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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

The consensus paradox: Does agreement impede rational public discourse?

Awarded: NOK 2.1 mill.

The project aimed to examine a paradox in theories of deliberative democracy: We will make better collective decisions by having people who disagree and represent a variety of opinions deliberate publicly with one another, with the aim to reach an agreement approximating a rational consensus. Yet if they succeed in establishing a consensus, it will likely worsen the conditions for continued rational deliberation, precisely because their diverging views will then have converged. The specific aims of the project have been to test empirically whether the consensus paradox occurs in real-world policy debates, i.e., whether consensual agreement impedes the rationality of subsequent public discourse, and to determine the paradox?s theoretical implications and practical consequences. The project has generated theoretical, methodological and empirical results: The project has analysed how the state ought to handle truth claims in politics in a way that is both respectful and open for inconvenient truth claims. Furthermore, the project has developed a method for assessing whether political decisions are of high quality by virtue of being well supported by reasons. Finally, the project has conducted web panel experiment surveys in order to determine whether consensus influences the way people reason on political issues. The project has been carried out at the University of Oslo in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg, two of the leading research environments in the Nordic countries for multidisciplinary research on democracy. We have communicated the results of the project through numerous journa articles, books, special issues and book chapters. In 2014, we arranged an international conference with some of the leading researchers on this area. We have also presented our research at conferences and seminars in Norway, Sweden, Germany and the United States.

This project proposes a paradox in deliberative democratic theory. The paradox consists in that deliberative opinion-formation aims for consensual agreement, though a consensus, once established, will likely impede the conditions for further rational publ ic discourse. Hence, over time, deliberative democracy might undermine itself. The project examines the paradox empirically and evaluates its theoretical implications. Previous research has studied the ex ante effects of consensus on deliberation as a p rospective goal. In contrast to these studies, this project shifts the focus to ex post effects by studying how consensus on a policy issue affects future public discourse on that issue -- a previously unexplored phenomenon. While the paradox is demonstr able in theory, we also support our argument by presenting three mechanisms which could explain why consensus might hamper the rationality of public discourse: after an agreement, participants may stop developing new arguments, they may forget existing ar guments, and their fear of deviating from the social norm may promote conformism to the consensual agreement. We test whether the paradox can be observed in real-world policy debates in parliaments. Operationalizing rationality as coherence, we analyze t he reasons participants in parliamentary debates give for their opinions, and expect a prior consensus to have a detrimental effect on rationality in subsequent debates. The theoretical part of the project evaluates various strategies to cope with the con sensus paradox in light of the empirical findings.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam