Culture and Political Watch, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
By Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson
Published by Princeton University Press; Hardback; e-book; 279pp.
Reviewed by Jill Norgren
The Spirit of Compromise is a book for policy wonks and voters to read before the election — and after. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman, a political scientist, and Harvard University political philosopher Dennis Thompson have teamed up to examine the contemporary dysfunction in Washington, and to suggest a way out of the governance failure that has citizens wondering “what’s the matter with Capitol Hill?”
Eight years ago political chatter swirled around Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America? Frank, a onetime conservative, asked how a people once famous for their radicalism came to rank among the country’s most eager recipients of “backlash bunkum.” With no little vexation, he questioned why Kansans, joined by many other Americans, voted against their economic and social interests. Where, he wrote, was the outrage at corporate thievery? In eight years a shelf full of books has been written about corporate venality and criminality. Still, the country appears no closer to finding solid footing where personal and community interests are concerned.
Gutman and Thompson are the authors of several books on politics and democracy. In The Spirit of Compromise they argue that the influence of extremists unwilling to let political representatives engage in compromise has led to a policy gridlock that has become the hallmark of contemporary governance. A rejection of compromise, they write, “biases politics in favor of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis.” They explain this failure of representatives to work together as fallout from the permanence of campaigning in modern American politics. Successful campaigning selects for men and women who present themselves as tenaciously principled agents. These candidates appeal to voters with take-no-prisoner policy positions (refined for local predilections). The authors contend, however, that good, working government calls for “an opposite cluster of attitudes and arguments-the compromising mindset-that inclines politicians to adjust their principles and to respect their opponents.”
Gutman and Thompson examine two historically important instances of compromise to understand the possibility of a political world in which mutual respect among those who disagree might occur: tax reform in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan and the 2010 health care reform backed by President Barack Obama. Each negotiation was difficult but only tax reform was bipartisan. They draw lessons from both on the search for common ground.
The most provocative and interesting argument in this book centers on the authors’ assertion that elected officials must escape the demands of the “permanent campaign.” This permanent campaign engulfs them even after the conclusion of an election and, in its insistence on principle, does not give governing much leeway. In their strongest chapters, Gutman and Thompson outline ways in which citizens, educators, politicians and the media could promote reforms that would protect the capacity to govern. We must, they say, make “democracy safer for governing, without completely suppressing the impulse to campaign while in office.” The ground they cover ranges from congressional observer Norm Orstein’s proposal that Congress alter its schedule to encourage more sustained interaction among representatives, to Senator Mark Udall’s call for bi-partisan seating at the State of the Union Address. They revisit the issues of term limits, campaign finance, shorter campaigns, and the case to be made for open rather than closed primaries. Social networking and segmented media also come in for examination.
Compromise is a bad word in some circles, an act with no cachet. Gutman and Thompson address the perennial doubts about the value of compromise. Traditionalists argue that the Founding Fathers shaped institutions of governance that would, for the better, make change difficult. The question raised by Gutman and Thompson is whether delay and go-slow incrementalism have not given way to unhealthy deadlock where legislators argue but seldom enact policy. And while Americans say that they are not satisfied with the way things are, on some issues, at least, the United States is a divided nation where citizens hold deeply polarizing values. Nothing has shown this more clearly than the contemporary interpretation of US history presented by members of the Tea Party. (Bookend your reading of The Spirit of Compromise with Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History).
The challenge, then, is to make institutional change that will permit citizens and politicians to overcome these deeply felt political differences. In The Spirit of Compromise Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson do not argue that this will be easy. They show that compromise does not negate the importance of principle but that, nevertheless, we all must join in the search for common ground.
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