Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

What Ever Happened to Compromise?

April 30, 2012 by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson


UPDATE: Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson discussed compromise and Congressional gridlock with Andrea Mitchell at the National Constitution Center on May 2. Listen to the full podcast: [audio:]

Is compromise a dirty word? Speaker John Boehner spoke for many politicians running for office when he declared “I reject the word.” In the past, political leaders in the midst of election campaigns could declare their intent never to back down—and then once in office turn their attention to the give-and-take that is a necessary part of effective governance.

But something has changed over the past several decades. We’ve entered a new era of the permanent campaign, where every day is effectively election day. Classic compromise—where all sides sacrifice something in order to improve on the status quo from their perspective—has become harder to conceive, let alone to achieve. There is no easy way out of this predicament—in part because the tension between campaigning and governing is built into the democratic process itself.

What better place to start this conversation than in Philadelphia, the birthplace of one of the greatest compromises in U.S. history—the U.S. Constitution. As a start, let’s clear away some key misconceptions about compromise.

Politicians don’t compromise because voters don’t want them to

Most Americans say they want politicians to stick to their principles. Yet they also say they want politicians who are willing to compromise to get things done, and they strongly disapprove when politicians—even those whose principles they support—refuse to compromise to head off a crisis. Faced with the risk of government debt default last summer, even a majority of Tea Party supporters (the group typically most opposed to compromise, according to surveys) said that they would support a compromise that included tax increases as well as spending cuts.

Compromise is not possible unless the system is reformed

Politicians and pundits who recognize the need for compromise all have their favorite reforms they say will fix the problem. Nonpartisan redistricting, publicly funded campaigns, open primaries, ending the filibuster—the list goes on. Without major institutional change, they assert, polarized politics will persist and political intransigence will prevail.

Certainly some of these reforms could help promote compromise by diminishing the power of extremes in favor of the political center. But it is a mistake to suppose that we have to wait for reforms before we can have compromises: reforming the system itself requires compromise.

Just win big—then you won’t need to compromise

Ira Gershwin had it half right—it's nice work if you can get it. But in our system you can't get it no matter how hard you try. The idea that either party will gain complete control and push through its agenda, undiluted, is a fantasy. Consider how unlikely it is that one party could totally dominate long enough. Even if a party could win that big, it would still be faced with making compromises within its own ranks, as President Obama found during the long, slow, and acrimonious passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010.

To compromise you have to find common ground

In a true compromise, everyone's ox gets gored. Compromise requires all sides to give up something they value, and all think they could have gotten more if the other side had not been so stubborn. Yet compared to stalemate or capitulation, compromise has the virtue of giving all sides more of what they want. That’s the very nature of compromise: no gain without some pain.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986, the most comprehensive tax reform bill in modern American history, saw both President Reagan and House Speaker O'Neill recognize that in order to make gains over the status quo, each would have to give up something of value. They did not have the luxury of hoping for the pure win-win solutions that some negotiation theorists promise. They just had to compromise.

It’s always wrong to compromise your principles

Strong principles matter, in part because they can help us evaluate whether a proposal is pointing in the right direction. But “never compromise your principles” turns those useful filters into roadblocks, capable of stopping a political compromise dead in its tracks, rather than serving as guideposts, meant to draw attention to critical values at issue.

If the universal healthcare coverage that was the goal of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a principle that could not be compromised, no policy covering anything less than the entire U.S. population would have been acceptable. In the end, supporters settled for a healthcare system reform in which more but not all are covered. Most important compromises touch on profound issues of principle and require all participants to give in in some way. That's what makes compromise so hard—and so necessary.

Amy Gutmann is the President of the University of Pennsylvania. Dennis Thompson is a Professor of Government at Harvard University. They are co-authors of The Spirit of Compromise. This essay originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 29, 2012.

Sign up for our email newsletter