Q&A with Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson on The Spirit of Compromise

Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson kindly agreed to answer a few questions about their forthcoming book The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. If you have any of your own follow up questions, please leave a note below and maybe we’ll have a chance to get them answered soon.

PUP: Why did you write this book?

Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson: A central theme of our earlier writing—and a major challenge for any large democracy—is how people who deeply disagree can come together to make laws. Compromise has to be part of that process. It was only through difficult and often painful acts of compromise that the Constitution was written and ratified and the United States charted a course over the past 223 years. That is an unmatched achievement in a country that is so large, diverse, and oftentimes divided. But in recent years, it struck us that an essential lesson of this success has been forgotten. The difficulty of compromise is built into the democratic process itself, but so is the need for compromise. A better understanding and appreciation of compromise might be especially useful in this time of political polarization.

PUP: Is refusing to compromise a recent phenomenon in American politics or have politicians always had this problem?

AG & DT: Compromise has always been difficult. The successful bipartisan tax reform compromise of 1986, which the book offers as a model, was certainly not easy. But key leaders (President Reagan, House Speaker Tip O’Neil and others) were able to put their minds to governing rather than campaigning. In recent years this has become less common and more difficult. One reason why is that campaigning has come to dominate governing more than ever. The 24/7 news cycle, unlimited flows of money into political campaigning, and polarization all feed what has come to be called the “permanent campaign.” Every day is effectively election day. Political leaders are always finding it necessary to act with the next election cycle foremost in mind. This makes compromise increasingly difficult. Even when politicians may be willing to compromise, they are loath to admit it. As Speaker Boehner has said, “I reject the word.”

PUP: How can you expect Congress to compromise when the public seems to be demanding that their representatives just stick to their principles?

AG & DT: It is true that most Americans say they want politicians to stick to their principles. But 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. The attacks of 9/11 and the world financial meltdown of 2008 brought both parties together to make difficult choices, which the vast majority of the American public supported. Most recently, faced with the risk of government default on its debt in the summer of 2011, even a majority of Tea Party supporters (the group typically most opposed to compromise, according to polls) said that they would support a compromise that included tax increases as well as spending cuts. Yet every candidate running in the Republican presidential primary declared they were not willing to accept even one dollar of increased revenue for every ten dollars of tax cuts. So the public is often ahead of the politicians on the question of compromise.

PUP: You compare two historic compromises that many readers will have personally experienced – tax reform under President Reagan and health care reform under President Obama. What do these examples tells us about compromise at large?

AG & DT: Both tax reform and health care reform required politicians to compromise more than they expected when they began, and both sides had to overcome their mutual distrust. Both also show that major compromises are a lot less pretty than most politicians’ favored rhetoric about finding common ground suggests. Compromise almost always requires mutual sacrifice in order to achieve mutual gain. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a bipartisan political compromise in which members of each party gave up some things they valued. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a compromise exclusively among Democrats with all Republicans in the House and Senate voting against it. Reaching a compromise on health care was at least as hard as reaching one on tax reform: there were strong disagreements among Democrats about single payer options, expansion of Medicare and many other issues. But in American democracy when a major policy compromise is forged solely within a single party, its political durability is more precarious. The continuing threats to dismantle the law, and a raft of court challenges, culminating in a decision by the Supreme Court, indicate some of the problems that result when attempts at bipartisan compromise fail.

PUP: How does the election cycle affect the spirit of compromise?

AG & DT: Campaigns are the ultimate winner-take-all events; to the winners go the spoils and to the losers go defeat. An uncompromising mindset during a campaign enables a candidate to stake a clear difference from opponents and can help rally supporters to the cause. To the pollsters, pundits and promoters of permanent campaigning, compromise is a threat to their reason for being. It’s now the era of the permanent campaign. When members are not openly campaigning, they are out raising money. When the campaign mentality dominates, the spirit of compromise cannot get any traction. All are looking to the next election all the time, hoping that their party will win complete control, and not have to compromise. This is a fantasy, but that doesn’t stop many from fantasizing.

PUP: Why should anyone worry so much about the failure to compromise in politics? Especially conservatives who do not want to see more laws passed anyhow?

AG & DT: The main reason to worry is that a persistent failure to compromise biases the political process in favor of the status quo and stands in the way of desirable change. And that does not mean that nothing changes. It just means that politicians let other forces control the change. In the deeply divided politics of 2011, rejecting congressional compromise on raising the debt ceiling would not have left the economy unchanged. Almost no major change can happen without major compromises. Without compromise on health care and taxation or other major issues, the status quo prevails, even if it preserves a policy that serves everyone’s interests poorly and even if it leads to a major crisis. Conservatives need the results of compromise as much as liberals. In the modern welfare state, those who want less government have to legislate to get it, and that usually means they have to compromise. No one is always satisfied with the way things are. The only reason to privilege the status quo as a general rule is the fatalistic belief that any change is bound to make things worse. In politics this is not realistic in the long run. In today’s world, with its many looming problems, this is an especially dangerous illusion even in the short run.

PUP: Does your praise of the compromising mindset mean that you want to see more moderates and fewer partisans in politics?

AG & DT: Because American politics has become so polarized, it could help the cause of compromise if moderates were more influential, and if the extremists did not dominate as much as they do. But that is not necessary to improve the prospects of compromise, nor is it our main point. The compromising mindset is quite compatible with holding strong partisan positions. Despite standing consistently and firmly on the right and left wings of their parties, Senators Kennedy and Hatch managed work together to produce some of this nation’s most important health legislation. During the nearly two decades in which they alternated as either chairman or ranking member of the Senate committee concerned with health care, education, and labor issues, they cosponsored many significant legislative initiatives, including measures that provided support for victims of AIDS, created the children’s health insurance program, and established protections against discrimination toward individuals with disabilities. We do not want to see the uncompromising mindset banished from politics. Our book also emphasizes that it’s an important part of democracy, not only in campaigns but also in social movements, political protests, demonstrations, and activist organizations. The uncompromising mindset is a problem only when it take over the business of governing, as it is doing now, and makes desirable compromise impossible.

PUP: What institutional reforms do you propose for improving the prospects of compromise in our politics?

AG & DT: We discuss several proposals in the book, including incentives to encourage members of Congress to spend more time together, modifying the filibuster, changing the rules of party primaries and campaign finance, and promoting better civic education. Most of these reforms have been proposed for other good reasons as well. What we argue in the book, which has not been widely recognized, is that any major institutional reform will require compromise, and that means that some change in mindsets must come first. There is a kind of political catch-22 here. To make any major institutional changes, especially those needed to encourage compromise and tame the permanent campaign, politicians have to compromise. To get out of this bind, at least some politicians will have to take the lead, and adopt a different attitude toward compromise. They will have to appreciate the dynamics and logic of compromise better than many do now— and in ways we describe and analyze in the book. You don’t have to be a political philosopher or political scientist to appreciate the basic point. In an earlier uncompromising era, a more popular group of thinkers known as the Beatles got it just about right: “You tell me it’s the institution. Well, you know. You’d better free your mind instead.”

PUP: Who do you most hope reads this book and what do you want them to take away from it?

AG & DT: Like Judy Woodruff, we wish (as she generously wrote) that “every policymaker would read it.” Just as important are citizens, especially students and other young people who will set the tone and lead our politics in the future. We of course are under no illusion that our book, or any single intervention, will change the toxic political climate that makes compromise so difficult. But we do hope that those who read The Spirit will come away with a greater appreciation of what makes compromise so difficult—the uncompromising mindset that stand in its way—and also a better sense of why it is so necessary and why we need more of the compromising mindset that can move democratic politics forward for the benefit of all of us.