Compromise and its enemies

This is an edited draft of a lecture I have been writing, which in time may grow into a little book about the concept of compromise in American political life from the Revolution to the present day.

Compromise must surely be the most ambivalent concept in modern politics. It can be a virtue or a sin; one person’s compromise is another’s sell-out.

Compromise can be the admirable aim of a complex negotiation, but “to be compromised” is never good.

In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Earl of Northumberland acidly asks how the king has so squandered the nation’s treasure:

Wars have not wasted it, for warr’d he hath not,

But basely yielded upon compromise,

That which his noble ancestors achieved with blows:

More hath he spent in peace than they in wars.

Richard’s compromises have not only bankrupted his treasury but revealed the king’s lack of integrity and manliness.

And yet…. in the old cliché, politics is supposed to be the art of compromise. Democratic politics, in particular, is closely associated with the practice of compromise. How else can liberal, pluralistic societies negotiate difference?

Historically, there is probably no country in the world that has made quite such a virtue of compromise as the United States. As a glance at any US history textbook will show, a series of grand compromises have punctuated the development of the republic.

It would once have been commonplace to insist, as President Obama did in 2010, that “our country was founded on compromise.” The Constitution has often been referred to as the “Great Compromise” and the convention in which it was written conventionally lauded as an ideal exemplar of the realist democratic polity in operation. Many of the most admired political leaders of the nineteenth century were celebrated precisely for their capacity to compromise; Henry Clay (“the Great Compromiser”) is the most famous example. It was he who shepherded through the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which as generations of American schoolchildren learned, Maine was admitted as a free state at the same time as Missouri came in with slavery, maintaining the same balance of forces in the Senate while also drawing a line across the unsettled prairies, north of which would be earmarked for freedom, south for slavery. This was literally a text-book example of a political compromise that was regarded at the time, and often since, as being a statesmanlike alternative to war. “I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made,” wrote Henry Clay in 1850. “All legislation, all government, all society,” Clay said, “is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based.” Clearly, for him and the tradition he represented, the principle and the practice of compromise was morally superior.

“Since when did compromise become a dirty word?” asked President Obama in 2011. He was far from the first to ask the question. It is, in fact, a feature of the pro-compromise tradition of which Obama is so good an example, that it is always astonished by the anti-compromise resistance and assumes it’s something new.

So if there is a powerful “pro-compromise” tradition in American politics, there is also a powerful “anti-compromise” tradition as well, which the pro-compromisers keep on re-discovering.

The anti-compromise tradition is based on two assumptions. The first is that, compromise undermines the purity of the system of representation. If voters support a candidate because she claims to support a particular position only to find that she then compromises that position during the give and take of political bargaining, the voters are entitled to feel betrayed. This is the view that leads to gridlock in Congress because its practical consequences, given the institutional set-up in which minority parties can delay and block majorities, are that no one really gets their way: a refusal to compromise becomes an entirely negative position.

The second assumption is a stronger one: that politics is always ultimately about values. Even a budget measure is about values, in this view, since choices about whether to spend money on the military or on foreign aid are moral questions. Without this moral dimension, politics lacks any meaning.  If this is so, then the pursuit of a compromise as the basic aim of politics is simply naïve.

Of course even if one rejects an entirely transactional, economic view of politics and accepts that every political issue has a moral dimension, not all values are of equal moral weight. And most people are pragmatic enough most of the time to accept deals in which they make concessions in return for a moral advance. Yet there is a mindset with a long tradition in America that goes further.  “There must be no compromise with slavery—none whatever,” wrote the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “Nothing is gained, every thing is lost by subordinating principle to expediency.” Garrison shocked even many who sympathized with his aims when he condemned the Constitution as a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell”. The compromise made at Philadelphia in 1787 celebrated by most white antebellum Americans was immoral because it was a compromise that enabled slavery to survive in the new Union.

Nowadays most people would agree, I hope, with Garrison’s morality but where does this leave compromise as the essential, desirable aim of politics? The abolitionists turned the personal morality of the compromise mindset on its head. Rather than exhibiting manly moderation, Northerners who did deals with the slaveholding South were “cowards”. Rather than being the only way to achieve anything in politics, the willingness to compromise prevented the only change that mattered – a sweeping transformation in which the other side (slaveholders) were vanquished.

Not content with criticizing the specific compromises that had been made as rotten the antislavery movement before the Civil War concluded that the mere attempt at compromise was morally suspect. This, as we know from the present day, is the repeated tendency of the anti-compromise tradition. Equally, however, by investing in the process and practice of compromise so much moral authority—by associating it with good character—the pro-compromisers have often substituted praise for the process as an end in itself irrespective of outcome.

Edmund Burke, as so often, saw this problem clearly. While clearly sympathetic to the practice of compromise he warned against the “preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.” The true statesmen, Burke wrote, “are not defined by what they compromise, but by what they don’t.”

A similar sentiment has been expressed by the highly successful political philosopher and somewhat less successful politician Michael Ignatieff:

Knowing the difference between a good and a bad compromise is more important in politics than holding onto pure principle at any price. A good compromise restores the peace and enables both parties to go about their business with some element of their vital interest satisfied. A bad one surrenders the public interest to compulsion or force.

The problem with compromise in America is that having been so elevated into a moral good in itself, it has been all too easy to discredit it entirely. Since so many of the great compromises have protected and perpetuated inhumane, racist regimes and practices it is hardly surprising that the term has been discredited on the Left. And add to that the righteousness of those whose principal political motivation is advancing or defending a moral agenda, and the pro-compromise tradition looks hopelessly naïve.

But unless it can be revived and rehabilitated – unless some sense of the nobility of seeking compromise can be restored – the prospects for the future of American democracy look bleak.



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