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.