Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What's so bad about compromise?

The political climate in America is anti-compromise.  Democratic voters are angry with President Obama for a series of compromises he has made with Republicans, starting with Healthcare (dropped the public option), followed by taxes (breaks for the wealthy), and culminating with the federal budget.  Historically, Republicans in Congress have never been big on compromise, and voters are warning politicians not to give in now either.  The result is a political stalemate on pretty much every major issue.

Political Parties in the US - from the Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to recall a vote on significant legislation that wasn’t along strict party lines in either chamber of Congress (refer to voting records here and here).  Congress was intentionally set up with rules that make it exceedingly difficult to pass (or in some cases even vote on) legislation that doesn’t have the support of a super majority.  However, America is pretty evenly divided between the parties which makes super majorities almost impossible to achieve.  Thus Congress ends up being dysfunctional, no matter what party controls it.

Americans love to blame Washington politics for this dysfunction.  But I believe the blame actually rests with Americans themselves.  Recent polls on the budget debate show that 1 in 3 Americans would rather have the government shut down than compromise on their principles.  Within the Republican party, the number jumps to 1 in 2.  President Obama has seen a steady drop in his marks for leadership as he continues to compromise on major issues.  A large number of Americans want their elected officials to stand firm on their principles and avoid compromise.  When elected officials listen, the result is a vote along strict party lines for a biased piece of legislation (at best) or a complete legislative impasse (at worst).

Ironically, most leadership surveys (such as the one linked above) use words like “strong” and “decisive” when asking the polling questions.  A leader who is willing to compromise is seen as weak and indecisive (a.k.a. flip flopper).  The leadership surveys themselves need to be fixed.  Strong and decisive leadership is critical on the battlefield, but in politics it translates into “stubborn” and "narrowminded”.  Leadership of a large and diverse country is not about stubbornly sticking to your personal idea of what is best.  It’s about listening to everyone, weighing everyone’s point of view, weighing outside factors that people aren't even aware of, and arriving at a compromise that does what is best for everyone as a whole.  This type of leadership is not only lacking in Washington, it is actively discouraged.  We can’t blame “politics as usual” for our problems when we are the ones creating the politics in the first place.

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