Compromise essence of our democracy


You may not be ready for next year’s elections, but in political time, they’re coming up fast. Which means that at some point you’re almost certain to hear someone announce, sternly, “I. Will. Not. Compromise.”

And if you’re there in the crowd and agree with his or her position, you may even join the applause.

Which is understandable, but let me tell you why, far from applauding that line, I shy from politicians who use it. In a democracy, being able to compromise — and knowing how — is a core skill for governing. Shouting “No Compromise!” may fire up the crowd, but it’s a recipe for failure when it comes to getting things done in office.

Legislative bodies do need members who set out pure ideological positions as part of the public dialogue. But if they’re allowed to control or dominate the process, nothing gets done. When pushed, most politicians understand that cooperation and working together to build consensus have to prevail in the end.

So why doesn’t it happen more? Because compromise is not easy, especially on issues of consequence, and especially today, when the country is so deeply divided and polarized. Even the word itself causes disagreement. To someone like me, it’s a way forward. To others, including a lot of voters, it’s a betrayal of principle.

The thing is, politicians never control the political environment in which they’re working. They have to seek the best solution given the cards they’ve been dealt.

This makes the kind of people you’re dealing with supremely important. You need counterparts who know they need to make the system work, and who take into consideration the broad concerns of the entire population.

In Central Park one day during World War II, Judge Learned Hand told an assembled crowd, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women.”

That is also the spirit of our representative democracy, and we need politicians who embrace it.

So when Americans complain about Congress not getting anything done, I have limited sympathy.

Congress struggles because it has members who don’t know how to compromise, are afraid to or don’t want to. And those members are there because we sent them there. In other words, we share the blame.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].

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