This article originally appeared on Citizen Think.
Political campaigns are about promises. Promises to act and to reform, to replace and to improve. And not only promises but commitments also, commitments and pledges, declarations and vows. Romney will repeal Obamacare, Santorum will stop job-killing regulations, Newt will replace the EPA, and Ron Paul will “end” the Federal Reserve. The list goes on.
But while campaigns are defined by their promises, no elected official ever manages to complete even a small percentage of their pledges. Priorities shift, circumstances change and, most importantly, political and institutional barriers stymie. Nor are legislative victories ever as pure as the pledges that motivated them. Deals must always be brokered, compromises made. In our political system, all legislative victories are inevitably imperfect.
The inevitability of imperfection does not, however, stop critics from attacking even the most impressive legislative victories. Critics from the opposition are always fierce, but the sharpest attacks often come from the political base. Witness the attacks on Obama from the left for the bail-out, the finance bill and healthcare. He’s a sell-out; he’s been captured by DC politics; he’s a pawn of Wall Street.
These are a form of what I’d like to call attacks on ethical integrity (in previous posts, I discussed attacks on personal integrity and political integrity). But are these attacks justified? Are politicians properly criticized for compromise?
In my last post, I explored the situation where a politician changes position because new data comes to light; I specified that the change in position was about means, rather than ends. For example, a congressman who is committed to broad healthcare coverage realizes that market mechanisms are not actually going to result in sufficiently widespread insurance availability, and so switches her position to support single-payer.
But what about a compromise that represents a shift in values, or at least, a willingness to be flexible about values? Should a politician who changes their position on a question of normative value by agreeing to a compromise be attacked? Bemoaned? Discredited?
I want to argue the opposite position – that such compromises – like Obama’s compromises over various provisions of 2009 healthcare legislation — are not only necessary but affirmatively good. In my view, such compromise represents a commitment to the value of our democracy as a procedure for peaceful resolution of social conflict.
The iPhone Democracy
Before we get there, let’s play out a quick hypothetical. Imagine a country — let’s call itRousseauVille – where the citizens hate compromising politicians, and decide to do away with them completely. Through direct constitutional amendment, they enact the following rule to govern decision-making:
Every citizen is to be issued an iPhone. On that iPhone, there is to be a special i-gov application. Each morning, every citizen will receive a text message to their iPhone through i-gov with the day’s policy questions. In order to use the iPhone for normal activities, each citizen must vote on every policy question. The majority vote will be decisive for each issue. No compromise positions are possible; each issue will be decided through up and down vote.
Although the policy permits debate on each policy issue, as a matter of practice citizens are in too much of a rush (to answer their email, to play Angry Birds) and so little discussion is actually had. Instead, citizens vote every morning, and every evening the majority vote carries the day.
Compromise as the Good
What’s wrong with RousseauVille, with this form of direct democracy? I see three major problems. First, without debate, a substantial percentage of the population loses completely on every issue. Second, because there is so little time for reasoned argument, new ideas rarely emerge. Third, and for the same reason, there is no chance for reflection on underlying values nor opportunities to hear the positions of those with whom you disagree.
While RousseauVille is an obvious fiction (though perhaps not technologically impossible), it has an analogue in our current political system. If we simply elect our politicians based on our normative preferences, and forbid them from ever compromising on their positions, we are essentially enacting a form of direct democracy. Such a system forbids citizens from finding common ground, and instead yields intractable conflicts that are resolved only through the symbolic violence of direct majority rule.
Let’s take as a contrast the kind of compromise embodied in Obama’s healthcare legislation. While it was imperfect as a matter of reasoned policy, it was that way because it represented a synthesis of conflicting ideas and values, negotiated under conditions of peaceful debate, which provided solutions palatable if not ideal to the many interested constituencies.
I see this as a normative good. Politics should not, I think, be simply the dominance of one party over another nor one ideology over another, but rather a space for social conflict to be mediated and, at least temporarily, resolved. Even if we don’t come up with the most elegant policy solutions, and even if they cost society in efficiency terms, we should see these costs as a reasonable expense for the peaceful resolution of disagreements. Indeed, they are a small price to pay for maintaining peace in a nation marked by incommensurable visions of the good life and the good society. We live in the United States under conditions of profound political division; that’s why it is ultimately the political process, messy as it may be, that deserves our loyalty.
In this way, political compromise is integral to democracy. If our politicians simply channeled our ideological and policy positions directly, and refused to ever find common ground with opponents, we would either be permanently gridlocked or rule only through direct majority vote. Neither strikes me as a good alternative. That’s why compromise is a normative good. The compromise of our elected officials represents a proper response to the existential divisions which divide us. And an absolute unwillingness to compromise – as we see among Tea Party candidates who have signed the Tax Pledge and that we witnessed among the environmental radicals who attacked all climate legislation — is rightly attacked as wholly unreasonable and indeed as anti-democratic.
So next time a politician is called a sell-out for compromising her position, just think about the alternative – a world without any political compromise, where ideas are never shared, voices never heard, positions never shifted.