We Need To Embrace Compromise, Not Insult It

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Capitol Hill seems filled these days with politicians vowing never to compromise. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says that’s no way to run a government, and that “We Need to Embrace Compromise, Not Insult It.”

Last month, a TIME magazine article about two freshman House members on Capitol Hill featured this pronouncement from one of them: “The people did not send me here to compromise.” His colleague noted that compromise is “a word that people have kind of demonized." 

For a politician, “I will not compromise!” seems like a sure-fire applause-getter — at least, when preaching to the choir. It’s not so good for the nation as a whole, however. 

There is room in politics for elected leaders who won’t back down on their principles. But if they dominate the political sphere, representative government becomes impossible, as making progress on the many ills that beset us takes a back seat to declarations of principles. 

This does not mean that political leaders need to abandon their principles. One secret to Ronald Reagan’s success as president was his ability to communicate his firmly held beliefs and his vision for where he wanted to take this country — and at the same time to recognize that in a country as large and diverse as ours is, he needed to be able to listen to the other side, determine where he could show flexibility, and find common ground. 

In fact, the current crop of politicians who consider compromise beneath them wouldn’t even have Washington, D.C. to kick around were it not for a compromise. In 1790, it was the willingness of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to strike a deal — Hamilton got the Virginia congressional delegation’s agreement to support his plan to have the federal government assume the states’ revolutionary war debts; the Virginians got the nation’s capital on the banks of the Potomac rather than in New York City — that led to Washington’s founding. 

Pretty much every clause of our Constitution was the result of talented and committed politicians going at it hammer and tongs, and then seeking the best compromise they could find in order to move forward. I simply do not see how this nation could have been formed or could have survived without the skillful use of compromise. What is representative democracy about if it does not entail the accommodation of different points of view? 

Indeed, we have always depended on the ability of our leaders to find common ground. Our one great failure — the Civil War — remains as powerful a reminder of this as our successes, from the GI Bill to the Civil Rights Act to welfare reform. 

Compromise is not easy, especially in today’s contentious atmosphere. Certainly it’s not as easy as telling true believers what they want to hear, and it requires special courage in a charged political environment in which prominent media figures attack anyone who deviates from their view of what is right, in which every issue is seen as a tactical battlefield for the next campaign, and in which the political parties each depend on voters who scorn the very notion of compromise. 

Compromise also requires values that are hard to find these days: respect for one’s ideological opponents, a willingness to listen hard and to understand what they have to say, and a recognition that no one has a monopoly on what is right. As the great federal judge Learned Hand declared at a huge Central Park rally in the midst of World War II, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women." 

This spirit is not dead. You can see it in the work of the bipartisan group of senators who recently came together to make the confirmation process for executive-branch nominees more efficient and rational. And you could see it last winter when President Obama and congressional leaders agreed to allow tax breaks for the well-to-do to continue in exchange for securing an extension of unemployment benefits for the jobless. 

These deals leave everyone unhappy to a degree, but also with something they wanted. They allow the nation to square its shoulders to confront the next challenge. Without them, we’d be stuck arguing endlessly over irreconcilable positions; government would become dysfunctional. And whatever a politician who rejects compromise might think, his constituents definitely did not send him to Capitol Hill to allow that.