The Spirit of Compromise

The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson
Princeton University Press, 2012, $24.95

Gutmann and Thompson begin their second chapter with an interview between John Boehner and Lesley Stahl, in which the Speaker and Stahl play hot-potato with the word “compromise:”

Stahl: Why won’t you say [compromise]—you’re afraid of the word.
Boehner: I reject the word.

The interview provides a glimpse of the sort of mindset that drove Gutmann and Thompson to write this book. Both noted democratic theorists, they have in the past co-authored Why Deliberative Democracy? and Democracy and Disagreement. Deliberation, disagreement, and compromise in democratic societies are obviously important—and interconnected—issues for Gutmann and Thompson.

Gutmann and Thompson’s introduction gives a fairly complete overview of their book, though it certainly lacks the nuance that develops as their argument unfolds. From there, they move into their defense of compromise. While Americans generally like politicians who stick to their positions, they also seem to value compromise. Gutmann and Thompson quote one poll that showed that a majority of Tea Party supporters would have supported a compromise on the debt ceiling that included tax increases. But, the authors note, compromise is fluid, dependent upon a number of factors both social and political.

Further, while compromise is sure to disappoint the most avid partisans, “desirable compromises” represent wins for both sides. Gutmann and Thompson run through a number of examples to demonstrate contemporary and retrospective dissatisfaction with past compromises, including those made at the Constitutional Convention, as well as the 1996 Welfare Reform and 1986 Tax Reform Act. Partisans quickly soured on both Tax and Welfare Reform, and scholars still question the necessity and propriety of the deals made at the convention, particularly those which helped to perpetuate slavery.

Gutmann and Thompson argue, however, that “assessments of major political compromises, even…with all the advantages of hindsight, do not yield definitive yes or no judgments.” Compromises never represent a given party’s ideal legislation. Increasingly, the parties look to issues on which they can find common ground for examples of bipartisanship. But the recent gridlock indicates just how rare such opportunities are. Moreover, since united, one-party, filibuster-proof rule is rare—and even FDR bemoaned a conservative Supreme Court—compromise is necessary.

The authors, however, are not content to leave it at that. The alternative to compromise is the status quo, which may be sub-optimal. “Almost no one is satisfied with the way things are,” and achieving goals of small government or lower debt requires positive action, which almost always entails compromise. Further, “even if the laws were to remain the same, the world would not.” Refusing to compromise, then, might actually exacerbate a situation that is already universally undesirable. Gutmann and Thompson do concede that some compromises are inherently undesirable (think the Munich Agreement). But they refuse to give any concrete rule for deciding whether or not to compromise. Rather, one should always be ready to compromise; bad compromises are like pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

The problem, according to Gutmann and Thompson, is both institutional and psychological. They spend a great deal of time discussing the “compromising mindset,” which includes principled prudence and mutual respect. They note that Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch were often able to work together on legislative compromise, despite being fierce partisans. Their partisanship allowed them to compromise without losing standing, while their mutual respect allowed them negotiate outcomes that were palatable and beneficial. When mutual respect is missing and both sides feel that they are being cheated, compromise collapses. When principles become the overriding concern, the ensuing gridlock will certainly do nothing to advance (and may even violate) one’s principles.

Gutmann and Thompson locate numerous sources of gridlock, but none so significant as the permanent campaign. Short terms force politicians to begin navigating the next primary and general elections shortly after being sworn in to office. (In 2011, two House members actually missed that ceremony to go to a fundraiser.) The constant pressures of campaigning and fundraising not only distract from governance, they instill attitudes that reinforce resistance to compromise and induce gridlock. Gutmann and Thompson still note that campaigning and the campaign mindset has its place—uncompromising stances help to clarify differences, mobilize voters, and help voters evaluate candidates’ personalities. But, while campaigns are a zero-sum game, legislative sessions are not. The duty of legislators is not to win but to make laws that provide a maximum benefit to the country. “The problem is that campaigning and its uncompromising mindset have come to have an overwhelming role in governing.”

Gutmann and Thompson suggest a litany of reforms that cover all corners of the political process, including civic education. In most areas, they seem to be noncommittal to any one solution, but, at each point, discuss several noteworthy proposals and lay out criteria that any chosen reform would have to meet. But they also note that any of these reforms would, inevitably, require compromise. They argue that reform can nonetheless originate in schools, the media, and grassroots movements.

Gutmann and Thompson’s book is wide-ranging, though fairly compact. In terms of information, they tread little new ground, weaving together findings from sociologists and political scientists, and also looking to the literature on negotiation and education. But chapters 4 and 5 are by far the most interesting of Gutmann and Thompson’s book. Here they distinguish campaigning from governing and offer their reforms to make that distinction more definite. Their argument here is at its most dense and non-obvious, contradicting what I (at least) expected them to write after their discussion of compromise in chapters 1-3.

As a moderate liberal (and registered independent), much of Gutmann and Thompson’s argument seems quite obvious to me. As we hurtle into the first post-Citizens United, post­-Tea Party presidential election, the atmosphere is only becoming more acrid and less amenable to compromise. I write, also, only a few days after Richard Lugar’s primary loss, mindful of his rather condemnatory concession speech. While an excellent defense of compromise in the name of responsible governance, I feel as though there is little chance that many politicians will pay much attention to Gutmann and Thompson’s book. And we will have to see whether the current atmosphere is sustainable, or whether the “uncompromising mindset” will start to recede—with or without real reform. In the meantime, The Spirit of Compromise is a well-reasoned and heartening defense of what should be a core American value.

N.B.: Frustratingly, Gutmann and Thompson’s endnotes include not only citations but also commentary, which often includes interesting information or extends their argument. A reader should occasionally flip back and forth as I did, grumbling about the superiority of footnotes.

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*Correction: In the original version of this article, I wrote “Gutmann and Doyle” instead of “Gutmann and Thompson.” I regret the error and have corrected it.