Oxymoron of the week: "Divided consensus"

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Yesterday, in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described her colleagues' attitude towards the then-pending debt limit bill this way:

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We have a very democratic caucus,
and we come to our own consensus.
In this caucus today we have a divided consensus.

The obvious allusion is to Will Rogers' remark "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."

I mentioned this in response to a comment on this morning's "Satan sandwich" post, and some other commenters felt that it deserved more prominent display.

In particular, D.O. asked

The question is, what is it? Malapropism coming from the desire to add a hedge onto "divided conscience"? Or the word "consensus" forever ingrained in politicians' minds with positive polarity and therefore desire to put it in wherever possible?

It seems clear to me that Rep. Pelosi said what she meant:  the members of her caucus largely agree in evaluating the bill, but come to different conclusions about how to vote. Or something like that.


  1. Andrew said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    It seems clear to me that Rep. Pelosi said what she meant

    Politicians sometimes say what they mean to say, and they sometimes fail to say it, but they never say what they mean, except by accident.

  2. Josh said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    I get the impression that she was saying they have a consensus, in that they got enough votes to pass the bill, but that there are a lot of people voting 'yes' who aren't happy about it, hence divided.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    I think she may have been recalling (consciously or not) the Caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland: "Everybody has won, and all shall have prizes."

  4. David J. Littleboy said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    Isn't it more a matter of "agreeing to disagree" and getting on with things?

  5. The Ridger said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

    She meant what she said: They have a consensus; everybody hates the bill. But it's a divided consensus, in that some will vote for it and some won't.

  6. AnWulf said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 1:53 am

    Occam's Razor … She just isn't that bright … If Palin had said this, it would be front line across the liberal blogs. Pelosi says it … meh.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:05 am

    So, she was saying the consensus was there was no consensus? Hmm.

  8. Mark Etherton said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:12 am

    The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, after 1995 the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe – OSCE) operated on the basis of consensus. When the Liechtenstein delegation blocked any progress in the early 90s in an attempt to force the Czechoslovak government to return the estates of the Liechtenstein royal family that had been nationalised by the communists, it was decided that 'consensus' meant 'consensus minus one'.

  9. Dick Margulis said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    Consensus has a technical (or jargon if you prefer) meaning among people who study governance systems, and it has a looser meaning in ordinary conversation. The simplest assumption is that no politician ever uses a technical meaning of a word unless doing so will overcome an accusation of perjury ("It depends what the definition of is is."). So we can assume that Pelosi was staying as far away from using any technical definition of consensus as she possibly could and being extremely loosey goosey with it.

  10. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    It looks a bit like a "Kinsley gaffe," which seems to have come to be defined as somthing like "accidentally telling the truth." In fact, the term as Michael Kingsley used it carries a subtler meaning: "accidentally saying what you actually think." In Pelosi's case, I think she conveyed what she meant to convey, so the statement was no accident, only (perhaps) the phrasing. But in another context I think it could qualify.

  11. Glenn Bingham said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    I see from the comments that we demonstrate partial agreement in this linguistic matter.

  12. D.O. said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    I am not quite sure Rep. Pelosi expressed what she meant to express, because I do not understand what she have said. And I have a great suspicsion that the hypothesis stated in the OP (however true it might be) is based more on the general knowledge of Prof. Liberman about the politics of the debt-ceiling debate than on the words of the minority leader. Anyways, isn't one of the purposes of linguistics is to understand why people choose to express themselves as they do and not as much what it is they want to express.

  13. Erica Pannen said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Another interpretation could be that the consensus was divided between Democrats and Republicans, no?

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