Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson
AMY GUTMANN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, is President of the University
of Pennsylvania, where she is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor
of Political Science.
DENNIS THOMPSON, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1994, is the Alfred North
Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard
(*See endnotes for complete contributor biographies.)
Abstract: Pursuing the common good in a pluralist democracy is not possible without
making compromises.Yet the spirit of compromise is in short supply in contemporary
American politics. The permanent campaign has made compromise more difficult to achieve,
as the uncompromising mindset suitable for campaigning has come to dominate the
task of governing. To begin to make compromise more feasible and the common good
more attainable, we need to appreciate the distinctive value of compromise and recognize
the misconceptions that stand in its way. A common mistake is to assume that compromise
requires finding the common ground on which all can agree. That undermines more realistic
efforts to seek classic compromises, in which each party gains by sacrificing something
valuable to the other, and together they serve the common good by improving upon
the status quo. Institutional reforms are desirable, but they, too, cannot get off
the ground without the support of leaders and citizens who learn how and when to
adopt a compromising mindset.
Democratic politics should serve the common good, which we understand as the goal
of “maintaining conditions and achieving objectives” that benefit all members of
society.1 The individual components of the common good – such as a robust economy
or universal health care – are not necessarily shared by everyone. But the goal is
to secure these goods for all, and to maintain a democratic process that is valued
Important as the common good is, it is less frequently invoked by politicians and
pundits than is the common ground. Faced with the challenge of bridging polarized
partisan divides on pressing issues such as tax reform, health care, and immigration
policy, American politicians regularly claim to seek consensus on the common ground.
They in effect deny the need to reach compromises that would require them to sacrifice
something valuable to their opponents.
Consider this excerpt from a CBS 60 Minutes interview with Representative John Boehner,
who was then about to become Speaker of the House following the Republican success
in the 2010 congressional elections:
JOHNBOEHNER: It means working together.
LESLEYSTAHL: It also means compromising.
[ . . . ]
BOEHNER: I made clear I am not going to compromise on my principles, nor am I going
to compromise . . . the will of the American people.
STAHL: And you’re saying, “I want common ground, but I’m not going to compromise.”
I don’t understand that. I really don’t.
BOEHNER: When you say the word “compromise”. . . a lot of Americans look up and
go, “Uh-oh, they’re going to sell me out.”
[ . . . ]
STAHL: . . . you did compromise [to get all the Bush tax cuts made permanent]?
BOEHNER: . . . we found common ground. STAHL: Why won’t you say–you’re afraid of
BOEHNER: I reject the word.2
Consensus on common ground is a lofty goal. That’s one reason why politicians never
tire of claiming that they are seeking it. “Leaders [are successful] not by attacking their opposition but by finding common ground where principles are shared,”
former Governor Mitt Romney declared during the Republican primary.3 After the president’s
jobs bill failed in October 2011, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid still insisted:
“we’ll be bringing up individual components of this legislation to do our utmost
to find common-sense, common-ground, job-creating measures that the Republicans
All citizens want a better life for themselves and their children; all want security,
decent health care, and a good education. By seeking consensus on these common ground
desires, politicians believe they can serve the common good without giving up anything
valuable to their political opponents.
Where common ground agreements can be found, they can in fact serve the common good.
But they are not the only – or even the most productive–way to pursue that goal.
The classic compromise – where all sides gain on balance but also sacrifice something
valuable to their opponents – is a more promising route to the common good. This is
especially the case in a polarized political environment.
Common ground agreements are morally and politically attractive because they
have a principled coherence from all perspectives. They resemble what philosophers
call an overlapping consensus. Citizens with fundamentally different moral views
may agree on relevant principles, though for distinct reasons drawn from conflicting
perspectives.5 Analogously, legislators set aside conflicting parts of their perspectives
in order to reach a shared agreement. Opposing legislators may disagree on the underlying
principles of a common ground deal, but they need not make a principled concession
in the content of their agreement.
Consensus on common ground is desirable if it can be found. But the common ground
is more barren, its potential for yielding meaningful legislation more limited,
than the inspiring rhetoric in its favor might suggest. Yes, a consensus exists
among legislators and citizens that the tax system needs to be revised, and that
the health care system needs to be reformed. But this general consensus on the
need for reform does not translate into a common ground agreement on the particular
provisions of either a tax or a health care reform bill. To produce reform legislation,
specific terms have to be negotiated, and as is often the case at this stage, the
common ground turns into fractured terrain.
Another problem with common ground agreements is that trying to find the usually
small points of policy convergence is likely to prove less effective in addressing
major issues than combining big ideas from the partisans. Describing how they managed
to gather a majority on their politically diverse commission on fiscal responsibility,
cochairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles emphasized the value of “shared sacrifice”
that comes from “bold and big” compromises. “The more comprehensive we made [our
proposal], the easier our job became,” they said. “The tougher our proposal, the
more people came aboard. 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.”6
The most serious problem with the preoccupation with the common ground is that it
undermines the pursuit of the more challenging but more promising form of agreement:
the classic compromise. In a classic compromise, all sides sacrifice something in
order to improve on the status quo from their perspective. The sacrifices accepted
in a classic compromise are at least partly determined by the opposing side’s will,
and they therefore require parties not merely to get less than they want, but also,
due to their opponents, to get less than they think they deserve.
Classic compromises differ from common ground and other consensual agreements that
are based on an underlying convergence of values (the common ground). These agreements
set aside the root disagreement in favor of a consensus on shared values expressed
by the agreement itself. The values are held in common. A classic compromise differs
in that it expresses an underlying and continuing conflict of values. Disagreements
between the parties are embodied by the compromise. The values internal to the compromise
are not all shared.
Classic compromises serve the common good not only by improving on the status quo
from the agreeing parties’ particular perspectives, but also by contributing to
a robust democratic process. The goods in a classic compromise are not all held
in common; yet all parties benefit from the compromise and value the process by
which it is reached. The agreement itself demands the sacrifice of some goods that
each party believes should be, but are not, shared.
In the polarized politics of our time, the prospects for consensual agreements based
solely on common ground or containing only common goods are increasingly bleak.
Exhortations to seek such agreements and exaltations of their value are misleadingly
utopian at best. They divert effort from the pursuit of classic compromises and
make them look even more like confused surrenders. As we will explain, compromises
by their nature are vulnerable to charges of confusion and surrender. The unfavorable
comparisons with common ground agreements only compound this vulnerability.
Yet the classic compromise today offers the best hope for political progress. The
major issues in current legislative debates represent deep divisions on fundamental
questions about the role of government, the nature of justice, and the liberties,
rights, and responsibilities of citizens. The broad issues on which many Americans
generally favor legislative compromise – taxation, government spending, health care,
cost controls, job creation, immigration – are unlikely to be addressed at all if
legislators hold out for common ground.
So if compromise is to be achieved on these major issues, we must value agreements
that are less morally coherent and less politically appealing than those that rest
on common ground or an overlapping consensus. The Tax Reform Act of 1986–the most
comprehensive tax-reform legislation in modern American history, passed with bipartisan
support under the Reagan presidency – was a classic compromise. It combined some measures
(eliminating loopholes that favor the wealthy) that reflected liberal principles
and others (lowering the marginal rates on top incomes) that violated those principles.
The same measure also created a conflict with conservative principles, but in reverse.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010–the most comprehensive health care reform in recent
American history – was also a classic compromise. Though it was forged within a single
party, the compromise displayed conspicuous tensions – between whether the reform
should or should not offer a public option, for example.
Governing a democracy without compromise is impossible. To restrict political agreements
to common ground or common goods, especially in a polarized partisan environment,
is to privilege the status quo, even when all parties agree that reform is needed.
Why, then, is compromise so hard when it is so necessary?
Much of the resistance to compromise lies in another necessary part of democracy:
campaigning for political office. Increasingly, campaigning is intruding into
governing, where it is often counterproductive. The means of winning office are subverting
the ends of governing once in office. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that
in the United States “every day is election day in the permanent campaign.”7 The
effects of the continuous campaign – along with the distorting influence of media
and money that accompanies it – encourage a mindset among politicians that rejects
The resistance to democratic compromise is anchored in an uncompromising mindset,
a cluster of attitudes and arguments that encourage principled tenacity (standing
on principle) and mutual mistrust (suspecting 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 – that displays principled prudence (adapting principles) and mutual respect
(valuing opponents). It is the mindset better suited for governing because it enables
politicians to recognize and embrace opportunities for desirable compromise. When
enough politicians adopt it enough of the time, the spirit of compromise prevails
and the common good benefits.
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 in particular
deserves greater attention than it has received. First of all, unlike ideological
polarization, campaigning is a desirable part of any democratic process. It becomes
a problem only when it interferes with governing. Second, if compromise is to play
its proper role in the democratic process, politicians and citizens need to understand
not only the relationship between partisan positions and particular compromises,
but also the attitudes and arguments that resist or support compromise in general.
Finally, the uncompromising mindset reinforces all the other obstacles to compromise.
Sharp ideological differences, for example, would present less of an obstacle to
compromise were they not compounded by the continual pressures of campaigning that
the uncompromising mindset supports. Despite standing tenaciously on the right and
left wings of their parties, Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy joined together
to cosponsor many significant legislative initiatives, including measures to improve
In an era characterized by the permanent campaign, the balance in democratic
governing needs to shift toward the compromising mindset and the political compromises
that it makes possible. The success of democratic politics depends on how elected
leaders govern – and therefore on their attitudes toward compromise. But successful
democracy also depends on the attitudes of citizens who elect the leaders. They,
too, must grasp the value of compromise.
Compromise is necessary and desirable in a democracy – most Americans usually agree.
But particular compromises are contestable – most Americans usually want to contest
them. Within limits, a popular posture in democratic politics is: say yes to compromise,
but no to compromises.
When asked about compromise in general, most Americans like the idea. In numerous
surveys over the past several decades, large majorities of Americans declared themselves
in favor of political compromise in general. Even after the sweeping Democratic
victory in the mid-term elections in 2006, three-quarters of the public continued
to call for compromise. 8 The 2012 election may or may not have produced a clear
mandate for any specific policy, but exit polls strongly suggest that most Americans
want politicians to cooperate and compromise to end the gridlock in national politics,
at least on some policies.
Of course, there are limits to this recurring enthusiasm for political compromise.
After the strong Republican comeback in the 2010 congressional mid-term elections,
a majority of Americans – a large majority of Republicans and a minority of Democrats – said
that they prefer political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising.9
The favorable attitude toward compromise erodes when the political landscape shifts
dramatically, especially when insurgent groups on the left or right gain in popularity
and political power.10
Just as an electoral victory is typically not a mandate for the specific policies
on which the candidates campaigned, so, too, the favorable attitude toward compromise
in general does not regularly transfer to majority support for particular compromises.
This disconnect between general support and the rejection of compromise on a specific
issue – be it immigration, taxation, government spending, the environment, or abortion–is
a persistent factor in preventing political progress. In fact, on most issues,
“openness to compromise is inversely linked to the importance people place on the
issue.”11 People seem to like compromise the most on the issues they care about
There are important limits here, too. Opposition to particular compromises often
fades in the face of a crisis. When compromise is a condition of avoiding an imminent
public disaster, the vast majority of citizens, from across the political spectrum,
support compromise. Six out of ten Americans – including a majority of Republicans,
independents, and Democrats – wanted the debt supercommittee to compromise, even
if they expected to disagree with its recommendations.12 Faced with the possibility
of a government default in July 2011, even a large majority of Tea Party supporters
said Republicans in Congress should compromise in order to come to an agreement
with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling. When presented with the choice of whether
an agreement should include only spending cuts, tax increases, or a combination
of both, two thirds of the Tea Party supporters said that it should include a combination
of spending cuts and tax increases.13 Strong public support for compromise on governmental
revenue increases and spending cuts rose again in the face of the “fiscal cliff” – the
massive across-the-board federal tax rate increases and defense and entitlement
cuts that were threatened to take effect in January 2013.
But once the immediate threat is averted, the critics of the compromise come out
in full force, especially when a compromise is reached through an acrimonious process. The debt ceiling agreement in August 2011 was followed by harsh, principled
criticism from both sides of the aisle. Similarly, the compromise to avoid the fiscal
cliff, brokered by Vice President Biden and Senate Majority Leader McConnell
in the waning hours of 2012, was immediately met with intense criticism of both
the content of the agreement and the tactics of the negotiators – despite consensus
on the need to compromise and the overwhelming Senate vote in favor of the agreement.
Public ambivalence toward political compromise is not unique to Americans who respond
to surveys. It reflects the inevitable tension between seeing the need to compromise
to make political progress and appreciating the loss of something valuable in agreeing
to a compromise.
Political philosophers share a similar ambivalence toward compromise. Edmund
Burke, the eighteenth-century conservative thinker and British statesman, declared
that “all government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and
every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”14 But as a politician,
he famously refused to compromise with his constituents when their will contradicted
his judgment.15 John Stuart Mill’s contemporaries knew the nineteenth-century liberal
theorist as an uncompromising radical. But when elected to Parliament, Mill was
quite willing to make deals and support concessions to achieve even relatively modest
It might seem, then, that conservatives favor compromise in principle but not in
practice, whereas liberals oppose compromise in principle but accept it in practice.
But consider the Pew Center’s interpretation of its 2007 survey on attitudes toward
compromise: “Democrats tend to favor compromise in principle, but not in practice,
while Republicans favor compromise in practice, but not in principle.”17 This is
precisely the reverse of the Burke/Mill contrast.
The more plausible interpretation is that attitudes toward compromise are not inherent
in either ideology or party. Both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans,
can favor compromise in principle while resisting it in practice – and vice versa.
In the modern welfare state, even partisans who want less government must legislate
to get it, and often that requires compromise. Attitudes toward compromise depend
much more on the relative power of the parties at a particular time, the specific
issues in question, and the mindsets of the individuals making the judgments.
What is consistent, however, is the persistent disconnect between the attitudes
toward compromise in general and the inclinations to make particular compromises.
Nothing is more common in political negotiation than praise for the idea of compromise
coupled with resistance to realize it. Resistance to specific political compromises
prevents the value of compromise in democratic politics from being appreciated.
Politicians and citizens tend to discount the general value of compromise when they
come to make decisions about particular compromises. To give compromise its due,
we need to connect its general value to decisions about particular compromises,
and then empower this value to influence negotiations.
Why should we be concerned that contemporary American politics makes compromise
so difficult? After all, some compromises are undesirable, and politicians should
sometimes stand resolutely on their principles and oppose legislation that violates
those principles. The chief reason to be concerned is that the greater the resistance
to compromise, the greater the bias in favor of the status quo.
Privileging the status quo does not mean that nothing changes. It simply means that
politicians allow outside forces – the market, expiring agreements, social movements–to
control the change. The status quo includes both the current state of affairs and
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. Similarly, after the 2012 election, rejecting compromise
on tax increases and spending cuts would have allowed economic changes that few
wished to see. A status quo bias in politics can result in stasis; it can also produce
unintended and undesirable change.
The status quo offers no assurance even of stability, let alone of political progress
by any standard. The first value of compromise in practice is that it enables improvements in the existing and ongoing state of affairs. Democratic politics, which
represents conflicting points of view, cannot produce change without some mutual
accommodation. Without compromise on health care, taxation, and other major issues,
the status quo prevails, even when it preserves a policy that does not serve the
common good, or produces consequences that create a major crisis.
The key question to ask of any compromise: does the proposal (or any feasible alternative)
represent an improvement over the status quo? This question in effect brings the
general value of compromise to bear on the decision about a particular compromise.
Although compromises are typically seen as, and often are, the products of unprincipled
bargaining and reinforcements of the prevailing balance of power, they are also
the primary – and often the only – means by which democratic politics can improve on
the status quo.
In some cases, the status quo may be preferable to any of the proposed alternatives.
Some political scientists have observed that legislative inertia induced by resistance
to compromise may not be a problem when voters do not want Congress to act – for example,
during the period of large budget surpluses in the late 1990s. But they also recognize
that it becomes a serious problem when voters “believe the government should take
some action to alleviate a problem.”18
There can also be reasonable disagreement about whether a particular compromise
actually is an improvement over the current state of affairs. Opponents of a health
care compromise, for example, might agree that it would improve on the current system,
but might also believe that accepting the compromise will prevent an even more desirable
reform in the future. Or opponents may think that accepting the compromise now will
lead to bigger government in the future, which they count as a worse outcome on
balance than what they regard as only a modest improvement in the health care system.
Admittedly, there may be good reasons for opposing a particular compromise, but
they do not support a general resistance to compromise. They do not create the
presumption against compromise that animates the uncompromising mindset and that
dominates contemporary American politics.
General resistance to compromise presumes that the status quo is always preferable
to compromise, or that it is always a mistake to yield something to your political
adversaries, even when they are willing to yield something to you. Privileging the
status quo in this way is not consistent with either a principled liberal or a principled
conservative political perspective. Liberals do not always favor the change that
compromise can bring, and conservatives do not always oppose it. The same holds
for moderates, libertarians, socialists, and other advocates of principled political
ideologies. The value of a compromise should be weighed against whether the new
policies advance both sides’ principles compared with what the status quo produces.
Resistance to compromise is often rooted in the fact that the costs of not compromising
are never equal for all parties. The costs of refusing compromise depend on the
difference between what credibly can be achieved through compromise and what the
status quo offers. This perceived difference will vary according to the priorities
of the parties to the compromise and the people they represent. Because political
compromises rarely “split the difference” between what all parties hope to achieve,
resistance may flow from the fear that a compromise will disproportionately benefit
your political opponents, whom you are already disposed to distrust. Even when
all parties stand to gain, such anticipatory resentment of unequal gain (or loss)
can induce a blanket opposition to compromise.
Another source of general opposition to compromise – and the failure to recognize
the costs of intransigence–is the perpetual hope that there is more to be gained
(or less lost) in the future by avoiding compromise now. But notice: opponents of
a compromise who use such a rationale are not opposing compromise in principle;
they are introducing new, indirect, long-term projections of policy and strategy
into the calculation of whether a compromise is truly preferable to the status quo.
This perspective in turn opens the door for proponents of the compromise to introduce
their own broader, long-term considerations. These may include the effects of the
compromise on the possibility of future cooperation, as well as other consequences
for the democratic process.
Those considerations point to the second important, but often neglected, value of
compromise. Resistance to compromise undermines the mutual respect that is essential
for a robust democratic process. Mutual respect expresses a constructive attitude
toward one’s political opponents and a willingness to engage in good faith with
them. It is based on a principle of reciprocity, which is at the core of many different
conceptions of democracy.19 Reciprocity seeks mutually acceptable ways not only
of resolving disagreements but also of living with the disagreements that inevitably
Mutual respect is consistent with many strategies for reaching agreement, including
hard bargaining, provided it is done in good faith. But mutual respect excludes
means that are intended to degrade, humiliate, or otherwise demean opponents who
themselves demonstrate a willingness to negotiate in good faith (or would demonstrate
it were they not being disrespected). Avoiding compromise by alienating your adversaries
not only harms the citizens who stand to benefit from a particular compromise, but
also diminishes the prospects for future compromises. When parties enter into negotiations
in bad faith, deliberately misrepresent their opponents’ positions, and refuse to
cooperate even on matters on which they could find agreement, they undermine the
relationships that are necessary to sustain any morally justifiable democracy under
the modern conditions of deep and persistent disagreement.
Recognizing these two values of compromise – that it enables mutually beneficial
improvements and promotes mutually respectful politics – may still not be sufficient
to tip the balance in favor of a particular compromise. To understand fully the
case for compromise, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that any specific
compromise will by its nature be vulnerable to criticisms from all sides.
The philosopher George Santayana, a friend of compromise, captured the dual nature
of the aversion to it: it is “odious to passionate natures because it seems a surrender,
and to intellectual natures because it seems a confusion.”20 The sense of surrender
stems from the fact that compromise demands the sacrifice of something valuable,
and gives rise to suspicions that, but for the base motives of the other side, the
agreement could have been better. The sense of confusion comes from the fact that
compromises are combinations of often contradictory principles. Both of these reactions
obscure the true value of compromise.
First, consider the surrender. Attitudes toward compromise are path-dependent: how
a compromise is reached affects how it is evaluated. This is because a compromise
distinctly manifests an opposition of wills. It is this opposition of wills that
fuels the anticipatory resentment that your party will gain less, or lose more,
than your opponent’s. If you agree to a compromise, your assessment of the deal
is substantially affected by whether you believe the other party bargained in good
faith. Given the inevitable uncertainty of motives in legislative negotiations,
and the near certainty that the motives are at least partly political, the circumstances
are singularly ripe for distrust. Often even minor procedural manipulations (such
as the reconciliation tactic used by the Democrats in passing the Affordable Care
Act) may be perceived as signs of bad faith and give rise to suspicions that the
process has been unfair. You may be willing to give up a principle if the process
is fair, but if it is not, you understandably see an already bad bargain as even
worse. The compromising adds insult to injury. Because the process of political
negotiation is imperfect, it is tempting to fasten on the immediate insult and dismiss
the prospective benefit of the agreement.
Then there is Santayana’s point about confusion. A compromise is not designed to
be coherent or principled in the way that laws ideally are. Even if we seek coherence
in law, it is a mistake to think that it can be achieved in compromise. A classic
compromise gives something to all parties, which means that the end result is almost
always internally contradictory. The outcome will not be satisfying if judged from
the perspective of any single principle or set of principles–whether yours or those
of your opponents. You will reject nearly every possible compromise if you try to
anticipate the outcome by testing it against a coherent theory of justice. By its
nature, the outcome of a compromise will almost never satisfy a single principle,
a set of principles, or a theory of justice. The compromise will not only fall short,
as does most legislation, but it will include elements that are inconsistent with
each other and with any single theory.
Compromise has its limits, but it is a mistake to try to stipulate categorically
or in advance what they are. Consider the common precept that it is permissible
to compromise interests but not principles. The problem is not that the distinction
between interests and principles is fuzzy (it is), but rather that any such distinction–
implying that interests may be compromised and principles should not – will disqualify
too many potentially desirable compromises. Principles can be – and most often are–realized
only partially. We implicitly accept this truth throughout our lives: even without
compromising, we are not likely to realize absolutely our most prized political
principles – liberty, opportunity, justice for all. Less lofty political principles,
which often are no less passionately held–such as a commitment to lower taxation
and entitlement spending, or to provide universal health care coverage and decrease
its cost – even more clearly admit of gradations of realization. Compromises of principle
and interest are neither morally nor practically distinct.
Furthermore, no one can fully anticipate what results the complex process of compromise
can be expected to yield, especially in major legislative struggles. Achieving the
best possible outcome will depend in no small measure on the nature of the negotiations
and the evolving political context. Drawing a line in the sand – if more than a negotiating
tactic – is a prescription for thwarting mutually beneficial progress before it
can take form. And once agreed upon, compromises are easy targets for criticism
simply because the apparent results – often morally incoherent – are divorced from
both the process and alternatives that were available at the time.
Instead of trying to find a formula for limiting compromise, we do better to locate
its limits by identifying domains where it is less useful for the democratic process.
The most salient domain, as we have indicated, is campaigning. A successful campaign
strategy requires an uncompromising mindset. It favors candidates who stand firmly
on their principles and condemn their opponents’ positions at every turn. Candidates
sometimes modify their positions to reach independents in general elections, but
less than is usually assumed, and even a modest gesture toward the center is
often suspect in the eyes of the candidate’s base. The primary election effectively
requires candidates to maximize their uncompromising positions to capture their
partisan base, which will then assail primary winners if they diverge from their
hard lines in the general election.
Tenaciously standing on principle, as the uncompromising mindset demands, is necessary
for political mobilization. Candidates inspire supporters less effectively when
they talk more about prudent compromises than about steadfast commitments. Their
support and ultimately their success in the campaign depend on reaffirming their
uncompromising commitment to core principles, and on distinguishing their positions
sharply from those of their opponents.
Campaigning also requires mutual mistrust, the second element of the uncompromising
mindset. Campaigns are competitive encounters, not cooperative enterprises. They
are contests with zero-sum outcomes, not opportunities for win-win solutions. Mutual
distrust is not only understandable but advisable.
But while the uncompromising mindset serves a useful democratic purpose in the domain
of campaigns, it is detrimental when it dominates in the domain of governance. To
govern, elected leaders have to adopt a compromising mindset. Rather than standing
tenaciously on principle, they need to make concessions. Rather than mistrusting
and trying to defeat their opponents at every turn, they have to respect their opponents
enough to collaborate on legislation.
In the era of the permanent campaign, the division of labor between campaigning
and governing has dissolved.21 Political leaders increasingly rely on political
consultants, pollsters, and focus groups to formulate public policy. Interest groups
and their lobbyists constantly remind politicians that what they do in office will
affect whether they stay in office – reminders that often come as offers not to be
refused. Politicians spend more and more time between elections raising funds for
their next campaigns. Journalists increasingly cover governing as if it were campaigning.
No one should suppose that we could return to a time when governing and campaigning
stayed mostly in separate spheres, each minding its own business. The process then
was in many respects less democratic, and no more edifying than ours today. But
if we wish to improve the prospects of compromise, we must find ways to keep the
pressures of campaigning from overwhelming the business of governing. We need to
respect the value of not compromising in campaigns without letting it obscure the
value of compromising in governance.
There is another, no less significant domain in which the value of compromise
is limited. Uncompromising politics is valuable in social movements, political pro
- tests, demonstrations, and activist organizations, and their surrogates in
government. As political theorists and political scientists have long recognized,
contestation is at least as important as consensus in a democracy.22 Contentious
politics is an essential part of the democratic process.
Among the most uncompromising activists in recent American political life have been
the supporters of the Tea Party, the populist movement that began in 2009 and rapidly
grew in numbers and influence.23 Promoting various conservative and libertarian
causes, including smaller government, lower taxes, and reduced debt and budget deficits,
the movement was credited with electing dozens of new state legislators and members
Yet here, too, the uncompromising mindset has limits. When the Tea Party congressional
representatives faced the choice between legislating or protesting, these limits
became apparent. As some political scientists observed, “Tea Party activism is more
likely to produce political theater among competing agitators than to foster reasoned
compromise within the GOP or between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.” This
approach may help “keep base supporters attentive and angry,” but it is not conducive
to bringing about legislative change or to expanding the movement itself.24 This
“just say no to compromise” approach also showed signs of frustrating even many
Tea Party supporters.25
Compromise is essential for facilitating legislation to improve on the status quo
and for cultivating the respect necessary for cooperation in democratic politics.
It can in this way serve the common good without itself containing only common goods.
Yet the political deck is stacked against compromise in many ways. The more the
permanent campaign and its uncompromising mindset dominate the political landscape,
the harder legislative agreements are to reach. When compromises are reached, they
are, by their very nature, vulnerable. They rarely enjoy the luxury of resting on
common ground; they too easily become casualties of confusion, dispatched for their
incoherence, if they have not already become victims of death by distrust.
We have suggested why the general value of compromise needs to be better appreciated
in governance. Politicians must confront the challenge of making specific compromises
in order to address major public concerns and to overcome dysfunctional political
gridlock. Because majorities of voters often favor compromise, some political scientists
and reformers argue for the need to modify electoral institutions so as to give
greater voice to majorities over intransigent minorities on both sides. Allowing
independents to vote in all party primaries could help elect candidates with
more compromising attitudes. Publicly financed campaigns could lessen the pressures
of fundraising that both dis - tract politicians from governing and influence
the manner in which politicians govern. Rules that require members of Congress
to spend more time working together in Washington, instead of rushing home to raise
campaign money, could help.
These are all worthy reforms. We have elsewhere argued in favor of many of them.26
But any attempt to carry out such reforms comes with a catch-22. Institutional reforms
themselves require a change in the mindsets of our political leaders: the reforms
are impossible without compromise. Either legislators adopt a compromising attitude,
in which case the reforms are not essential, or they do not adopt it, in which case
they will not be able to agree on the reforms. There is no deus ex machine
that will save democratic government from itself.
If legislators themselves do not recognize the value of compromise, then voters
need to use elections to show that they do. Voters must choose representatives who
care enough about governing to take the risks of compromising. This does not mean
accepting candidates who abandon their principles or forgo partisanship. But it
does mean choosing candidates who are able to set aside their uncompromising mindsets
long enough to craft the compromises necessary to improve on the status quo and
serve the common good.
DENNIS THOMPSON, a Fellow of the American Academy
since 1994, is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy in the
Department of Government and Professor of Public Policy in the Kennedy School at
Harvard University. He is also the founding director of the University Center for
Ethics and the Professions (now the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) at Harvard.
His publications include The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and
Campaigning Undermines It (with Amy Gutmann, 2012), Restoring Responsibility: Ethics
in Government, Business, and Healthcare (2005), Why Deliberative Democracy? (with
Amy Gutmann, 2004), and Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the
United States (2002).
Authors’ Note: This essay is drawn substantially from parts
of our book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning
Undermines It (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012).