Watching Capitol Hill these days, I’m often struck by how issues that were present at the dawn of our Republic continue to reverberate. In the very first session of Congress, when members had to grapple with how to make the new government work, they also had to come to grips with how they themselves could work together. This wasn’t easy.
They came from different regions, with different concerns and sensibilities. They had their own, deeply rooted personal beliefs. And even at such an early moment in our history, they were divided by their political agendas. Yet, wrote historian Robert Remini a few years ago, “The members disagreed at times, and even quarreled, but never to the point of creating irreconcilable factions within the House. This cooperation and harmony … was essential in the beginning. The members knew it, and therefore worked together to provide a proper start to this ‘new experiment in freedom.’” Politicians who knew how to compromise, in other words, were vital to the survival of our young democracy.
They’re no less important today, though you wouldn’t guess this if you’ve been paying attention to this year’s campaigns. Politicians running for office don’t talk about compromise much — except to sneer at it. They know that voters like decisive statements about principle. And, ever the optimists, they spend their time on the stump hoping that the election will bring an overwhelming victory to their point of view, so that compromise won’t be necessary once they’re in office.
You already know where this is headed. That doesn’t happen much; decisive elections are rare. It’s much more common to find houses divided or — especially in the Senate — majorities that aren’t nearly big enough to avoid the need for one side to deal with the other. Indeed, even should one side get a comfortable majority, our complex system of checks and balances, the Constitution’s dispersal of power, and procedural obstacles to protect the minority would come into play, making it difficult in most cases to avoid the necessity of compromise.
Even more important, there is a vast difference between campaigning and actually governing. While they’re campaigning, politicians tend to concentrate on those who agree with them ideologically — they want to “fire up the base” and present as stark a difference as possible with their opponents. But this requires a different mindset from the one required once you’re in office: when you’re campaigning, you have no interest in compromise; when you have to legislate, scorched-earth tactics just alienate the people you have to work with. Yet it’s often hard for politicians to change mindsets.
This is not to say that standing on principle is wrong. Sometimes it is the appropriate and proper stance for a politician to take. But let’s be clear: taking that position has consequences. We’ve seen what happens when the two parties in Congress back themselves into their respective corners and refuse to allow their members to find common ground: governing well and effectively becomes next to impossible. Our problems don’t get resolved. If all politicians were to take the position that they’re going to stick to their views no matter what and not compromise, it would create gridlock. The status quo would never change.
Congress’ historically low standing in the polls these days stems from the widespread perception that it’s unable to act, even in the face of immense challenges at home and abroad. That is why the most important political skill in the country today is the ability to seek and find a consensus about ways to remedy the problems facing us — and to convince both one’s political opponents and one’s allies that it’s the proper way to move forward. This is a skill that’s in short supply today, yet we cannot govern this country unless politicians compromise.
There’s one other group of people who also need convincing: ordinary citizens. Our country seems to be growing ever more divided at a time when, more than anything else, we need to give our politicians room to be politicians, not standard-bearers. The men and women we elect to office need to be able to govern without worrying that if they make concessions or even enter into negotiations with the other side, they’ll be voted out of office in their party’s primary.
This requires a more sophisticated understanding of the role of compromise than the partisan commentators and activists who help shape our political debate would like to see. But without it, our government won’t work. It’s as simple as that.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.