Representative democracy is designed to produce compromise. All of those inefficient checks and balances the Founding Fathers built into their Rube Goldberg policymaking machinery means that no single political party or branch of government has autocratic power. That forces branch and party leaders to negotiate and find mutually disagreeable middle ground.
In other words, to the Founding Fathers, compromise wasn’t considered a disease. It was a cure.
Admittedly, compromise isn’t very cathartic for zealots. In sports they say “a tie is like kissing your sister,” and a compromise is a tie of sorts. House Speaker Kurt Zellers would probably rather be kissing his sister right now than compromising with Governor Dayton, and vice versa.
But as frustrating as compromise can be, we have done well with our maddening compromise model. The Constitution – the document the compromise-hating Tea Partiers love to nag us about — was a negotiated compromise that left many of its endorsers disappointed. Almost all major legislative achievements in the nation’s history – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the creation of Medicare, the creation of the Interstate Highway system, the “Minnesota Miracle” — were the product of bipartisan, bicameral compromise.
But compromise we did, and it helped us move the country forward and avoid the kind of violent upheaval experienced by others around the world. How remarkably grown up of us.
So what happened? If Minnesotans and Americans have successfully compromised through gritted teeth throughout our history, why does it now seem almost impossible to achieve now?
Whatever the reason, “compromise” has become a bad, bad word, especially among conservatives. According to a Pew Research Survey, 71% of Liberal Democrats agree that “lawmakers should be more willing to compromise, even if that results in a budget they disagree with.” At the same time, only 26% of Republicans who support the Tea Party agree with the need to compromise and be disappointed. The more conservative Americans are, the less willing they are to compromise.
(The other thing that is interesting about these data is that the ideological “middle” – conservative Democrats, Independents and liberal/moderate Republicans – is not the segment that is most willing to compromise, as many in the self-styled “sensible center” assert. Instead, liberal Democrats are the group most agreeable to compromise. When it comes to compromising, the “extreme left” looks to be the least extreme of all.)
Conservatives haven’t always been this anti-compromise. A reading from the Holy Book of Reagan:
“When I began entering into the give and take of legislative bargaining in Sacramento, a lot of the most radical conservatives who had supported me during the election didn’t like it.
Compromise” was a dirty word to them and they wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything.
I’d learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: ‘I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.’
If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that’s what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it.”
In contrast, here is what modern day Republican icon U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said when asked on CBS’ 60 Minutes about his willingness to “compromise:”
I reject the word.”
I made it clear I am not gonna compromise on my principles, nor am I gonna compromise the will of the American people.”
…the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms.”
That poses a huge threat to the country. It’s impossible to run a representative democracy when both sides don’t believe in the necessity of compromise that underpins our entire system of governance. The right wing’s compromise ban – “I reject the word” — leaves liberals with two terrible choices:
1) Get rolled. Agree to one-sided compromises, and lose everything to the anti-compromisers.
2) Go “eye-for-an-eye.” Join their conservative colleagues in refusing to compromise.
The first option leads to a radical swing in policies that is not in keeping with voters’ wishes, and a complete breakdown of the principle of representative democracy. The second option leads to catastrophic government shutdowns, financial crashes and civil war. These options aren’t just bad options for liberals. They’re bad for the entire nation, as the constitutional framers would be quick to remind us.
So people who want to see more compromise need to start calling out anti-compromisers. For those who say “neither side is willing to compromise,” look at the Pew data. By a 3-to-1 margin, liberal Americans are more willing to hold their noses and compromise than GOP Tea Party supporters, and legislators are representing their respective constituencies accordingly. That’s the problem. Supporters of compromise need to stop aiming their criticism broadly at “politicians” and start aiming it more precisely at gridlock ground zero – Tea Party supporting conservatives.