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Finding common ground has never been so hard, or so important

More complexity and diversity in political and economic views makes it harder to find consensus


In ancient Athenian democracy around 500BC-400BC, only adult men who had passed their military training were allowed to vote. Practically speaking this meant only about 10~-20% of the population actually voted. With a smaller, less diverse group voting there was probably more opportunity to find consensus, even if that 'consensus' didn't extend to everyone.


Of course, limiting the voting population isn't a good thing. It's a horrible idea in democracies that cherish freedom. However, when divergence in political opinions brings paralysis to governments, it is tempting to think the world would be a better place if some people (not us) weren't allowed to vote.


It is difficult for governments to develop policies that will make everyone happy at the best of times, but it is becoming more difficult due to the variety and complexity of views, and the ability to develop contradictory evidence at the click of a button.


Political opinions are becoming more diverse and complex


As humanity progresses, more information is created and becomes available. The widespread availability of information and education supports people to form diverse and complex political and economic opinions. By contrast, someone who has only read the Little Red Book, for example, probably has more standardised views.


Furthermore, democratic societies are less homogenous than they were historically e.g. with more cultural diversity, and 'types' of family unit (singles, double income no kids (DINKS)). This too lends itself to greater diversity in opinions.


A wide variety of political and economic views is a good thing. It opens up new ways of thinking. However, it is also harder to manage politically and find consensus. For example, a government can't necessarily appease the views of the car lobby and environmental lobby with the same set of policies.


Certain views simply won't be represented in government when there is considerable diversity in opinion. It feels like this is known, but not actually accepted.


New ideas, trends and events can create more potential for disagreement


New and growing fields contribute to this complexity and can make it even harder to find consensus - even as we just try to broaden our minds. For example, the growth of environmental policy has created considerable grounds for disagreement with questions like 'who is going to reduce their emissions?' and 'who should pay for climate change ?'.


New ideas are not a bad thing, they just create more complexity.


COVID-19 is an interesting example where an emerging disease has had a polarising effect, and created disagreement around issues like lockdown and vaccination. It is hard to envy any government trying to navigate that complexity.


Reaching consensus is made even harder by how easy it is to generate contradictory evidence


A government taking a sound evidence-based approach might decide a new policy needs to go ahead, then get shat on by opponents using evidence that suggests the opposite.


Creating definitive evidence is hard when it is easy to create contradictory evidence through online sources or sponsored research. Coffee and red wine drinking are interesting examples. It is easy to find evidence that coffee and red wine are both good and bad for you. If there are good arguments to suggest both are true, how can we find consensus with the evidence?


In the face of two competing sets of evidence that are both strong, what is left is often a value judgement to prioritize the needs of one group over another. An inherently polarising outcome.


Of course, the quality of evidence matters, as does critical thinking, but it is difficult to shake bad evidence that is stuck in peoples' heads. Sensationalist headlines can spread quickly and take hold more readily than efforts to debunk the bullshit.


Furthermore, with the proliferation of interest groups and lobbies, there are more people than ever out to challenge policy they dislike.


Extreme, tightly-held views are the enemy of a workable system


It is becoming remarkably difficult for democratic governments to wed together the diversity in political preferences with growing complexity in political and economic views. This is made even harder with polarisation and the absence of tolerance. Democratic governments struggle without moderation and open-mindedness among voters.


It seems the low-hanging fruit for many democracies is to work towards a broader common ground. It is crucial that they do to address big issues like COVID-19, climate change and growing global instability.


We need a system of government that mostly works, and can’t expect it will work perfectly for everyone. That's not defeatist, just pragmatic.


 

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