The Principle of Political Compromise

It is customary to view principle and compromise as antagonists and sometimes they are. But there is also the principle of compromise essential to the democratic process. Ideally, it is a bringing together of opposing sides in a peaceful and rational manner. It assumes the legitimacy of opposition within reasonable constraints. Democracy “suffers” from conflicts in interests and ideology and in disparities in political knowledge among and within groups and classes. Since there is no single conception of the common good that unites citizens, compromise is necessary in accommodating the other side in order to gain something, if not all of what one desires. The alternatives are majoritarian coerciveness, on the one hand, and gridlock, on the other. Those who in good faith mistrust compromise and the compromiser worry about situations in which one side is in the right and the other in the wrong. In such cases the wise course may be to stick to one’s guns. Compromise in politics is not for all seasons. (There should have been no compromising with Nazism in the early thirties of the previous century.) It is fair to say however that what is right does not have exclusive residence on one side of the political spectrum. I believe that in our current political and economic crisis the liberal view is mainly, though not entirely, in the right. Inflicting austerity on a weak economy, the ambition of fiscal conservatives, seems the wrong way to go, but there is the gray area of deficit and debt where neither side appears to be in complete possession of the right policy.

What if one side is in the right and the other in the wrong? This is a question that a (radical) relativist would simply dismiss as illegitimate (for him or her there is no objective right and wrong), but a believer in the possibility of objective truth must take the existence of right and wrong seriously. Wouldn’t compromise diminish what principled advocacy means to accomplish? The answer depends upon the kind and degree of right and wrong. Racism, slavery and genocide, to name the most blatant examples, are or should be non-negotiable issues. Which is not to say that we cannot negotiate with oppressors if they have the capacity to hold on to power, but such negotiation would be in the interest of reducing oppression. (It is a curious fact that there are those who in the interest of peace and avoiding war urge the government to seek diplomatic solutions with intransigent tyrannical adversaries in order to reduce violence or oppression, while intransigently refusing to engage less menacing opposition at home.) Wasn’t Lincoln a principled compromiser in the matter of slavery? He limited his resistance to the westward expansion of slavery before his election to the presidency to the displeasure of the abolitionists, because he viewed its complete elimination as politically not feasible until the Civil War was won. Lincoln never completely overcame his own racism, though he made considerable progress in moving away from it. Slavery now is universally anathema in civilized nations though it may continue to have an underground as well as an open existence in backward nations. Racism too is anathema though there continue to be differences of opinion about what constitutes racism in particular instances.

The rights and wrongs in our current politics are less momentous than those that produced the civil war, but they are serious enough with potentially grave social and economic consequences. Returning to the matter of the state of our national economy and the question of how our deficit and sovereign debt should be addressed, let us make the reasonable assumption that the Keynesians are right to argue that stimulating the economy and not austerity is the order of the day; should those of Keynesian persuasion compromise with advocates of austerity? (For Keynesians the problem is moral as well as economic, for what is at stake is the fate of millions of unemployed job seekers.) Though of great importance, the differences between the two sides do not have the moral gravity of slavery and racism. They do not constitute a struggle between radical good and radical evil. There is a case for beginning to address the problem of the high national debt in the long term by carefully cutting spending now and making deeper cuts later when the economy is stronger and unemployment is low. In an often dysfunctional, non-parliamentary democracy like our own, legislative action is slow and too often badly done. It may be wise to begin early in planning for the future. Those on the liberal side for the most part embrace such a view in principle, but are resistant in practice, because even small spending cuts may significantly reduce benefits in entitlements (in particular medicare and social security) necessary for those who earn little or are unemployed. If there are cuts to be made, the liberal view is that they should be made mostly in defense and corporate welfare to supplement increased taxes on the wealthy. In the meantime, liberals believe that a stimulus package to improve our infrastructure and education made possible by increasing taxes on the wealthy to be necessary; it would strengthen the economy and reduce unemployment. It is a position unacceptable to the conservative side, which draws the line on tax increases, while seeking spending cuts across the domestic front with little or no cuts in military expenditures. Republicans argue that they have already conceded on the tax front in agreeing to raise the marginal rate on the wealthy. A reasonable compromise would entail sacrifices on both sides: liberals would have to give on entitlements, particularly medicare and conservatives on higher taxes of the wealthy.

In an interview, House Speaker John Boehner rejects the idea of compromise and embraces the idea of common ground. While compromise involves sacrifice on both sides, common ground implies an overlapping of interests and convictions of opposing sides. When you find common ground presumably you have given up nothing. In effect, Boehner is declaring an unwillingness to concede anything to the opposition—at least beyond what he has already conceded. My own view, as I have already said, is that the case for the liberal view is economically and morally the stronger case, but its strength is diminished if it would refuse to consider cuts in entitlements in exchange for agreement from the conservative side to cut, for example, corporate welfare such as subsidies to oil companies. If there is any doubt that compromise is a necessary principle in the life of a nation, we need only contemplate the prospect of the disastrous consequences of “sequestration” (arbitrary draconian cuts in domestic and military spending): the evisceration of essential programs, the strong possibility of close to a million job losses and a return to recession. Those at the extremes are willing to see the sequestration go forward without worrying about the consequences. Their ambition is to successfully fix the blame on the other side. What is distressing is that for opportunistic political reasons the apparent non-extremists on one side (the Republican side) seem to have bought into the extreme of their base.

The extremists are empowered by the conviction that they are in exclusive possession of what is morally right. In their view, compromise is a dilution, a distortion, a diminishment of what is right. Compromise (i.e., being compromised) has as one of its meanings self-betrayal as well as the betrayal of others. But extreme principled views can also have tyrannical resonance as in Barry Goldwater’s affirmation of liberty: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Yes it is a vice when it suppresses the question as to what is meant by liberty, by no means an easy question to answer. Consider Lincoln’s remarks in a speech he gave in which he acknowledged the contentions over the meaning of “liberty”:

The world has never had a good definition of the world liberty. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with the others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor…The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the shepherd and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty, and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures…(Address at a Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, April 1864).

The liberty of an individual with money and power may in effect deprive those without power of their liberty. The fact is that liberty like equality has different meanings and applications, which hyperbolic rhetoric such as Goldwater’s represses.

If the task of government is to preserve liberty, then what is required is negotiation among those who embody its different meanings. Which means that mutual restraints on the liberties of the various parties may be necessary in order for each to party enjoy liberty. The wolf may have to be restrained from attacking the sheep. The human defender of the sheep may be limited in his power to kill wolves in order to preserve the herd. (Lincoln’s fable delivers a powerful message against the slave owners; it scants however the claim of the wolf.) We may think of compromise as the respect that each side has for the views of the other side or sides and the understanding it shows for the need to exercise self-limitation in serving the public good. Consider, for instance, the needs of the poor (the cause of the liberal left) and the aspirations of the entrepreneur (the cause of the libertarian right). To inhabit the imagination of the passionate left is to enter into the lives the poor, the disabled, and the deprived and to live the life of indignation and protest. We need a party that works to alleviate the suffering and improve the lives of the poor, but we also need to value the enterprising and the creative, who enjoy their strength, independence and productivity. The parties will be in conflict with each other, but it should be possible that particularly in times of crisis for them to form a partnership and at other times to coexist in parallel? The party of strength and wealth should also be willing to sacrifice more than the party of the poor, because they possess more and can afford the sacrifice.

“The uncompromising mindset,” as Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson point out in The Spirit of Compromise, has a role to play in the story of compromise; it may provide a check on premature compromise, a fault of Obama according to his liberal base. A problem arises when “the uncompromising mindset” becomes inflexible and turns into a simple refusal to compromise. A premature compromise, it should be pointed out, is often difficult to determine, especially for those on the outside of negotiations. Compromise like comedy depends on timing. One needs to be privy to what is going on inside the process to know when it is appropriate to make concessions. And even those inside the process can’t ever be sure that a concession or the failure to deliver one at the time was right or that the right concession was made. History is not a laboratory in which events can be replicated. Gutmann and Thompson distinguish between the mindsets of campaigning and governing. The mindset of the campaigner is uncompromising in setting forth ideas and policies in contrast to those of rivals, while governing necessarily requires compromise. However, when one or the other side proves to be intransigent in enacting legislation, those who govern may have to turn to the public and campaign for compromise, which is what Obama has been doing. The uncompromising mindset is not always a matter of personal or political temperament. It may have deep cultural roots that cannot be easily plucked out. Progressives in their impatient desire for improvement may fail to take into account conservative cultural resistances to the changes that they seek. For instance, laws to regulate guns will not succeed if a substantial portion of society is aggressively opposed to such regulation. The resistance to gun regulation is especially serious and dangerous because the resisters have the weapons to enforce their resistance. To say this is not to say that the effort should not be made to control the purchase and use of guns, but what needs to be respected is the call for discussion and debate. The acknowledgement of the difficulty of achieving such legislation is not a cop out—as some advocates of gun control believe. If advocates of gun control lose the battle on assault weapons but win the battle for background checks for gun purchasers, they will have gained a victory through compromise.

Compromise is a matter of manners as well as morals. Incivility in normal political discourse reflects something deeper than bad manners: an intolerance of views opposed to one’s own. Which is not to say that intolerance has no place even in civil discourse. We have a duty as civilized creatures not to tolerate murderous actions and words, totalitarian governments, racism, slavery etc. Should we then extend our intolerance to what we view as wrongheaded ideas that refuse to die (the economist Paul Krugman calls them zombie ideas), but are not murderous? In a free society, we allow them to be expressed, though we are also free to deride them. One reason to show restraint in attacking opposing views is that we may turn out to be precipitous in our judgments. A disreputable view may deserve a fresh, disinterested look, while a received view may merit a skeptical look. Compromise too often is thought of simply as sacrifice. It may prove to be a learning experience. In the process of negotiation, we may see flaws on our own side as well as virtues on the other side. What is most admirable is a critical openness to the views of others, a willingness and capacity to learn from others—the powerless from the powerful as well as the powerful from the powerless. Most troubling about the intransigent right is that one is forced into a posture of a defensive progressivism. One feels less free to be self-critical, that is, critical of the progressive position, since so much energy is diverted to combating the intransigence. Realizing this, one should make an effort not to be blind or indifferent to faults on one’s own side, despite every temptation presented by the other side.

In the early days of the republic, the party system was the subject of debate between party advocates, who believed that democracy required a space in which different and conflicting views could be expressed and anti-party advocates, who envisaged a politics of unanimity that transcended factional interests. The party advocates fortunately won the debate. We know what that oxymoron, a one party system, looks like. A no party (lack of) system would give us chaos rather than unanimity. But our party system has its liabilities, and they are fully on view at the present time. A minority party with the desire and the means to block necessary action simply refuses to compromise with the majority party. We are in a time when the spirit of compromise that has existed in the past has atrophied. It needs to be restored.

From March, 2013