Compromise in Politics

You hear about it all the time: Americans, left and right, are concerned with the efficiency of government. They are frustrated by the near-constant government gridlocks, whether on the state or federal level, and they feel that their positions are not represented through legislation. I too have felt this on a few occasions, and like many Americans, have also felt an accompanying sense of betrayal. Some may complain that their vote doesn’t count, others may say the system is broken, but most people eventually resort to the blame game: “if only such-and-such a party would stop being so stubborn and work with the other party, they could reach a compromise and actually accomplish something!”

Compromise has become a golden mean of sorts in the realm of political rhetoric. Almost every politician that has ever campaigned has advocated bipartisanship and compromise.  But perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves why this is the case, and whether or not compromise is even desirable. In doing so we find that there are a number reasons why compromise is impractical. Specifically, it is unattainable in any homogeneous way, it decreases voter efficacy, and it distances politicians from their principles and temporarily subscribes them to opposing principles. Because of these factors, compromise is something that should generally be avoided.

Who advocates compromise most often in legislative politics? It’s usually not the majority party, unless they do so as a game of political quid pro quo. Rather, compromise is generally pushed by those in the minority party. The reason for this is simple: compromise is a tool of the minority party to regain power lost at the ballot box. It gives the purveyors of unpopular positions the ability to influence policy, even when they have no mandate to do so. Many Americans forget that we do not have systems of proportional representation in this country, and that the winner-take-all plurality systems we employ create no obligation to honor the viewpoints of every constituent. Nevertheless, compromise is designed to do just that. It makes the losers happy.

The problem is that even in compromise there are going to be winners and losers.  By definition, compromise can never make anyone or everyone completely happy, unless compromise in itself is your goal. But by not compromising, you can make the majority of people completely happy. This seems like the much better option, given that this is what a winner-take-all system is designed to do in the first place.

Compromise is often touted as a remedy for the feelings of voter inefficacy felt by the losers of an election, and it seems that for this reason, Republicans and Democrats alike often claim to be open to compromise. However, it’s unclear as to whether they or their constituents actually understand what that entails, so let’s think a little more deeply about the mechanics of the compromise we like to demand from our representative officials. We know that politicians are the public conveyors of ideals, and that legislatures are the forum by which politicians can encapsulate their ideals in legal construction. These ideals represent the sides of a given issue, and to hold an ideal means to have taken a position on an issue. Now, a law can only have one outcome–which is decided by the ideals encapsulated therein. Whatever effect a law based on one ideal has is reduced or nullified by the injection of any opposing ideal(s), which is what occurs during a compromise. Likewise, since the ideals of politicians mirror the ideals held by the majority of their constituency, any reduction or nullification of those ideals through compromise is a slight to the majority of the people. To compromise the principles which the people have publicly supported through their votes is to render the entire election a pointless exercise. When this happens, there is a loss in voter efficacy even greater than the loss felt by a minority party after an unsuccessful election.

The last, and probably most detrimental effect of compromise is that it distances politicians from their principles, and temporarily subscribes them to opposing principles. This confuses voters and distorts the credibility of legislators. When politicians subject themselves to the pursuit of compromise in the debate of a bill, they inevitably allow more into a bill than what they would normally like, and likewise more than what the majority of voters would like. Sometimes politicians sign on to a compromise bill because they feel there is no other way to pass what they see as beneficial. Other times, however, politicians vie for compromise in order to force the hand of their opponents. Those in the minority party know that their positions are unlikely to pass by themselves, so they actively look for opportunities to tack their ideals onto a more popular bill. This puts majority politicians in a bind: they can either pass the unpopular ideal along with the popular ideal, or they can pass nothing at all. This complicates future elections, since it is no longer clear whether or not a representative’s vote on a bill can be considered reprehensible. Therefore, instead of compromise, strictly partisan bills should be the goal. This not only allows the majority party to pass what it considers to be beneficial, but also allows voters a clear picture of who to oust in the next election should the law have detrimental consequences.

Compromise as an Unavoidable Political Phenomenon

There are a couple reasons why compromise can be considered inevitable, and in some cases, beneficial. First, representatives sometimes have great differences in political ideology, and they don’t always vote along party lines. In situations such as this, like factions from opposing parties often unite to pass a recently popularized ideal. Another way compromise may be useful is if there is a fifty-fifty split among representatives in any one chamber. In such a case, both political parties would have equal power to influence policy, and it would be impossible not to compromise in order to accomplish anything.

In Summary

Compromise may ultimately be seen as a necessary evil. Ideally, we should refrain from chasing after virtually unattainable satisfactory agreements, we should respect the sense of political efficacy to be gained from a winner-take-all election system, and we should be able to hold representative officials one-hundred percent responsible for every vote they make. But in the real world, the legislative process can never be so cut-and-dry. We can always expect to see issues on which politicians of the same party differ in positions. But even though no structural change to the legislative process seems imminent, perhaps this can be taken as a lesson to lessen our reliance on the crutch that is compromise, and to quell the rhetoric designed to legitimize its use at every turn.


3 thoughts on “Compromise in Politics

  1. Andrew

    This is an interesting and useful idea. I view the same issue in a slightly different way. I agree that Compromise, in the way that it is used in the congressional setting, is a perverted form of what compromise really is.
    Both parties throw around the word compromise as a sort of cloak to mask the real goal. When bills are presented, many members of the opposite party will speak of compromise which must be made before they could vote for the bill. However, what this often means for both parties is they plan to strip the bill down until it is nothing more than a glimmer of what it once was. Without this being achieved, the bill will never get the votes it needs to be passed. In this way they APPEAR to be giving fair treatment across the aisle in the eyes of their constituents, when in actuality they are immobile in their policies (Learned from Machiavelli, favorable appearance of the leader–even if appointed– is everything)
    However, at the same time, to adopt a policy or even consider a policy of no compromise seems to fly in the face of what the foundation of America was built upon. Without compromise the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, the Gay Rights Movement, and even the revolt of our nation against the British crown (Which was led by small fractions of those citizens in America at the time) would never have gained ground. Giving fair treatment toward all of its citizens (Including minority groups) in order to assure them of their rights is the role of the government, and I don’t think a person of any party affiliation would argue with that. The only way to insure their fair treatment, and no institutionalized imbalances, is to give the minority a tool in which to work toward fair treatment. I do not think this is possible without some sort of political compromise, because we all know that a party never looks out for another party’s best interests, or even fair treatment, if it means giving up even the smallest bit of what they themselves want (right or wrong).
    There are many governments in the world both past and present which do exactly as you propose in this article. Countries with many different cultures intermingled where some of those groups have no say in government because they are of a minority group. Czechoslovakia is one horrible example, or to make it more relevant, how many Kurds have you met who thought the policy of no compromise was a good idea. Losing millions of innocent lives due to hatred developed in part by the government’s policy of no compromise with a minority group tends to shift the views of many people.
    More than protecting all citizens rights, I think it is part of our governments job to act as a beacon for the people to lead them out of the darkness of the past and into a better future. Reagan gained the vote of eighty percent of the nation during his election because he asked the citizens of the United States if their lives after were any better than before the four year reign of the president before him. Even Barrack Obama gained the presidency off of his promise of hope. People want and need to be inspired by the government. At times people need to take notice of their representative’s willingness to compromise, in order to feel okay compromising with members of minority groups in their daily lives (outside politics). At times it is like a person observing his neighbor before performing a task, to see the way in which he plans to do it is the right way.

    Thank you for helping inspire some of my thoughts

  2. Andrew

    Also, I thought that you quote here describing what your blog is all about ties into the argument. It seems to me that this quote advocates for compromise of understanding in order to uncover the “greatest” truth. –“Also, feel free to join me with comments of your own. Even though I will most likely seem ideologically polar, understanding multiple sides of a discussion is crucial for uncovering the greatest truth.”

  3. Pingback: The unhappy legislator | PARTISANS

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