Compromise is Dead. Politicians Aren’t the Problem — We Are.

Senator Alan Simpson, who represented Wyoming from 1978–1996, used to say, “If you can’t learn to compromise on issues without compromising yourself, you should not be in Congress, be in business, or get married.”

In 2019, we may find irony in a career politician advocating for compromise. The increasing polarization in our nation has made political cooperation difficult — seemingly impossible — which very much speaks to where we find ourselves as a nation. We lived through a government shutdown of record length, we have a demagogue in the White House searching for ways to act unilaterally, and we’re represented by a bicameral legislature that fights protracted battles on TV instead of at the capital. And as the country gets more polarized, those people at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum desire less and less to meet the other side somewhere in the middle.

Is compromise really dead in American politics? The ability to negotiate a win-win deal used to be a mark of great statesmanship, of principled people who were wise enough not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Even when our solutions can’t achieve perfection, true leaders realize we can still move forward, as our Constitution states, toward a “more perfect union.”

Yet today, our most powerful politicians seem loathe to sit down and hammer out compromises about issues of national importance. If you read the headlines from the past 20 years, one cliche keeps popping up over and over: Has compromise become a four-letter word?

A political cartoon published during the Obama Administration is just as relevant today (with some minor modifications).

CYNICAL VIEWS ON COMPROMISE

It’s hard not to confront the fact that an increasing amount of the national sentiment on compromise focuses on failure. Compromise has become about what we’ve lost, not what we’ve gained. And more and more, voters like you and me treat compromise from our elected officials as a betrayal of our principles.

According to a Pew 2018 study, “roughly half of Americans say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions (53%), while slightly fewer say they like those who make compromises with people they disagree with (44%).” These numbers have changed dramatically in only a year and a half. In July 2017, 39% of the public said they preferred politicians who stick with their positions, compared with 58% who said they liked politicians who compromised. How could America flip so quickly?

According to Pew’s data, Republican respondents have displayed this aversion to compromise for a long time, but 2018 was the first time that Democrats joined them. In 2017, 69% of Democrats said they liked politicians who compromised, but in 2018, only 46% said the same, nearly matching Republicans at 44%. So today, regardless of party membership, voters seem to prefer politicians who choose stubbornness over negotiation. And as voters get more polarized, we see even long-time politicians get more entrenched in their positions, whether they are viable or not. All for what seems to be the highest priority in politics — re-election.

For many of us, this polarization and antipathy toward compromise may seem familiar. Anyone who logs into Facebook or Twitter will witness (or sadly, participate in) a fight about one’s ideological purity. To be a moderate is to be a sellout. It’s the voices and videos of zealots that get the most retweets, just as it’s the videos of extremists that make headlines in the news. Ideologically moderate groups rarely force news outlets to dust off their “breaking news” chyrons.

And since media exposure and social media virality increasingly dictate how we elect our politicians, it makes more sense that we are electing people that either do not want to compromise, or who feel like they can’t compromise and still win re-election.

Politicians who want to secure a second term are getting hyper-conscious of their perceived ideological purity. Voters are making it clear that it’s not what politicians accomplish or the strides our country makes that will get them re-elected, but what the politicians professes to believe and how they dramatize those beliefs.

 

Polarization was bad, and getting worse, even in 2014.

 

And then voters purge elected officials who have shown high-profile compromise in their political careers, and elect those who have either never compromised, or who have never had a political career in the first place.

As much as I’d love to blame our problems on politicians (and believe me, I would), I’m beginning to think the unacknowledged reality of our nation’s issue with compromise actually starts with us, the voters.

Don’t get me wrong, elected officials are supposed to be leaders, and leaders are supposed to make hard decisions based on what is right for the country.

But these days, we perceive our elected representatives less as leaders and more as politicians. And our implicit understanding is that politicians are our political warriors who should, first and foremost, be concerned with winning. And we just don’t see compromise as a win anymore.

The one key thing our politicians are elected to do, they have monumentally failed at.

And we are the ones who elected them.

COMPROMISE IS IN OUR NATIONAL DNA — FOR BETTER OR WORSE

America’s entire government structure is based on compromise, literally going as far back as the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Great Compromise gave us two chambers of Congress, one giving equal representation to the states and one anchoring representation to population. The Commerce Compromise balanced the priorities of industrial states with those of agricultural states, to their joint benefit.

The birthplace of American compromise, both good and bad. [George Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution, by Junius Brutus Stearns]

And thus, we have examples of decent compromises made by statesmen to create a new nation. And yet, in the same convention, our forefathers simultaneously crafted some very bad compromises.

The leaders of our fledgling nation agreed to the Three Fifths Compromise — the decision that each slave should be counted as three-fifths a person for purposes of representation. And the main advocates for that compromise were the very people who denied slaves equal humanity in the first place. And yet another compromise, the Slave Trade Compromise, postponed the possible ban on the slave trade for two decades while mandating that northern states imprison and deport runaway slaves.

These compromises, while politically expedient, were abhorrent. Slavery, and the laws that enabled, promoted, and prolonged it, cost America its proverbial soul. A country, founded on the premise of freedom and equality, was also willfully built on the backs of a people who were kidnapped, enslaved, murdered, raped, and terrorized for generations. A hypocrisy and criminal legacy that our country still struggles with in very real ways. And one prolonged and perpetuated by political compromise.

I complicate our narrative about compromise for an important reason.

Understanding and accepting compromise requires a compromise in itself. Not all compromises are virtuous, just as they all aren’t betrayals. And where we decide to draw the line should be a huge part of our political identities, yet something about which we rarely talk.

Voters, people like you and me, have to consciously divide the vast open fields of our principles that should be open to negotiation, from the spare few inalienable, inviolable principles that make us who we are. And we should decide who to elect and re-elect based on this division.

Compromise has become about what we lost, not what we gained. And more and more, voters like you and me treat compromise from our elected officials as a betrayal of our principles.

ASK YOURSELF A HARD QUESTION

What are the principles that are sacrosanct to you? Is it everything? Are your views on taxes, national defense, immigration, abortion, energy independence, climate change, and the social safety net all set in stone? Are you only willing to come out and vote for politicians who match your zeal on every issue? Are you against compromise in all its forms?

Or are there a few things that truly define your vision of America — allowing everything else to be negotiated toward gradual improvement?

The American voters’ pursuit of the perfect political warriors earned us a place in the history books with the longest government shutdown since the nation’s inception. A shutdown that occurred because our elected officials scorched all grounds for compromise.

The one key thing our politicians are elected to do, they have monumentally failed at.

And we are the ones who elected them.

The only way to absolve ourselves is to do some thinking. The more we identify our few inviolable principles and open the rest of our political goals toward negotiation and incremental success, the more we will eventually elect politicians who will keep our country open and moving. Not perfectly, perhaps, but still striving and operating toward a “more perfect union.”

 

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Amit Thakkar

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