is the role of religion in public life?
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On the question of religion, France is one of the few large modern democracies where a broad consensus seems secure. It reminds me a bit of post-9/11 America, a dark time—darker than the Trump era, in fact—when debates around big questions (like war) were constrained and stifling. This was the time of elites and gatekeepers, for those who long for a return to that past. Be careful what you wish for.
In France, the consensus is that secularism should not only remain foundational, but that it should also remain unapologetic and even aggressive. All the major political parties, on left and right, share this commitment to one degree or another.
So what does consensus do in this circumstance? It limits conflict. You may think that’s a good thing.
It is possible to imagine a democracy, perhaps on a tiny island, where the people are so in unison—intellectually, religiously, and politically—that they have no reason to compete. France is not an island. And the people are not in unison. So how is this secular hegemony possible?
For a consensus to remain a consensus, more often than not it must be subsidized and imposed by a strong central state. Elites must decide that the consensus is worth preserving, even if that requires the employ of coercive instruments (in a democracy, these must be within reason). To decide that there is a consensus, one must also decide on its boundaries, and these must be policed. The fact of consensus, then, looms as a constant threat, wielded against those who are tempted to consider alternatives.
As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes in The Democratic Paradox, “all forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion.” Consensus is only possible when there is already a consensus, and there rarely is.