Since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans and their Tea Party challengers made Obama’s defeat their overriding goal, and when they couldn’t do that, they did everything they could to make him seem like a total failure, an example of politics gone completely awry. To accomplish those goals, they refused to give him any victories – not on infrastructure, not on economic stimulus, not on judicial nominations and they tried to retract his success with the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic Congress.
The Republican decision that nothing could go forward without support of a majority of the Republicans in each house of Congress gave power to a majority of their caucus but a minority of Americans. Had dissenting Republicans been able to vote their conscience, some real negotiation would have been possible. The harsh stance driven by the Tea Party was a form of power play by a determined minority that got its hands on a way to block the congressional majority from even bringing bills to the floor. It was not a prelude to negotiation and it was not an example of democracy at work.
On the other side of the political spectrum, many Sanders supporters argued that they could take nothing less than Sanders or a third party – even if it made a Trump victory more likely.
In this era of my-way-or-the-highway politics, it needs to be explained why democracy is and should be about compromise.
If a majority can do anything, or a majority of representatives, can do whatever they wish, then one portion of the population can be left with virtually nothing. That may be majority rule. But it has nothing to do with fairness or equality. Democracy gets its moral authority from taking everyone’s interests and needs into account. We routinely talk about the combination of majority rule and minority rights. Merely giving the majority the power to exercise power over everyone else is a definition of tyranny, not democracy. Where bargaining is possible, even small or unpopular groups can get some recognition of their needs. Where bargaining is possible, even permanent minorities can get some modicum of decent treatment. Without bargaining, permanent minorities can be stripped of virtually everything. Bargaining gives some meaning to the ideal of equality. The willingness to work things out has always been one of the things that had made America a leader of the free world.
The Founders of this country tried to force some degree of compromise by the different ways they constructed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War the struggle to reach compromises was all about slavery and freedom, the rare area where compromise ultimately became as impossible as it was immoral. After the war, a spirit of compromise reemerged so that America could deal with conflicts between rural and urban areas and other issues.
Sometimes compromise works better than others. Some of us remember within our own lifetimes when absolutely nothing could be done if it included any benefits for African-Americans, and the use of the filibuster to prevent any breach in the wall of segregation.
Many astute observers of democratic government point out that the system works best and most fairly when the needs of different groups of people overlap – disagreeing on some, agreeing on others. That gives groups an incentive to bargain so that everybody gets a fair shake. Even so-called nonnegotiable demands can sometimes be balanced against other similarly important demands of other groups.
Civil war becomes more likely when democracy becomes a contest over nonnegotiable demands that are beyond any form of bargaining. Democracy does not have to be a zero-sum game, where some win the brass ring and the rest merely polish the brass.
Americans need to relearn the art of compromise. Our democracy and our country will be better for it.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 13, 2016.