Democracy and Compromise

September 13, 2016

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.

 


Grateful on the Fourth of July

July 7, 2015

As we celebrated the Fourth of July I found myself thinking back to a trip my wife and I made to visit friends on Long Island by way of the Ferry. We knew that there was a ceremony taking place at my alma mater, Yale Law School, for the swearing in of Judge Calabresi to take his seat on the federal Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was coming to perform the ceremony. And one of my classmates was already on the Court and would be there. So it would be a great party.

Judge Calabresi had been one of my teachers. His appointment to the Court was the occasion for his resigning as Dean of the Law School, a position he’d held for a decade. When it was his turn to speak, Judge Calabresi described how he and his family had left Italy in the early days of World War II when he was young. Calabresi is one of the most gifted and eloquent speakers I know and he described how America had been ready to give people like him – an immigrant and a Jew – an opportunity when they arrived. And he spoke about how he hoped to continue that tradition as a Judge, to be able to extend the benefits America had to offer to others, whether new to our shores or people we have been calling minorities.

My father and I were lucky to be born here but my mother and my grandparents were not. Looking around, the world could only impress me with the great good fortune of being born an American, in an age when America was prepared to extend opportunities to people like me as it did for Calabresi. Looking around now, we have visions of genocide on several continents. The sanctuary of America is such a special blessing. It is no wonder that so many want to come.

Like Calabresi, though not nearly as eloquent a spokesman, I grew up wanting to share and extend those blessings. I grew up understanding instinctively the blessing of what before the feminist revolution we used to call brotherhood – I keep looking for a good successor to the warmth and humanity of that term. The understanding that we are all God’s children, that none of us is an island, that the world we want for ourselves depends on extending the benefits of that world to others, is our heritage, our glory and our security.

But those glories have been hard won and have never been secure. In our own generations we have struggled to extend the benefits of America to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants from the various struggles of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After the Supreme Court declared segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, cities all over the country, tore down the areas where minorities lived, destroyed their communities, declared them unworthy of investment, and the federal government financed white, but not black movement to the new suburbs, a move that took the jobs too, leaving in their wake poor, dysfunctional communities where once decent, striving, and thankful communities had once stood.

America has been good to me. I do not take it for granted. I want to recognize, encourage and support decent people of all colors and languages. Truly they add to the strength and the glory of this country, and brotherhood adds to the security of all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 7, 2015.


A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


Tears for Ukrainian Democracy

May 13, 2014

Let’s return to Ukraine once more.

Americans cheered at former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster. Here’s why that was a mistake.

When Yanukovych decided not to sign the pact with the EU, Ukrainians had several options. Two constitutional processes were available. They could have tried to impeach him. Or they could have defeated him at the polls. Yanukovych was elected for a five year term in 2010. Elections were scheduled for March 2015. They could have waited the extra year. Those were democratic ways to deal with disappointment with him.

Instead, Ukrainians who wanted to join the EU took to the streets. They had every right to demonstrate. Demonstrations are the democratic form of protest. But the crowds wanted more – not just to make their views known and felt, they wanted to settle the matter before and outside of elections. In an election they would have had to allow people they disagreed with to vote. That of course would have given legitimacy to the result. It might also have meant some compromise. Sharing the ballot and compromise are essential in democracy, though there are plenty who don’t get that point even here. Read the rest of this entry »


What Makes American Democracy Successful?

December 24, 2013

We are justly proud of democracy in America. But what makes a democracy morally great and what makes it successful?

Many countries have elections but aren’t successful democracies. Their elections are about which families will reap the spoils of election victories. Successful democracies focus on taking care of the whole peoples of their countries. Lincoln spoke about government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Speaking about democracy, we often concentrate on government “of … [and] by the people.” But Lincoln’s last clause – “for the people” – defines the difference between success and failure; between government and kleptocracies; between governments that get things done and governments that imitate the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich.  Read the rest of this entry »


Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

October 8, 2013

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own? Read the rest of this entry »


The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »


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