Saturday, July 16, 2016

Political Compromise -- Learning to Accept the "Next Best"


A compromise may be defined as “a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.” Thus, a compromise becomes something that combines the qualities of two different things.

Given the recent increase in political polarization and staunch partisanship, many believe political compromise is dead. The so-called "permanent campaign” encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult. Now, gridlock in Congress stalls important legislation and prevents lawmakers from initiating needed changes.

An uncompromising mindset is characterized by politicians' standing on principle and mistrusting opponents. 

According to Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and Dennis Thompson, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University, “this mindset may be conducive to campaigning, but not to governing, because it stands in the way of necessary change and thereby biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo.”

(Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. “The Mindsets of Political Compromise.”
Reflections. December 2010.)

Campaigning involves mobilizing supporters while articulating a vision that makes a candidate distinct from his opponent. Often the campaigner employs tactics that present their opponents as adversaries to be mistrusted and ultimately defeated.

Gutmann and Thompson delineate campaigning and governing. They say …

But to govern effectively, politicians must find ways to reach agreements with their opponents, including members of their own ideologically diverse parties – even some compromises that their own supporters may see as betrayals. This tension between what is required in a democracy to win power and what is required to exercise it is manifest in what we have called uncompromising and compromising mindsets....

The compromising mindset – characterized by principled prudence and mutual respect – is more appropriate for governing. It is not that one is legitimate and the other not. Each has its place in the democratic process. But to the extent that the uncompromising dominates the compromising mindset in the process of governing, compromises that could reduce injustice or increase welfare go unrecognized and unsupported. When the uncompromising mindset overwhelms political thinking and action, it biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo.”

"My Way or the Highway" attitude cheapens our democracy. The refusal of government officials to negotiation and compromise to find workable solutions shows substandard governing skills – sometimes the parties are not capable of effectively articulating what is vital for achievement and, sometimes, an absolute, stubborn allegiance to party over substance stops the process.

Of course, political parties have distinct goals and differing beliefs. While goals require responsibility, commitment and fortitude, life invokes flexibility and compromise. What union is complete without sacrifice and accommodation? Friendship? Employment? Marriage? Family? Compromise is critical to the success of every social construct. That includes politics.

Caring political compromise should become a fully informed and intentional act in which people balance commitment and concession for the common good. The best compromise benefits both parties in fairly equal measures of good so that even though some details are conceded, the most beneficial understandings of both sides are satisfied. Naturally, other less balanced agreements must occur, especially when justice demands dictates the demand.

It is true that politics presents unique obstacles to reconciling differences. These are inherent in the governing process. Problems always present multiple solutions. So often, politicians turn to the Constitution for guidance. And, how can each side make concessions when they can’t even agree on basic Constitutional principles?

I found some inspiring words from Robert Frost, not the famous poet but an instructor and flight controller at NASA who spent 10 years training astronauts and flight controllers on the guidance, navigation, control, and propulsion for the International Space Station. Frost says ...

'Politics is an art of compromise.' Chancellor Otto von Bismarck didn't say that. The quote about politics and art that Bismarck is famous for is:

"'Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best.'

“However, as to the oft said 'politics is the art of compromise,' it is an idea that the American political system could benefit greatly from. Even a cursory examination of the political ideas of the left shows they are simplistic nonsense as does cursory examination of the political ideas of the right. Workable solutions take elements from both sides. Workable solutions eschew ideologues. Workable solutions come from politicians that realize they represent all constituents, not just the ones that voted for them.

“Politics is about negotiating consensus and cooperation between factions.

“The effective politician is pragmatic and pragmatism welcomes compromise.”

(Robert Frost. “What do people think about the saying 'politics is an art of compromise' by Otto Von Bismarck?” Quora. November 02, 2014.)

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