U.S. losing art of compromise

The current congressional penchant for dysfunctional behavior continues to manifest itself. The inability of Congress to deal in a meaningful way with the current debt ceiling crisis seems to be just one more instance of the widening ideological and political rift between the various factions in Congress. I cannot remember in my lifetime any Congress that was so split, so intransigent in its policies and practices, and so unwilling to craft the types of political compromises that have always been necessary for government to function.

It seems that at present the whole concept of a political compromise has fallen from favor. I think that many politicians and voters, on both sides of the aisle, have come to believe that ideological purity and adherence to strict and narrow policy guidelines is the best way for politicians to act. We constantly hear from both politicians and the general public that leaders must always act according to principle. Willingness to negotiate openly and to make trade-offs to reach a compromise settlement is rejected as being unprincipled.

I think that this rejection of compromise, of accepting less than 100 percent, is not only dangerous but, actually, a trend that ignores the history of the United States. It is dangerous because it leads to behavior most reminiscent of the children’s game of “chicken.” Each new crisis seems to harden positions and further strengthen many politicians’ determination not to give in but, instead, to win an absolute victory.

The problem is that eventually such behavior will lead to a deadlock and a total inability to agree on some crucial issue. If this eventually happens in the debates over the federal debt ceiling, the result may be a devastating loss of market credibility for the United States, a loss of credibility that could easily bring on a financial crisis far worse than that of 2008.

Even more worrisome to me, however, is the seeming lack of any historical perspective on how American government has always functioned. I find it quite ironic that the very politicians who tell the public to look to the “Founders” for inspiration and instruction about the nature of government are those who seem totally ignorant of the fact that the Founders were masters of the political compromise.

All one needs to do is read the published debates on the Constitution to realize that all of our national founding documents were the product of hard-fought compromises. Our nation would not exist had it not been for the Founders’ willingness to make trade-offs, to accept less than 100 percent of their stated goals, to recognize that no government can survive unless people are willing to live with a system in which everybody wins some battles and loses some battles.

I think Americans need to rethink their notion that compromise is a bad thing and that what we want are politicians who will follow “principle” to the bitter end. Our system of government is built upon the work of supreme pragmatists, of politicians who understood the old cliché that politics is, in fact, “the art of compromise.” Compromise is what our nation is built upon and it is what has allowed us to survive and prosper. If we forget this, I fear that the current game of political “chicken” will continue in Washington and, eventually, the American public will end up as the real losers.