By Alan Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
FEBRUARY 2021—“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” President Joe Biden said during his inaugural address last month. “Let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.”
Actions speak louder than words, as the old saying goes, but words can lay the groundwork for action. Biden’s words serve as a reminder that our system of government—our free society—cannot work if we are not willing to compromise.
“Compromise” has become a dirty word in American politics, which is a real problem. After all, the Founders crafted a system premised on three co-equal branches of government and co-equal state and federal governments. In other words, no branch of government, no committee of Congress, no senator or representative, no president, no federal agency, no judge, no state, no governor is entrusted with all the power. “Madison,” as George Will has written, “created a constitutional regime that, by its structure, created competing power centers and deprived any of them of the power to impose its will on the others.”
Compromise, in other words, is baked into our system—an essential ingredient for making America’s government work.
But the Founders did more than simply build a compromise-based system; they modeled it for us. The Constitution they crafted is not only an invitation to compromise; it’s an exquisite example of compromise between divergent views of government: Some of the Founders wanted a strong union, with a strong central government that could be wielded to act on behalf of a growing nation, while others wanted power to reside in the states and sought to limit the power and reach of the central government. Yet both groups recognized they had to give a little in order to build a new country and then govern it. And both wanted the new government’s “competing power centers” to seek common ground.
This doesn’t mean we should all join hands and sing Kumbaya. But it does mean we should stop and listen to one another, as the president said. We cannot do that if everyone is shouting or protesting or marching or tweeting. And we cannot do that if we reduce the people with whom we disagree to the status of enemy. In our system, the political minority should not be treated like a conquered foe and should never act like a band of guerillas; the political majority should not be viewed as an occupying foreign force and should never act like a king; and neither group should view the other as an enemy. We have real enemies in this world—enemies that want to kill us, enemies that want to destroy our political-economic system, enemies that want to prevent us from worshipping any god, enemies that want to make us worship their god, enemies that want to upend our way of life—and those who voted for the other guy in the last election don’t deserve that label.
As Jefferson put it, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” which means there is a time for compromise.
To be sure, compromise is not easy when one party thinks government is doing too much and spending too much—and needs to shrink—and the other thinks government isn’t doing enough or spending enough—and needs to grow. But the Founders show that compromise can work—even on really big issues—and must be attempted.
Cavemen and Statesmen
Of course, we don’t have to reach back to the Founders for examples of how to compromise without abandoning principle.
Not long ago, a self-described FDR Democrat who rose to become a prominent governor explained that “to accomplish what I wanted to do swimming upstream against a current of opposition legislators, I’d have to do some negotiating.” He noted that members of his own party “wanted all or nothing…all at once” and “wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted.” Even so, he cut deals on spending and the size of government programs—deals that both sides could see as a win. “If you got 75 or 80 percent of what you were asking for,” he observed, “you take it and fight for the rest later.”
Then there’s the example of a first-term Republican president who made compromise deals with a Democratic Speaker of the House on spending, taxes and Social Security. “Each of us had to compromise one way or another,” the president said. “But the essence of bipartisanship is to give up a little in order to get a lot.”
And finally, there’s the even more recent example of the hardline, hawkish statesman who negotiated from a position of strength, offered America’s oldest enemy a path away from confrontation, hammered out agreements that built confidence and spurred cooperation, coaxed that enemy toward peace, and ultimately steered America to victory. “A half a loaf is better than none,” he explained, before adding, “I am very stubborn…I come back and ask for more the next time around.”
Each of these men—the FDR Democrat who became a prominent governor, the deal-making first-term Republican president, the hawkish statesman—was Ronald Reagan. He never compromised on his core values, and his compromises never diverted him away from his goals. But he understood that compromise is not a dirty word. And so, he listened to Tip O’Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev and anyone else who was willing to talk about making our world a little better.
After calling Reagan a “feeble-minded caveman” and “political dinosaur” following their initial meetings, Gorbachev came to realize Reagan was “a great president…a statesman who, despite all disagreements that existed between our countries at the time, displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better.”
O’Neill said of the deals he and Reagan negotiated: “It shows, as the president said, the system does work.”
Indeed, it does. But the system our Founders gave us only works when both sides listen and learn from one another. The system does more than invite compromise; it requires compromise.