I’m hoping this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but we don’t all agree on everything.  In fact, it’s a miracle if we all agree on anything.  So how do we get anything done?  The answer is so obvious that it’s silly—it’s called compromise.  We all do this in small ways every day, just to live—with our spouse, with co-workers, with tennis partners, with members of any group we work with.


So why is it so hard for our politicians to understand that and put together compromise legislation that moves us forward?  Even wings of the same party can’t seem to successfully compromise—look at the Republicans inability to produce legislation to either fix or replace the ACA (aka Obamacare).  There have always been ideologues, but somehow in the past, we got unstuck.  In the 19th century, Henry Clay was able to forge compromises between the North’s Daniel Webster and the South’s John Calhoun.  There were compromises in the Constitution; there was a compromise between Hamilton and Jefferson about the assumption of the States’ Revolutionary War debts by the Federal government.  Is anything different today?


I think two major changes have occurred.  First, the ever-increasing amount of gerrymandering of districts has shifted the focus of an elected Congressman (or Congresswoman). Instead of trying to gather centrist votes in his district to beat the opposition party, the focus is now on protecting his flank against someone more extreme in his own party in the primaries.  Most everyone realizes that gerrymandering is a problem, but it is often looked upon as a problem protecting incumbents and hampering challengers.  Not everyone sees this also as a major force preventing compromise on legislation between the two major parties.


Second, the rise of new media because of cable TV and the Internet, has enabled people to listen almost exclusively to people with their own viewpoints, and never hear the opposite side of a debate.  The loudest, shrillest voices are often from those with the most extreme position.  Compromise is only possible when you understand what the other party wants, and why he wants it.  You may still disagree with it, but if you at least hear the rationale, you may be able to think of compromises that will work for both parties, even if not ideally for either.  But if you don’t hear anything but the echo of your own voice, how can you compromise, and indeed, what possible reason is there for compromise?


The first of the above problems, extremes in gerrymandering, is one that the nation should tackle.  But it won’t be raised by either political party, because they are at least satisfied, if not happy, with it.   Without support of either party or of elected officials, it will be a long battle, though certainly one worth fighting.  The second problem has no solution.

But there is a solution to the problem of compromise, besides fixing one of the two abovementioned problems.  Imagine a third, Centrist party that held 6 or 7 seats in the Senate, or 18 or so seats in the House.  That would probably be enough to prevent either Democrats or Republicans from having a majority in its chambers.  Legislation could only be passed by the proposing party by courting the votes of the Centrists.  I can think of no better way of forcing compromise.  The centrists would not have to worry about being outflanked in primaries, either to the right or the left, because the major parties would do that regardless.  They could actually vote in Congress for what is best for the country, not best for their party or for their individual career.


Their presence, and their votes, in Congress, would also force the two parties closer to the center.  If the Republicans proposed a bill, and the Democrats, not liking it, knew that it could pass with Republicans and Centrists ignoring them, they might be more reasonable in presenting their own demands.  And of course it would be equally true in the opposite scenario.


Politics is not football.  Every game does not have to have a winning team and a losing team.  Let’s let the fans win one.

9 thoughts on “The Need for Compromise

  1. I’m struggling to think of an example of a truly centrist party, either in contemporary politics or history. Can you think of one? If yes, was it successful at doing what you are hypothesizing here? If not, why do you think no centrist party has ever formed, and what would be the right conditions for overcoming those obstacles?

    Fodder for a future post (or two)!


    1. I think En Marche in France right now is a good example. The conditions were that the two traditional parties had completely collapsed (more than here) and economic and social unrest were more prominent.

      Kadima in Israel tried this – I can’t remember how successful it has been. I feel like some of the German parties verge on this, but I don’t know that system well enough, plus a multi-party system of coalition building is clearly different than a new party trying to break into a duopoly.

      But it is interesting to note how small a centrist party would have to be in the US to hold the balance of power in Congress.


      1. I think Macron is a very good example. Because the two dominant French parties were so exhausted, Macron could win a national leadership position, with a party still in formation. I believe that would be close to impossible here, but starting at the state/Congressional level, building a party structure over time, we could get to the Presidential level.


  2. Your two points are spot on, and it’s true (and remarkable) how few people would need to be in that third party to make a difference. Look at the Senate right now. There are a small handful of senators from each party who could defect to a third party together and hold all of the power.


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