Dec 28 2013

Governing only by finding common ground is irrational and disserves the public interest


Reform Party of California Commentary

Sometime in 2006-2010 the Republican party apparently decided that for congress at least, compromise was no longer an acceptable way to arrive at legislation or to govern. With the relatively complete ideological polarization and separation of the two parties, the concept of compromise was seen as capitulation with evil (the comments on good and evil are at 7:00-8:30 of the 47-minute taped segment). Because of that, compromise was not an acceptable way to govern. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made that very clear in a December 2010 interview on 60 Minutes (his comments on compromise are at 8:16-8:50 of the 14-minute taped segment; a transcript of Boehner’s comments is here).

It is now common for republicans and the press to describe legislation as resulting from finding common ground, but not from compromise. The recently passed budget bill, the first in several years, is an example of how politics is now being conducted. The “common ground” that the new budget is partly (mostly?) based on comes from slowed military pension growth, which is apparently something that both sides were willing to accept as the price for increased spending elsewhere in the legislation.

The new governing profile as presented to the American people by the two parties and the press raises profound questions. This new way to govern is irrational and it does not serve the public interest particularly well. In the context of American history, compromise has always been a key factor. Without it, congress’ already feeble capacity to govern is further weakened because, as Mr. Boehner put it “I made clear I am not going to compromise on — on my principles…” Since there many principles out there, there are many things that cannot be compromised.

Not compromising on principles means not compromising on ideology and that means rejecting out of hand policy compromise-based policy options that just happen to be the best. The Founding Fathers had to make many compromises on various principles to create the U.S. constitution. The Constitution is sometimes referred to as “a bundle of compromises.” If there had been no compromise among the founding Fathers, there would have been no Constitution and probably no single country as we now know it. There likely would be two or more smaller countries that may or may not include America’s current land mass.

From the Reform Party of California’s (RPCA) non-ideological, pragmatic point of view, what the republicans have unilaterally declared and the democrats have accepted is a new form of governance that elevates principle or ideology to a sacred, inviolate status. Since democrats in congress generally refuse to compromise on reductions in entitlement spending, their ideology on at least this point is basically the same as the republican’s stance. In essence, the American congress has transitioned to a governance style that takes compromise off the table as a tool and relies instead on the much less flexible and nuanced exercise of “finding common ground”.[1] That change has occurred in the face of a U.S. history of compromise, with compromise having been universally accepted and employed in governance right from the start.[2]

This transition represents major changes, unfortunately they are all for the worse. It puts ideology in politics on the same plane as ideology in religion. With that mindset, it is pointless to argue for policy options that require compromise, even if it is obvious that the best option for a given issue requires compromise. That is irrational. It sacrifices and subordinates service the public interest at the alter of service to sacred ideology.[3]

The arrogance of it all is impressive. Today’s towering self-righteous ideologues feel so highly about their ideology that they shield it from the evil of compromise. By contrast, those ancient fumblers and fuddy duddys, the Founding Fathers, never took that step. Think about that. Ideological differences between various Founding Fathers were just as deep and sincere as today’s differences but they compromised nonetheless.

Other questions about congress’ new operating system leap out and scream for answers. If this kind of governance does not serve the public interest well, then what interests are being served? In the RPCA’s opinion, this new way serves the status quo first and foremost, particularly including the two parties grip on power. People in congress know full well that most Americans want political compromise if that is what it takes to get things done. Again, there is more than just a hint of arrogance here. What the American people appear to want is secondary to what ideologues in congress demand. This is just another example of how and why ideology in politics is undesirable and generally ineffective, which is a point the RPCA continually makes and will continue to raise.

The only way to inflict meaningful change on an intransigent and arrogant two-party system is to simply walk away from it and work within a new political framework that offers meaningful, common sense options focused on service to the public interest. The non-ideological pragmatism the RPCA offers is an example of that kind of politics. Without that kind of a shift away from the status quo, we will continue to get weak, constrained governance from common ground instead of creatively and flexibly using all tools at our disposal.[4] Put another way how do you want your politics served, your way or theirs?


1. The distinction between finding common ground and compromising is arguably unclear. Common ground can be described as a foundation of common interest or comprehension, as in a social relationship or a discussion. A compromise can be defined as a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. Although the recent budget deal is characterized in the press as resulting from finding common ground, it looks an awful lot like there was more compromising that common ground finding. Specifically, democrats compromised on their larger goal of increasing spending to protect the narrower priority of protecting entitlement spending, while (ii) republicans compromised on their larger goal of reducing spending to protect their sacred no new taxes ideology. Those compromises are why some on both sides complained about the budget deal. Regardless of the mix of factors involved, the budget bill arguably is weak because it is largely grounded in a mind set that rejects compromise. In other words, we got second or third best, not the best that could be attained from a mind set more open to all governance tools, including compromise.

2. Edmund Burke said this in 1775: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise.” There are at least two viewpoints from which compromise can be viewed, forward to what compromise will create and backward to what was conceded to get it. Despite that, the RPCA is not aware of an earlier widespread rejection of compromise as a valuable tool in intelligent governance.

3. Sacrifice in service to ideology might not be so bad if (i) the ideology happened to coincide with service to the public interest, which it sometimes does but usually does not and/or (ii) ideology did not have such a poor track record of performance. We have had decades of ideology-dominated politics and that has not yielded impressive results, to say the least. If ideology had been so great then why are we in the messes we are in?

4. The budget deal is an example of the weakness and constraint that finding common ground imposes. Since neither side was willing to compromise on their key ideological positions (entitlements for democrats and taxes for republicans), the budget bill puts us in a holding pattern. It does essentially nothing to get at the long-term fiscal problems we now face. That is another example of the two-party system’s failure to efficiently govern in service to the public interest.