The recent federal government shutdown and the national debt ceiling debacles painfully point out just how dysfunctional our politics have become. The art of compromise has been lost in Washington, and voters don’t like it. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported a record number of Americans, 60 percent, would replace every member of Congress if given the opportunity. That is a bipartisan supermajority, and demonstrates that citizens can agree on at least something.
Thank you, Congress, for bringing America together!
POLITICAL DISAGREEMENTS are to be expected, but why do so many citizens refuse to compromise politically? We learn to compromise in other facets of our lives. We compromise with our spouses, children, bosses and co-workers. We make financial compromises every day – which car to buy; new patio or kids’ college fund; steak or hamburger, etc. We are comfortable with compromise in much of our lives, but too many of us refuse to compromise in politics.
Those who refuse to compromise likely get great satisfaction from their righteous indignation. They may see politics as some great spectator sport, cheering for their favored party, trashing the opponents and criticizing the referees.
ANOTHER REASON people refuse political compromise is they listen exclusively to MSNBC or Fox News. Along with talk radio, these networks pander to their audiences to increase advertising revenues. Within their respective media echo chambers, there is no need for hyper-partisans to compromise, because their political views are not only confirmed, but strengthened.
Politicians capitalize on the passion of the political extremes. With great oratorical fervor they promise unachievable political goals. From the left there will be no reduction in entitlements. From the right comes no increases in taxes.
Now, how is that math going to work? It doesn’t, and the politicians know it. And they know they must compromise. But too much of the electorate actually believes politicians’ impossible promises. Citizens get into such an angry frenzy that politicians lose the ability to make reasoned compromise. They become hostages to their supporters to whom they promised too much, and are forced into playing budget roulette. Only at the last minute can they compromise and still maintain their political pride.
The result of these repeated bipartisan kabuki dances is that financial markets become turbulent, corporations are unable to plan and invest, and the economy and job growth are shackled by shutdowns and fiscal stalemates.
OUR ALLIES WONDER what is wrong with America. China, the world’s second-largest economy, has called for the U.S. dollar to be replaced as the international reserve currency, and for broader steps to create a “de-Americanized world” because of our political impasse.
We make China’s case for them. We pay a huge economic price and hurt our international prestige because of the repeated budget dramas. America is embarrassed by our collective inability to compromise and conduct business like adults.
Otto von Bismarck, considered the father of modern Germany, wisely stated: “Politics is the art of the possible.” He didn’t say it is the art of getting everything you want, or even getting most of what you want. It may be getting very little of what you want, but that may be the best you can do.
ALTHOUGH BOTH parties are poor compromisers, Americans have concluded that Republicans and the Tea Party are worse. In the same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll discussed above, the Republican Party was blamed for the shutdown by 53 percent of respondents, while 31 percent blamed President Obama. This is a devastating 22 percent margin, greater than the blame laid on Republicans after the 1995-1996 shutdowns. Twenty-four percent of citizens had a favorable view of Republicans, and only 21 percent had a favorable view of the Tea Party. Both are all-time lows.
A recent survey of Republican and Tea Party focus groups provides insight into why social conservatives find it difficult to compromise. Bottom line, they are traumatized because their world is changing too fast. They were not ready for a black president, significantly increased legal and illegal Hispanic population, and the brutal effects on the working and middle classes of globalization and the financial crisis.
White social conservatives’ perception that their world is irrevocably changing is correct. As further confirmation, the Census Bureau reports whites will no longer be the majority in America in 30 years. Many are unable to compromise politically in the face of this existential threat to society as they know it, and that drives their intransigence.
Perhaps because the Tea Party largely consists of political novices, they seem more interested in pure ideology than in winning elections. They have nominated far-right candidates who have proved unelectable in general elections.
DEMOCRATIC U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, Chris Coons and Harry Reid were elected because Tea Party-supported Republican candidates were too extreme. Wouldn’t the Tea Party have preferred electable conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats?
The Tea Party needs to grow in political maturity or become inconsequential. Political power requires winning elections, not just passionate expression of ideology. If the Tea Party is to succeed, it must soften its strident views and develop appeal beyond its current base.
And the first step toward political power is to compromise with mainstream Republicans. The Tea Party has damaged the entire Republican Party with its misguided campaign to repeal/defund Obamacare. The NBC/WSJ poll results are only an initial indication of the damage incurred on Republicans by the Tea Party.
Mainstream Republicans have work to do as well. They have become intimidated by the fear of a primary challenge from the right, and have given far more deference to the Tea Party than their ideology and numbers deserve. They need to stand up to the Tea Party to preserve a Republican brand that traditionally has appealed to a broader spectrum of voters.
In politics, compromise is not a bad word. Losing is a bad word.
(The writer is a retired U.S. Navy officer. He lives and writes in Savannah.)