10/02/2013 09:49 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014


President Ronald Reagan had ideological differences with the Democrats led by House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Reagan was committed to small government and the free market. O'Neill was a traditional Democrat who believed the public sector was the last refuge for the working man. They found themselves at loggerheads often as important legislation came before Congress.

And yet, time and time again Reagan and O'Neill came together to hash out their differences and produce compromises that both sides could live with. They both understood that compromise is the lifeblood of democratic government without which it cannot function. They had a responsibility to govern and they took it seriously.

The current imbroglio in Washington reflects a troubling loss of that spirit of compromise -- a most unfortunate trend that has been building for many years. An ever larger number of our elected representatives are ideological extremists for whom compromise is a dirty word. They believe they have a monopoly on truth and are determined to hold the line no matter what. The responsibility to govern is apparently not a priority for them.

There are several apparent reasons for this unfortunate decline of civic comity. One is the ancient practice of gerrymandering -- drawing Congressional districts to be noncompetitive -- that has always been with us but has today been refined to an art form. Where the major parties are not competitive, candidates need only win their primaries, which means they must cater to their party's fringe elements. As a result, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are going the way of the dodo birds.

Another apparent reason is the segmentation of the news media. Not so long ago, most of us got our news from mainstream outlets -- the major networks, newspapers and news magazines -- that generally endeavored to present both sides of every story. Now most citizens find it easy to obtain their information from outlets that cater to their biases. Over time, they naturally become more rigid in their opinions and resistant to opposing views.

Still another reason is the Internet -- a veritable wasteland of misinformation and nonsense that reaches the public unfiltered. The Internet is a powerful tool for conveying information, but it is like a Wild West saloon on Saturday night when the sheriff is out-of-town. Say what you will about the mainstream media, most of the old line news outlets employed editors and fact checkers who reviewed stories for accuracy and relevance. These, too, apparently have gone to join the dodos.

I share the widespread skepticism of Obamacare -- 2,000 pages of gobbledygook that will spawn mass confusion and take years to work out. But it was adopted by Congress, signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court. It is the law of the land. To shut down our government in protest over Obamacare is the triumph of extremism over common sense. We desperately need legislators who know how to compromise -- in order to govern.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.