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The hard truth about political compromise

Two political scientists say we’re doomed to paralysis unless we give our enemies room to move

Martin Gee/Globe Staff

On paper, America looks like a nation of political compromisers. In surveys, the vast majority of us say that we’re tired of gridlock, and that politicians ought to compromise more to get things done.

Amy GutmannUniversity of Pennsylvania

And yet, in practice, when it comes to any particular compromise—on immigration, on taxes, on health care—we’re often against it, no matter which side we’re on. We consistently vote for politicians who swear to stand by their principles no matter what, and boot compromising politicians out of office. It’s no wonder that some politicians can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge the possibility of compromising. (In 2010, when pushed to say “compromise” by the journalist Leslie Stahl, John Boehner said, “I reject the word.”)


Increasingly, this hardened attitude represents a danger to democracy and the economy. (Think of last summer’s debt-ceiling standoff—likely to be reprised this summer.) And it stems, according to two political scientists, from our failure to understand what compromise really is. In their new book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It,” Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue that Americans have an inaccurate view of compromise. In particular, they say, we vastly underestimate the costs of rejecting it.

Nowadays, they write, we have a simplistic view of compromise. We tend to think of compromise in terms of settling for less: We want two scoops of ice cream, but settle for one. That might describe what happens when you and your spouse compromise over the size of a new television—but it doesn’t work, the authors show, when it comes to politics. Political compromise requires more than settling; it requires actually letting the other side make progress on its agenda, even if you find that agenda repugnant. Even worse, political compromises are often incoherent. A compromise on immigration, for example, might mean combining ideas that seem to work against one another, like amnesty for illegal immigrants and strict rules criminalizing illegal immigration.


Dennis ThompsonStu Rosner

All of this makes it tempting to believe that we can do without compromise. But, Gutmann and Thompson warn, the alternative is worse. A vote against compromise might feel like a vote for purity, for boldness—but it’s actually a vote for the status quo. In a democracy where people disagree on fundamental questions, no-compromise politicians create logjams, not progress. So when we vote for hyperpartisan politicians who promise to save us from the pain and frustration of compromise, what we are really doing is voting, repeatedly, for nothing to change.

Gutmann, currently president of the University of Pennsylaniva, and Thompson, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, have written extensively on the role that reasoned debate can play in the democratic process. Now, in this new book, they’re hoping to expose what has gone wrong with compromise in America, and to explain how we might fix it. They propose a variety of remedies, like better civic education, campaign reform, and requiring politicians to live together in Washington for more of the year. But, they write, voters need to clean up our act as well: We need to accept the challenging realities of compromise, and start rewarding politicians for compromising, instead of punishing them.

Gutmann and Thompson spoke to Ideas via telephone from their respective offices in Philadelphia and Cambridge.

IDEAS: Why does political compromise seem so impossible right now?


THOMPSON: There are really three factors....One is the 24/7 news cycle, and the media’s tendency to cover campaigns as horse races—to even cover governing that way. The second is money: You have to start fund-raising the first day you’re in office, or sometimes even before you’re sworn in; last year, two members of the House skipped their swearing-in ceremony because they were at a fund-raiser! And third, and probably most important, is that the long-term, collegial relationship that used to exist in Congress and in state legislatures just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s more turnover, and people don’t stay in Washington. They go home more often, to see like-minded people.

IDEAS: But it’s not just the system; it’s also voters who are in a no-compromise mindset.

GUTMANN: People [have lost sight of] what the alternative is....Both sides dig in their heels on the basis of their principles, and there’s no governing.

IDEAS: Why is compromise so difficult, emotionally speaking?

GUTMANN: Well, in a true, classic compromise, everyone’s ox gets gored.

THOMPSON: You often think that you didn’t get as much as you should have....And there’s always a suspicion that if your leader had pushed a little harder, or hadn’t been so accommodating, you would’ve gotten more.

IDEAS: Part of the reason people hate compromise is that they think the status quo might actually be better than an incoherent piece of compromised legislation. You disagree.

GUTMANN: That’s right....Take the Simpson Bowles Commission recommendations [for fiscal reform]. They aren’t internally coherent by principles. There’re some people that think that government isn’t spending enough on the vulnerable, other people who think it’s spending too much; there’re some people who think that taxation should be more progressive, there’re others that say it should be less so. Simpson Bowles combines big elements of both of those incompatible views. And yet, the vast majority of American voters, when polled, say that something like Simpson Bowles has to happen in this country. They’re right.


THOMPSON: It’s particularly painful for us as political theorists to see all this incoherent legislation—

GUTMANN: —but not as painful as doing nothing!

THOMPSON: Right. The world is not going to operate according to all of our political philosophies. I wish politicians and activists would learn that lesson, too.

IDEAS: In your book, you show how crises often force compromise. Is gridlock itself a crisis? Can it, by itself, force us to change?

GUTMANN: Gridlock should be enough, but it’s unlikely to be....Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have an impending crisis, with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the $1.5 billion sequester coming right after the 2012 election. And that has the capacity to focus people’s minds on the need to sit down together and compromise. [Ultimately,] if people turn out in large numbers and vote on the basis of wanting their representatives to sit down and craft compromise, of the sort you see in the Simpson Bowles Commission recommendation, that will be a very significant step forward.

IDEAS: As political philosophers, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the way things ought to be in politics. Is it disappointing to embrace the incoherence of compromise?


GUTMANN: Philosophers have the luxury of seeking the ideal by means of principles, and that’s a very important exercise. Principles should be guideposts to where you want to move....But when they’re used as roadblocks, they’re a huge problem. And the only way of getting through the roadblocks is through compromise. The fact is that we can’t always wait until people agree on common principles and common ground.

Joshua Rothman can be reached at