Seeking Compromise

Gridlock in Washington is not a new occurrence. But the degree to which it has frozen Congress is significant. Moderate members of Congress, including Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, are retiring because politicians have become hard-line partisans, making governing difficult. Many seemingly uncontroversial pieces of legislation need to overcome a filibuster to get through the Senate. Some politicians pledge loyalty to extreme, uncompromising positions, no matter the effect on crafting and passing legislation.

Is compromise doomed in this polarized political climate?

To be sure, crafting compromise is challenging, says Penn President Amy Gutmann, co-author of the new book “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It” (published by Princeton University Press) with Harvard political science professor Dennis Thompson.

Not only is there increased political polarization and a copious amount of money influencing the political process, but, Gutmann and Thompson contend, we live in “an era characterized by the permanent campaign.” The result is that members of Congress pitch their sound bites to the news shows, and stand firm on positions, giving themselves virtually no wiggle room when the work of governing begins. This intransigence from politicians favors the status quo, the authors write, and gets in the way of positive change.

In contrast, good government calls for politicians to respect their opponents and seize opportunities to compromise in order to move the country forward.

“What compromise does is it gives all sides something they value,” Gutmann says. “But it requires each side to sacrifice, and if you reject the notion of compromise, let alone reject the word, you’re not going to be able to move the country forward and that’s all the more the case in the landscape of polarized politics. We need compromise even more when our politics are polarized. If you say, ‘Well, it’s just impossible,’ it’s not. We have great evidence that it’s not.”

Gutmann and Thompson say that politicians should adopt a compromising mindset, at least occasionally, in order to move the country forward when there’s something important at stake and when they can find partners on the other side.

“Democracy requires compromise. Compromise is difficult. Governing without compromise is impossible,” Gutmann says. “Not everything is a compromise, but most major legislation that moves this country forward is a compromise at its best.”

A Q&A with Gutmann appears in the May 10 issue of the Penn Current.

Video by Kurtis Sensenig
Text by Heather A. Davis