04/24/2012 11:55 pm ET

The Spirit Of Compromise (EXCERPT)

Excerpted from The Spirit of Compromise by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. To learn more about this book and the authors, please visit Princeton University Press.

If politics is the art of the possible, compromise is the artistry of democracy.

Democracy calls on politicians to resist compromise and to accept it. They may resist it more when they campaign, but they need to accept it more when they govern. Balancing these mindsets is a formidable challenge at any time, but it becomes even more so in a time of the permanent campaign.

The mindset that campaigns demand—standing tenaciously on principles and mistrusting opponents—gets in the way of negotiating the deals required to pass laws in a pluralist society. It drives out the compromising mindset that governing needs—the disposition to adapt principles and respect opponents. To govern, politicians must look beyond their campaign commitments and their electoral fortunes. The compromising mindset focuses on the critical question for governing: is the proposed law better than the status quo?

In a democracy, the spirit of the laws depends on the spirit of compromise. The compromising mindset was once more prevalent than it is today. The spirit of compromise that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986 has faded. The bipartisan group that produced that compromise consisted of strong partisans who were otherwise quite polarized in their politics. They were by no means oblivious to electoral pressures, but they were prepared to take responsibility for governing, and willing to adopt the attitudes required to fulfill it. They appreciated—and on critical occasions practiced—the public virtue of mixing the mindsets.

No doubt compromise in American democracy has been just as difficult in some periods in the past, and politics no less contentious. But whether politicians were less polarized or more cooperative in the past does not provide an answer to the question of whether we should encourage more compromise in the present. Today, as the pressures of fundraising and media attention increase, the demands of campaigning have intensified. At the same time, the need for effective government is greater and growing, as the stakes of decision making rise and the scope of law expands.

The Uses of Mindsets

The mindsets and their relation to campaigning and governing provide a perspective that highlights the imbalance that accompanies the permanent campaign. They direct our attention to arguments and attitudes that promote or impede finding a better balance. Understanding the way these mindsets work—appreciating their implicit logic, misplaced assumptions, and unintended consequences—is an essential step toward improving the capacity of a democracy to govern effectively.

Even when they have no direct causal effect on lawmaking, mindsets indirectly reinforce resistance to compromise or support striving for it. They provide rationalizations that either discourage politicians from facing up to the problem or encourage them to look for ways to ameliorate it. They shape how politicians justify their conduct to one another. What they say can help or hurt the prospects of compromise. Routinely questioning the motives of opponents may be psychologically satisfying, but it undermines the conditions for cultivating the mutual respect necessary for compromising in the future. More politically productive, and potentially just as satisfying, are the respectful competitive relationships that prevail when strong partisans are able to suspend their suspicion about motives and mix their mindsets to reach desirable compromises.

Political leaders and citizens alike could benefit from seeing more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the compromising and uncompromising mindsets, and how they interact in the democratic process. The ways in which these mindsets frame disagreements are often latent and unrecognized. Bringing the latent to light enables leaders and citizens to appreciate more fully how these mindsets operate in ways conducive to campaigning or governing. As a consequence, leaders and citizens will be better equipped to recognize opportunities to craft compromises that could make better laws for everyone.

We also have identified ways that the failure to understand how mindsets work can lead to political stalemates that almost no one wants and to missed opportunities for agreements that almost everyone could accept.

One way is to fail to appreciate just how vulnerable compromises are. They are easy to resist because they often reflect a mixture of conflicting principles that satisfies no one and because each side believes it could have won more if the other side had been more reasonable, or its own leaders more resolute.

Furthermore, if parties to a compromise become obsessed with finding common ground or consensus solutions, they are likely to miss the chance for any compromise at all. The success of the more common, classic compromise depends on the willingness of all sides to sacrifice something to achieve a common good that improves on the status quo when common ground does not exist or cannot be found.

Another road to stalemate is especially tempting because it seems high-minded. Standing on principle is fine, sometimes admirable, but insisting that principles and their legislative implications are absolute is a prescription for deadlock.

Rejecting compromise is also often a prescription for preventing progress judged by the very same principles on which the legislator claims to be standing. Letting the confusion of compromise—its inconsistent principles—block agreement often means losing the chance to enact a law that, however much of a patchwork it might be, could make everyone better off, or at least less worse off than they would have been. In contrast, the principled prudence of the compromising mindset assesses the value of a compromise compared with available alternatives. It is more likely to reveal opportunities for progress.

Failing to appreciate the role of distrust is yet another obstacle. Because in politics motives are usually suspect and bargaining leverage often uncertain, capitulating to opponents is an ever-present fear.

Mutual respect is an indispensable antidote. Without it, the parties to a compromise have little reason to believe that they are getting as much as they can reasonably expect, and they cannot assure their supporters that they are not selling out. Political leaders who combine being principled partisans with cultivating close relationships with their partisan opponents bring both the intrinsic and the instrumental values of mutual respect to the table when the time for compromise is ripe. Compromises are also more broadly accepted when the parties to the process seize opportunities to demonstrate their mutual respect amid otherwise acrimonious disagreements.

Opportunities for compromise are likely to be squandered if politicians neglect the longer-term advantages of mutual respect. If they look only at the gains and losses in the particular deal in question, they will miss the broader positive consequences of compromise, which include the effect on continuing relationships with colleagues, the capacity for effective governing in the future, and the continuing vitality of the democratic process.

These considerations can tip the balance toward accepting a deal that otherwise would be doubtful, as compromises by their very nature always are—simply because they entail mutual sacrifice. Paying attention to considerations such as the value of cultivating mutual respect puts the general value of compromise back into particular compromises. Politicians are more likely to give these values their due in a legislature that provides opportunities for creating and sustaining relationships that cross political divisions and continue beyond more than a few electoral cycles.

Although we show in our book how the intrusion of campaigning into governing generally obstructs compromise, we also point out that in special circumstances caring about campaigning can have a positive effect. The uncertainty about the electoral effects of opposition to a particular compromise—failure to avoid government default on the debt, for example— may make even legislators with otherwise uncompromising mindsets fear that they will be blamed by their constituents for blocking the particular compromise. Even when the permanent campaign dominates legislative consciousness, all is not lost for compromise. Those legislators who are finely attuned to the permanent campaign may be more likely to compromise than those who are purely ideological.

All of these and other implications of our analysis of mindsets have special relevance for legislative institutions, where relationships continue over time and agreements cover many different issues. But anyone who cares about compromise in politics more generally—or, for that matter, in any institution in which collective decisions have to be made in face of deep disagreement—needs to attend to the dynamics of compromising and uncompromising mindsets.

Doubts about Compromise

Yet some still doubt the value of promoting compromise. They raise two general objections, which point in opposing directions. One objection is that partisan gridlock is not a problem, or if it is, it is not all that serious. The other is that, although gridlock is a serious problem, compromise cannot be the remedy.

First, take those who say that we should not worry so much about the scarcity of compromise. The framers of the Constitution designed the system to make change difficult, and stalemate is to be expected, even welcomed. Voters show that they do not want change to be easy because they generally choose divided government. Furthermore, many want less government and oppose new legislation, which they believe usually expands its role. Even interest groups tend to settle for keeping what they have rather than trying to get more.

The imperative to act and therefore to compromise is not exclusively liberal or conservative. Almost no one is 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 that is not a sustainable position. Even if the laws were to remain the same, the world would not. The effects that the unchanging laws have on the world would change, usually quite radically.

It did not take the debt-ceiling crisis to drive this point home to most Americans. They have been criticizing gridlock in Congress for years. Because preserving the status quo is not a first principle, resisting compromise cannot be the first priority.

Excerpted from The Spirit of Compromise by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. To learn more about this book and the authors, please visit Princeton University Press.