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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.

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