Ben Franklin preached its virtues repeatedly through the long, hot summer of the Constitutional Convention. Ronald Reagan said he learned to value it while negotiating labor contracts as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. And Lyndon Johnson declared himself resolutely in favor, calling it essential “for the sake of nothing less than stability.”
Why is it so hard to compromise? Co-authors of “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It” Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson addressed this question at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on May 2. In a lively conversation moderated by Andrea Mitchell (C’67), Penn Trustee and anchor of NBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” Gutmann, who is Penn’s president, and Thompson, a professor of political science at Harvard University, outlined several key reasons why compromise seems to have become so much more difficult in our democracy—and why it’s more important now than ever in order to move the country forward.
“We are living in an era where compromise is a dirty word,” said Gutmann. “It’s not dead, but it’s on life support. It needs resuscitation.”
They said that the rejection of compromise is connected to a political climate in which campaigning takes precedence over governing. In an “era of the permanent campaign,” they said, governing becomes difficult as politicians hold fast to principles and mistrust each other.
“We are not against being uncompromising in campaigns. You really have to defeat your opponents,” explained Thompson. “We don’t want to turn campaigns into a compromising climate. The question is: How do you make that switch [to governing]?”
Special interest groups demand some members of Congress sign loyalty pledges to never raise taxes or never cut entitlement programs—actions that are misguided, Gutmann said.
“Absolute promises are very good for marriages,” she said. “They’re very bad for governing.”
Mitchell asked about the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling during the summer of 2011—a routine congressional act that had been done without fanfare more than 70 times in previous years. The weeks-long debate became a vivid example of the uncompromising mindset that Gutmann and Thompson say is largely to blame for congressional gridlock.
“This wasn’t a success story,” said Thompson. “The super committee didn’t use its super powers.”
Gutmann and Thompson emphasized that small gestures of mutual respect can go a long way to creating an atmosphere conducive to compromise.
“You don’t have to agree with people to respect them,” said Gutmann. “Mutual respect is the coin of the realm of governing.”
More than 200 people attended the event and book signing. The authors also discussed “The Spirit of Compromise” on May 3 at the Penn Club of New York with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and will talk about it on June 6 in Washington with Judy Woodruff of “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” at the National Press Club. The Washington event is hosted by Third Way, a think tank devoted to bipartisan compromise.
Despite barriers, compromise is still possible, the authors said.
“The compromises that [the Founding Fathers] made—to make the Constitution a possibility—makes anything we would object to look easy, “ Gutmann said.
The Penn Current will feature a Q-and-A with Gutmann about the book in its May 10 issue.
Originally published on May 3, 2012