The Case for Compromise

Continuous campaigning and gridlocked governing in American politics

Excerpted from The Spirit
of Compromise,
by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson
. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University
Press. Reprinted by permission.


[discuss:Join the Conversation]

Is the partisan divide a sign of healthy
disagreement, or has refusal to compromise led to gridlock? How can Americans
restore a spirit of compromise to their government? Tell us what you think in the comments section below. 

American voters hold their elected officials, collectively, in low regard, even as they often indicate that they like their own representatives in Congress. They want their leaders to govern, but seem to regard the process of effecting compromises as unseemly—even unprincipled and dishonest. Now two eminent political theorists—Amy Gutmann ’71, Ph.D. ’76, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, Ph.D. ’68, Whitehead professor of political philosophy—have combined forces to restate clearly the imperative of compromise (“the hardest way to govern, except all the others”), and the fierce problems posed by unending campaigns. This excerpt, an introduction to their new book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, lays the groundwork for subsequent recommendations, ranging from open-enrollment primary elections to new incentives for the news media. The Editors

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 observers doubted that any compromise could be reached in time.

The spirit of compromise was in short supply. Only at the last moment—on the evening of July 31—was President Barack Obama able to announce that leaders in both the House and the Senate had reached an agreement. Congress and the White House would now compromise. Yet criticism of the compromise abounded on all sides. The best that supporters could say for it was that its terms were less bad than the consequences of doing nothing. The episode stands as a dramatic reminder that compromise is the hardest way to govern, except all the others.

Why is compromise so hard in a democracy when it is undoubtedly necessary? Much of the resistance to compromise lies in another necessary part of the democratic process: campaigning for political office. Though valuable in its place, campaigning is increasingly intruding into governing. The effects of a continuous campaign—along with the distorting influence of media and money that it brings—encourage a mindset among politicians that makes compromise more difficult. Systematic rejection of compromise is a problem for any democracy because it biases the political process in favor of the status quo and stands in the way of desirable change.

Privileging the status quo does not mean that nothing changes. It just means that politicians let other forces control the change. The status quo includes not only a current state of affairs but also the state that results from political inaction. In the deeply divided politics of 2011, rejecting congressional compromise on raising the debt ceiling would not have left the economy unchanged. A status quo bias in politics can result in stasis, but it can also produce unintended and undesirable change.

The resistance to democratic compromise is anchored in what we call an uncompromising mindset, a cluster of attitudes and arguments that encourage standing on principle and mistrusting opponents. This mindset is conducive to campaigning but inimical to governing. Resistance to democratic compromise can be kept in check by a contrary cluster of attitudes and arguments—a compromising mindset—which favors adapting one’s principles and respecting one’s opponents. It is the mindset more appropriate for governing because it enables politicians more readily to recognize opportunities for desirable compromise. When enough politicians adopt it, enough of the time, the spirit of compromise prevails.

The influence of campaigning is not necessarily greater than other factors that interfere with compromise. Compromises are difficult for many reasons, including increased political polarization and the escalating influence of money in democratic politics. But the uncompromising mindset associated with campaigning deserves greater attention than it has received. First, it reinforces all the other factors. Even sharp ideological differences would present less of an obstacle to compromise in the absence of the continual pressures of campaigning that the uncompromising mindset supports. Second, for compromise to play its proper role in the process, politicians and citizens need to understand not only the partisan positions and political interests that influence compromise but also the attitudes and arguments that resist or support it. Third, unlike some of the other factors, such as ideological polarization, campaigning is an essential and desirable part of the democratic process. It becomes a problem only when it interferes with governing.

Our defense of compromise in democratic governance is consistent with—indeed requires—a vigorous and often contentious politics in which citizens press strongly held principles and mobilize in support of boldly proclaimed causes. Social movements, political demonstrations, and activist organizations are among the significant sites of this kind of politics. The citizens who participate in these activities play important roles in democratic politics. But their efforts would be in vain if the democratic process of governance did not produce public benefits that citizens seek and protect rights that they cherish. The success of democratic politics ultimately depends on how our elected leaders govern—and therefore inevitably on their attitudes toward compromise.


Two Compromises

Consider two pieces of historic legislation—the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

The Tax Reform Act was the most comprehensive tax-reform legislation in modern American history, achieved only after years of failed attempts. The historic effort began without much fanfare. In his State of the Union address in 1984, President Ronald Reagan called merely for a study of the problem, with a report to be submitted after the election. Congressional Democrats did not think he was serious about reform. Walter Mondale, his challenger in the election, showed no interest in making tax reform an issue.

The hard work on the bill began quietly, with experts meeting secretly in the Treasury Department. The proposals that came out of Treasury were turned into a bipartisan compromise, forged with the support of President Reagan, Democratic House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, and later with the help of Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Bob Packwood and Democratic Senator Bill Bradley.

All the supporters of the Tax Reform Act gained something they wanted, but they all also made concessions that flew in the face of their most principled reasons for supporting comprehensive tax reform in the first place. Democrats were glad to end loopholes for special interests and the wealthy, but they also had to agree to lower the top tax rate more than their strong commitment to progressive taxation would support (from 50 percent to 28 percent). Republicans won the lower marginal tax rates, but they also had to accept the elimination of some $30 billion annually in tax deductions, which would result in the wealthy contributing a higher percentage of income tax revenues than they had in the past.

Compromises—even the most successful ones, like the Tax Reform Act—never satisfy pure principles. After the act was passed, its supporters rallied to its defense, hailing it as landmark legislation. It was—if compared to previous or subsequent tax reform. But judged by the moral principles invoked even by its staunchest supporters—whether principles of progressive taxation or those of the free market—the Tax Reform Act fell far short.

Now fast-forward to the efforts to pass a healthcare reform bill in 2009–10. Healthcare was an important issue in the campaigns leading up to both the Democratic primary and to the general election in 2008. Most of the presidential candidates set forth proposals that were more detailed than is usual in a campaign. Barack Obama came late to this debate. But once in office, Obama made reform a priority. At first, he signaled that he was open to compromise on the details of his proposal and left the negotiations largely to congressional leadersessentially the same strategy that President Reagan had followed with tax reform. But the political landscape had changed. Throughout the 1990s, Republicans had begun more often to unite in the manner of a parliamentary minority, a strategy that drastically reduced the possibilities for bipartisanship.

When Congress was unable to reach bipartisan agreement on healthcare reform by the August 2009 recess, the campaign in effect began again, with opponents taking advantage of the break to mobilize opinion against the pending proposals—often distorting them in the process. The upshot was to end whatever small hope there might have been for bipartisan compromise. Reformers then turned to the task of compromise within the Democratic Party, a challenge that turned out to be almost as formidable.

The first bill passed with only a five-vote majority in the House in November 2009. The Senate passed its own bill on the day before Christmas. As the leaders in the House and Senate were trying to hammer out a compromise between the two significantly different bills early in 2010, a special election in Massachusetts erased the Senate Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority and caused many moderate Democrats in both the Senate and the House to reconsider their support. The campaign mentality returned with a vengeance. The reform proposals had to be divided into separate bills, a rarely used legislative procedure (reconciliation) invoked to gain final passage, and the ultimate measures rendered less comprehensive than any of the original proposals.

Although the Affordable Care Act was not bipartisan, the process that produced it was just as much a compromise as was the Tax Reform Act. All those who voted for healthcare reform gave up something that they thought valuable, and they agreed to disagree about greater cost controls, the nature of the mandate for universal coverage, insurance coverage for abortion services, abortion funding, and the inclusion (or exclusion) of a public option (a government-run insurance agency that would compete with other companies). Although all who supported this compromise evidently believed the legislation would be better than the status quo, they also believed that the compromise bill could have been still better if only their opponents had been less obstinate.

Although nearly everyone agreed that tax reform was long overdue and healthcare in dire need of change, political leaders struggled to reach these agreements, and the agreements fell far short of what reformers had sought. For the healthcare reform bill to pass, it took an epic push by a president enjoying a majority in both houses and willing to stake the success of his first year in office on passing the bill. And the majority supporting this compromise was—with the exception of one lone vote among 220—exclusively within one party. Both efforts addressed major problems that had proved resistant to reform for many years, but only the Tax Reform Act was widely considered to be a significant improvement over the status quo. Many critics of the Affordable Care Act thought it was worse than doing nothing, and many supporters thought that it was better only than doing nothing.

Not even a crisis can ease the way of compromise. Although the consequence of failing to reach a compromise to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 was high risk of governmental default and a further financial crisis, the process of reaching the compromise was also agonizingly difficult, and the agreement provided only a short-term fix. Achieving compromise on any of the many complex issues on the democratic agenda is always a challenge.


Characteristics of Compromise

A classic compromise is an agreement in which all sides sacrifice something in order to improve on the status quo from their perspective, and in which the sacrifices are at least partly determined by the other sides’ will. The sacrifice involves not merely getting less than you want, but also, thanks to your opponents, getting less than you think you deserve. The sacrifice typically involves trimming your principles. We call these defining characteristics of compromise mutual sacrifice and willful opposition.

Although many kinds of compromise share these characteristics, legislative compromises—agreements that produce laws—do not always function in the same way as compromises to avert a war or create a peace in international politics or compromises to conclude deals in commercial transactions. Unlike major international compromises, legislative bargains are not negotiated with an ultimate threat of force in the background (though sometimes legislators speak of nuclear options and act as if electoral death is the end of the world). Unlike common commercial deals, the bargains struck by legislators are not primarily financial. Legislative compromises usually implicate principles as well as material interests.

The character of legislative compromise is shaped by its distinctive democratic and institutional context. It takes place in an ongoing institution in which the members have responsibilities to constituents and their political parties, maintain continuing relationships with one another, and deal concurrently with a wide range of issues that have multiple parts and long-range effects. The dynamics of negotiation in these circumstances differ from the patterns found in the two-agent, one-time interactions that are more common in most discussions of compromise.

Conclusions about compromise—even more so than many other concepts in political theory and practice—depend heavily on context. To make progress in understanding legislative compromise, we need to focus on how it operates and the specific challenges it confronts in American democracy in our time. The U.S. Congress is a critical case in part because its performance in recent years has been so widely condemned as dysfunctional. If we can find greater scope for compromise in this hard case, we might reasonably hope to find it in other political institutions.

Within the arena of legislative compromises, we need to distinguish between what may be called classic compromises and consensual compromises. Classic compromises express an underlying and continuing conflict of values: the disagreements among the parties are embodied in the compromise itself. Consensual compromises are based on an underlying convergence of values or what is often called “common ground.” These compromises set aside the original disagreement and conclude in a consensus.

Consensus is a lofty goal, and politicians never tire of claiming that they are seeking it. President Lyndon Johnson declared: “The biggest danger to American stability is the politics of principle, which brings out the masses in irrational fights for unlimited goals. Thus it is for the sake of nothing less than stability that I consider myself a consensus man.” Some advocates of consensus see it as promoting the value of community. Still others believe that it is more likely to produce the best laws and policies. They all urge politicians to find consensus and to base legislation on common ground shared not only between ideologically opposed parties but also among most citizens who do not have highly developed, let alone extreme, political ideologies. All citizens want a better life for themselves and their children; all want security, decent healthcare, a good education, and the like. A consensual compromise would converge on this common ground.

Few doubt that consensus is desirable if it can be found, and most agree that it is usually preferable to a classic compromise, which leaves all parties dissatisfied. But the common ground is more barren, and the possibilities for basing legislation on it more limited, than the inspiring rhetoric in its favor might suggest. Yes, a consensus existed among legislators and citizens that the tax system should be made fairer and that health care should be made affordable for more people. But this general consensus on the need for reform did not translate into a common-ground agreement on the particular provisions of either a tax or a healthcare reform bill. To produce reform legislation, specific terms had to be negotiated, and as is usual at this level, the common ground became fractured terrain.

In the context of a polarized politics, an additional problem with counting on common-ground compromises is that trying to find the usually small points of agreement in the middle is likely to prove less effective than combining big ideas from the partisans. Describing how they managed to gather a majority on their politically diverse commission on fiscal responsibility, co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles emphasize the value of “shared sacrifice” that comes from “bold and big” compromises. “Commission members were willing to take on their sacred cows and fight special interests—but only if they saw others doing the same and if what they were voting for solved the country’s problems.”

Classic compromises are sometimes also distinguished from what are called “integrative agreements,” also known as “problem-solving,” “value-creating,” or “win-win” solutions. Long the favorite of many writers on negotiation, they offer the prospect of an agreement in which both sides gain over the status quo, and neither side sacrifices. (The lack of sacrifice is why it does not count as a classic compromise.) The much-cited example, devised by Mary Parker Follett, the pioneering scholar in this field, features two sisters who both want the same orange. The classic compromise solution is simply to split the orange. But it turns out that one sister wants only the juice and would throw out the peel. The other sister wants only the peel for a cake, and would discard the pulp. If they recognize that they have different interests in the orange, they could reach an integrative solution: one would take all of the pulp, the other all of the peel. Both would gain, and neither would sacrifice anything.

Like the consensus agreements they resemble, the opportunities for achieving integrative agreements are scarcer in legislative politics than some of their enthusiasts imply. Most of the examples of successful integrative agreements involve individuals or groups trying to resolve specific financial disputes rather than the kind usually faced in the ongoing negotiations that take place in legislatures. When legislators seek integrative solutions, they often use tactics of logrolling or expanding the pie. Logrolling typically requires the government to spend more money in order to satisfy the legislators’ favored causes. Special interests then prevail over the public interest. By expanding the budgetary pie, older generations typically load more debt onto younger or future generations.

Healthcare reform shared a feature of this problem. It expanded the budgetary pie by universalizing health insurance, but it fell short of coming to clear and certain terms with the rapidly rising costs of healthcare. Only a classic compromise, which would include measures that more fully control costs and entail some sacrifice on all sides, could begin to deal with this problem.

 Legislative opportunities to achieve win-win solutions that serve the public without any sacrifice are rarely available. Legislators are much more likely to find themselves confronting conflicts that cannot be resolved without sacrifice on all sides. If they want to make gains over the status quo, they will have to give up something of value. They will not have the luxury of hoping for the pure win-win solutions that some negotiation theorists promise. They will just have to compromise. We can cheer on politicians when they search for common ground, but we should not let their failure to find it cast doubt on the value of the classic compromise.


Mindsets of Compromise

The compromising mindset displays what we call principled prudence (adapting one’s principles) and mutual respect (valuing one’s opponents). In contrast, the uncompromising mindset manifests principled tenacity (standing on principle) and mutual mistrust (suspecting opponents). Return now to the Tax Reform Act and Affordable Care Act, and notice how the defining characteristics of compromise—mutual sacrifice and willful opposition—map onto these mindsets.

To accomplish tax and healthcare reform, both sides had to give up something of value. The need for mutual sacrifice makes compromises inherently difficult. Citizens and their representatives have different interests and values, and they naturally resist giving up something they care about, especially if they believe that one of their core principles is at stake. Supporters of the Tax Reform Act and Affordable Care Act believed that the compromises would improve the status quo, but at first they clung tenaciously to their principles. The compromise came about only because the principled positions that reformers espoused—a simple and transparent tax code or universal healthcare coverage, for example—did not survive intact in the tangled process that produced the final legislation.

To achieve these compromises, the mistrust so easily generated by willful opposition also had to be partially suspended. Enough of the legislators respected their opponents enough to make the necessary concessions. But in both cases, the uncompromising mindset that fosters mistrust of one’s opponents hung over the process and its aftermath. Even in the case of the Tax Reform Act, resistance was relentless, and discontent rife. The opponents, under the influence of the uncompromising mindset, nearly prevailed. The supporters, only fitfully taking up the compromising mindset, nearly yielded.

Healthcare reform fared worse. Both the process and the outcome were more widely and severely criticized than any aspect of tax reform. The suspicion and mistrust characteristic of the uncompromising mindset lingered among Democrats themselves. The progressive wing faulted their leaders and the president for betraying campaign promises. Moderate Democrats complained that their colleagues did not appreciate how public opinion had shifted against the reform, and how vulnerable they would now be in the 2010 midterm elections.

Political polarization is no doubt an important part of the story of why compromise is so difficult. But partisan polarization does not shed much light on why compromise on healthcare reform within the Democratic Party was at least as difficult as compromise on tax reform between the two parties. Polarized profiles do not necessarily prevent political opponents from reaching agreement. Even when the ideological positions of political opponents are polarized, compromising mindsets can make a difference.

Some observers are so impressed by the influence of polarization that they give up any hope of compromise and see partisan domination as the only alternative. They begin by describing increased polarization among not only political elites but also engaged partisans, who spend most of their lives with like-minded peers. The uncompromising views of these engaged partisans, coupled with the “disappearing center” in American politics, create strong incentives against compromise.

Strong partisans may still chase the tantalizing dream that the next election will settle the matter, once and for all. My party will gain control and push through its agenda, undiluted. Yet in contemporary American politics it is highly unlikely that one party will gain complete control at the national level (securing the presidency, the House, and the reliable 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate). And if one party were to gain control, it would still face the daunting task of making compromises within its own ranks. Neither can we look for a single, strong leader to come to the rescue. No president can prevail as long as Congress remains recalcitrant.

There is no escape from compromise. Politicians are likely to continue to work in a strongly divided partisan environment, and they need to find ways to reach agreements if they expect to govern well. Looking more carefully at differences between the Tax Reform Act and the Affordable Care Act can help clarify what makes compromise more or less possible in polarized partisan contexts.

Tax reform was not an issue in the campaigns before or after the compromise. Healthcare reform was an issue in the 2008 and 2010 elections, and no doubt will be an issue in campaigns to come. Partly as a result, the process that led to the Tax Reform Act was more responsive to the compromising mindset, and the process that produced the Affordable Care Act was more susceptible to the uncompromising mindset. Furthermore, the permanent campaign that reinforces that mindset has been more conspicuous in recent years than it was in the mid 1980s.

Campaigning in an uncompromising style—making unconditional promises and discrediting rivals—plays a moral as well as a practical role in democratic politics. It enables candidates to communicate where they passionately stand on important issues and to differentiate themselves from their opponents. It is a necessary element of an electoral system with competitive elections and is therefore a legitimate part of the democratic process. But so is governing. To govern, elected leaders who want to get anything done have to adopt a compromising mindset. Rather than standing tenaciously on principle, they have to make concessions. They have to respect their opponents enough to collaborate on legislation.

Here is the internal tension in political compromise: the democratic process requires politicians both to resist compromise and to embrace it. The uncompromising mindset that characterizes campaigning cannot and should not be eliminated from democratic politics. But when it comes to dominate governing, it obstructs the search for desirable compromises. The uncompromising mindset is like an invasive species that spreads beyond its natural habitat as it roams from the campaign to the government.

Many observers blame Republicans for the uncompromising spirit that pervades current American politics, pointing out that they have become more extreme and intransigent in recent years. But it would be a mistake to dwell on who is most to blame at the moment. The uncompromising pressures are persistent in a democratic process in which campaigning dominates governing. If it so happens that one party is more responsible for the polarization at a particular time, this should not distract us from the broader problem that needs to be addressed to make room for responsible governing.

The problem of compromise in American democracy has always been challenging. It becomes harder still with the rise of the permanent campaign. The relentless pressures of campaigning—which call for an uncompromising mindset—are overtaking the demands of governing—which depend on a compromising mindset. Because legislating in the public interest is all but impossible without compromise, the domination of campaigning over governing has become a critical problem for American democracy, and increasingly for other democracies. By recognizing the pressures of the permanent campaign and the dynamics of the mindsets in play in democratic politics, politicians, the media, and, above all, the voting public would be more likely to find ways to address this problem.

Major institutional change in the public interest itself requires compromise, and the leaders who would bring it about will themselves have to set their minds to it. In an earlier uncompromising era, the Beatles got it just about right: “You tell me it’s the institution/ Well, you know/ You’d better free your mind instead.”  

Join the Conversation: Is the partisan divide a sign of healthy disagreement, or has refusal to compromise led to gridlock? How can Americans restore a spirit of compromise to their government? Tell us what you think in the comments section below. 


Read more articles by: Amy Gutmann or Dennis Thompson

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