America's crisis of compromise

We like the idea of finding middle ground -- and love politicians who won't budge. How does this make any sense?

Published May 9, 2012 2:45PM (EDT)

President Obama and John Boehner            (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Obama and John Boehner (AP/Charles Dharapak)

This article is an adapted excerpt from "The Spirit of Compromise", from Princeton University Press.

Do citizens value compromise? Americans are ambivalent about it. That is the most striking pattern revealed in surveys of public opinion in recent years. The ambivalence shows itself in public attitudes toward politicians who compromise and also toward compromise itself. In a typical survey, the vast majority of Americans said they prefer leaders willing to compromise, but at the same time two-thirds of all the respondents also said that they “like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular.”

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 midterm elections in 2006, three-quarters of the public continued to call for compromise. Although Democrats then controlled both houses of Congress and more states than before, nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters still wanted their leaders to compromise with Republicans in Congress (though not necessarily with President Bush).

There are limits to this enthusiasm for the idea of compromise, however. After the strong Republican comeback in the 2010 congressional midterm 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. The favorable attitude toward the idea of compromise erodes when the political landscape shifts this dramatically.

Nor does the favorable attitude normally transfer to support for particular compromises. Public support for compromise in general is greater than support for compromise on any particular issue, whether it be immigration, taxation, government spending, the environment, the war in Iraq, or especially abortion. On most issues, “openness to compromise is inversely linked to the importance people place on the issue.” Most Americans like compromise the most on the issues they care about the least.

There are limits here too. Opposition to particular compromises is likely to fade in face of a crisis, at least for the moment. When compromise is a condition of avoiding an imminent disaster that could harm nearly everyone, the vast majority of the public—Democrats and Republicans included—support a compromise. Faced with the risk of government default on its debt, even a majority of Tea Party supporters said that they would support a compromise that included tax in- creases as well as spending cuts. But once the immediate threat is averted, the critics of the compromise come out in full force. Especially when a compromise in a crisis is reached through an acrimonious process, no one is pleased with its terms. The debt ceiling agreement in August 2011 gave everyone plenty to criticize on principled grounds, and criticize it they did.

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 the limits just described, a popular posture in democratic politics seems to be: say yes to compromise, but no to compromises. The ambivalence toward political compromise is not peculiar to the Americans who respond to surveys. It reflects the inevitable tension between seeing the need to compromise to make political progress and sensing the loss of something valuable in making a compromise.

When generally opining about democracy, writers enthusiastically praise compromise. For some, like Thomas Vernor Smith, an early-twentieth-century politician turned theorist, it is what makes politics “an ethical enterprise.” But when faced with making concessions on particular issues they care about, most stand their ground. Smith drew the line at Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich. Smith went on to propose a curious division of labor that would institutionalize the tension between compromises and the value of compromise. Conscientious citizens can resist making particular compromises while accepting the general need to compromise if they allow “moral middlemen”— politicians—to “do the dirty work” for them.

Political philosophers have long recognized the same tension and shown the same ambivalence, though not always in the same direction. 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.” But as a politician, he famously refused to compromise with his constituents when their will went against his judgment. The nineteenth-century liberal theorist John Stuart Mill was known as an uncompromising radical to his contemporaries. But when elected to parliament, he was quite willing to make deals and support concessions to achieve relatively modest gains.

It might seem that conservatives favor compromise in principle but not in practice, whereas liberals declare themselves against compromise in principle but then readily compromise 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.” This is precisely the reverse of the Burke/Mill contrast. The more plausible interpretation of these comparisons is that the attitude toward compromise is not inherent in either ideology or party. Both liberals and conservatives can favor compromise in principle while resisting it in practice—and vice versa. So can Democrats and Republicans. In the modern welfare state, even partisans who want less government have to legislate to get it, and that often means they have to compromise. Attitudes toward compromise depend much more on the relative power of the parties at any particular time, the specific issues in question, and the mindsets of the individuals making the judgments.

What is clear, however, is the persistent disconnection 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—unless it is criticism of the idea followed by an acceptance of a particular compromise.


A successful campaign strategy requires the opposite of a compromising 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 they do so less than is usually assumed, and even that gesture toward the center is often suspect in the eyes of their more ardent supporters. The primary election, which typically permits only party members to participate, effectively requires candidates to maximize their uncompromising stands to capture their partisan base, which along with the media will assail primary winners if they diverge from their hard lines in the general election.

But to govern, elected leaders who want to get anything done 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 their acceptance speeches, many elected officials signal their intention to move to a compromising mindset by vowing to be everyone’s president—or governor, senator, or representative—and declaring now to be the time for coming together. They may begin by governing, but they soon revert to campaigning.

The permanent campaign does not leave much space for the compromising mindset. The division of labor between campaigning and governing, once passably clear, has dissolved. 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.

The grueling nature of campaigns themselves—the personal attacks, the pressures to raise huge sums for oneself and the party, the never-ending travel—makes elective office less attractive to candidates who want to legislate and who might be inclined to collaborate and compromise. Recruiting and retaining the natural governors, politicians who know how to compromise when necessary, becomes more difficult. The field is increasingly left to insurgents, ideologues, and the hyperambitious.

Not all the consequences of the permanent campaign are undesirable. It has probably helped create a process that is more inclusive and more transparent than before. It has also made the process more responsive—though arguably more to special interests than to citizens generally. But its effect on the capacity for compromise and on time spent on governing is largely negative.

The more that campaigning comes to dominate governing in democratic politics, the harder compromise becomes. During an exchange with congressional Republicans just ten days after the Massachusetts election that gave the GOP a senate seat critical to their filibuster power, President Obama observed: “It’s very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work” we need on healthcare and other problems if the “whole question is structured as a talking point for running a campaign.” As the mindset useful for campaigning overtakes the mindset needed for governing, leaders—wherever they stand on the political spectrum—are less likely to see, let alone seize, opportunities for desirable compromise. Although the dominance of the uncompromising over the compromising mindset is not necessarily equal in all parties or across all factions within a party, the pressures of the permanent campaign exempt no party and few politicians from its powerful incentives to deadlock more and compromise less.

Even when elected leaders do recognize the desirability of compromise, their staunchest supporters still want to hold them to their campaign promises and believe that the leaders are exaggerating the need for concessions. The expectations raised by the previous campaign continue to hang over the business of governing. Campaign promises stated in absolute terms limit the flexibility of legislators, even those who do not care about reelection.

That is precisely the purpose of the pledges that advocacy groups seek from candidates, a practice that escalated in the presidential campaign in 2011, “the year of the pledge.” The pledges included commitments to the Americans for tax reform declaration never to raise taxes for any reason, the Susan B. Anthony List promise, in which candidates vow to cut off funding for abortion, and the marriage vow in which candidates agree to oppose same sex marriage, reject Sharia law, and swear to be faithful to their spouse. Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate and former senator from Pennsylvania, wrote that “signing a pledge is a good way to strengthen our political promises.” As one political scientist observed, it is also a way for voters who believe that “compromise is’s selling out your principles” to send a message: “Hold the line, we don’t want you to compromise.”

The effects of these pledges on governing are especially insidious because the politicians who make them believe they are acting on principle, and they have convinced themselves that they cannot make concessions without violating their personal integrity. Yet in signing these pledges they have signed away their responsibility to govern. The terms of complex legislative compromises necessary for governing typically cannot be predicted in advance of negotiations. The most successful compromises, like the Tax Reform Act, often require the parties to modify their views about what is acceptable in the process of crafting the compromise. No one could have predicted the final shape of the tax or health-care reform bills, and few could have predicted some of the issues that would become major sticking points. Absolute promises may be good for campaigns and marriages, but they are bad for good government.

As soon as one campaign ends, the preparations for the next one begin. Positions become even more rigid, and differences sharpen even further, as both sides look toward the next election. Individual egos play a role, too. Politicians who want credit for passing legislation (or for stopping it) refuse to cooperate with their allies (or try to undermine their opponents) when they do not get their way. The minority party adopts as its main goal the regaining of power in the next election and sees obstruction as its principal means for achieving it. As minority leader, Mitch McConnell candidly described his strategy: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” If this kind of strategy proves successful, it is likely to provoke similar obstruction from the other party when it finds itself in the minority. In the cycle of obstruction that ensues, no party is able to govern well. The last campaign no less than the next can thwart compromise, as they merge to create one continuous activity that overtakes governing.

The problems of the permanent campaign are most pronounced in the United States, where the period of campaigning is unlimited and the term-lengths of many offices are shorter. But they are not entirely absent in any democracy in which the habits of the campaign persist in the routines of government. Several studies of the “Americanization” of campaigns in Europe and other developed democracies have found more than a few signs of the spread of the permanent campaign. Although the character of campaigns varies according to local customs and political culture, nearly all are looking more and more like those in the United States. As this trend continues, many other democracies are likely to confront the challenge of keeping campaigning in its place.

No one should suppose that we could return to a time when governing and campaigning stayed more reliably in separate spheres, each minding its own business. The process then was in many respects less democratic, and no more edifying than in our time. But to improve the prospects of compromising today, we need to find ways to keep the pressures of campaigning from taking over the business of governing. This task is challenging, because many causes of the rise of the permanent campaign are themselves permanent. Consider just this short list, compiled by political scientist Hugh Heclo: the rise of candidate-centered politics, the polarization of the parties, the expansion of interest group politics, the growth of new communication technologies, the pervasiveness of political consultants and pollsters, the swelling appetite for political money, and the higher stakes in a system in which government is more extensive and more active. And this list does not include structural constraints that exacerbate the problem, such as short terms mandated by the Constitution or legal restrictions like the prohibition of open primaries.

 Excerpted from The Spirit of Compromise by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. To learn more about this book and the authors, please visit Princeton University Press.

By Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann is president of the University of Pennsylvania, where she is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science.

MORE FROM Amy Gutmann

By Dennis Thompson

Dennis Thompson is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University.

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