The Spirit of Compromise

The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    The Spirit of Compromise
    Book Description:

    If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy. Unless one partisan ideology holds sway over all branches of government, compromise is necessary to govern for the benefit of all citizens. A rejection of compromise biases politics in favor of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis. Why then is compromise so difficult in American politics today?

    InThe Spirit of Compromise, eminent political thinkers Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson connect the rejection of compromise to the domination of campaigning over governing--the permanent campaign---in American democracy today. They show that campaigning for political office calls for a mindset that blocks compromise--standing tenaciously on principle to mobilize voters and mistrusting opponents in order to defeat them. Good government calls for an opposite cluster of attitudes and arguments--the compromising mindset--that inclines politicians to adjust their principles and to respect their opponents. It is a mindset that helps politicians appreciate and take advantage of opportunities for desirable compromise.

    Gutmann and Thompson explore the dynamics of these mindsets by comparing the historic compromises on tax reform under President Reagan in 1986 and health care reform under President Obama in 2010. Both compromises were difficult to deliver but only tax reform was bipartisan. Drawing lessons from these and other important compromises--and failures to compromise--in American politics, Gutmann and Thompson propose changes in our political institutions, processes, and mindsets that would encourage a better balance between campaigning and governing.

    Calling for greater cooperation in contemporary politics,The Spirit of Compromisewill interest all who care about whether their government leaders can work together.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4163-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-24)

    Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible. Anyone who doubts either the difficulty or the necessity of compromise need only recall the heated politics of the summer of 2011 in Washington, D.C., when a sharply divided Congress confronted the need to raise the sovereign debt limit of the United States. Compromise appeared to be the only way to avoid further inflaming the financial crisis and risking an unprecedented governmental default on the debt. With the approach of the August 3 deadline (after which the government would no longer be able to pay all its bills), many...

    (pp. 25-62)

    Do citizens value compromise? Americans are ambivalent about it. That is the most striking pattern revealed in surveys of public opinion in recent years. The ambivalence shows itself in public attitudes toward politicians who compromise and also toward compromise itself. In a typical survey, the vast majority of Americans said they prefer leaders willing to compromise, but at the same time two-thirds of all the respondents also said that they “like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular.”¹

    When asked about compromise in general, most Americans like the idea. In numerous surveys over the past several decades, large...

    (pp. 63-98)

    Even when politicians may be willing to compromise, they are reluctant to admit it. Consider this excerpt from an interview with Representative John Boehner on CBS’s60 Minutes, as he was about to become Speaker of the House after the Republican success in the 2010 congressional elections:

    John Boehner: We have to govern. That’s what we were elected to do.

    Leslie Stahl: But governing means compromising.

    Boehner: It means working together.

    Stahl: It also means compromising.


    Boehner: I made clear I am not going to compromise on my principles, nor am I going to compromise ... the will of...

    (pp. 99-143)

    Some politicians are willing to defend compromise—and implicitly the mindset that seeks it. Consider this excerpt fromTimeeditor Belinda Luscombe’s interview with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson on the subject of the debt-ceiling compromise:

    Luscombe: What’s the biggest obstacle to cutting the deficit?

    Simpson: The absolute rigidity of the parties. I’ve never seen that before. Somebody said they’re as rigid as a fireplace poker but without the occasional warmth.


    Luscombe: If you were in office today, would you sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge?

    Simpson: Hell, no! Why would you sign anything before you went into office or...

    (pp. 144-166)

    Even politicians who appreciate compromise campaign with an uncompromising mindset. They must know that this stance will stiffen the opposition and prime their supporters to resist compromise when the time comes to govern. They also know that to govern effectively in a pluralist society they will have to make some difficult compromises. Why, then, don’t they anticipate the compromise problem in their campaigns and educate voters about the need for accommodation?

    Consider two politicians running for president. Call one Obama the Tenacious and the other Obama the Cooperative. The first declares that one of his priorities is to reform health...

    (pp. 167-203)

    In face of the permanent pressures sustaining the permanent campaign, we should not expect to find any reforms that could completely insulate governing from campaigning. Nor should we want such a sharp separation between the two. In a democracy, politicians care about reelection while they are governing, not only while they are campaigning. Also, to win support for their legislative proposals, they often need to use many of the tools of campaigning (direct appeals to voters, town meetings, barnstorming, and the like). In a divided government, going directly to the voters may be the only way to break a legislative...

    (pp. 204-218)

    If politics is the art of the possible, compromise is the artistry of democracy. Democracy calls on politicians to resist compromise and to accept it. They may resist it more when they campaign, but they need to accept it more when they govern. Balancing these mindsets is a formidable challenge at any time, but it becomes even more so in a time of the permanent campaign. The mindset that campaigns demand—standing tenaciously on principles and mistrusting opponents—gets in the way of negotiating the deals required to pass laws in a pluralist society. It drives out the compromising mindset...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 219-254)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 255-256)
  12. Index
    (pp. 257-279)