When Did Compromise Become a “Basic Principle”?

July 19th, 2011

New York Times editors argue that compromise is a “basic principle” of democracy:

It used to be that a sworn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution was the only promise required to become president. But that no longer seems to be enough for a growing number of Republican interest groups, who are demanding that presidential candidates sign pledges shackling them to the corners of conservative ideology. Many candidates are going along, and each pledge they sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.

Sven Wilson responds:

But I don’t think any sensible political theorists would say that compromise is a bedrock principle of democratic government. To do so is to deny that there are bedrock principles that one should fight for in a democracy. The Times claim is the ultimate in political cynicism, in which nothing matters except political expediency.

Many of those who make the claim that compromise is a principle are really just centrists using disingenuous rhetoric to advance their policy views. Instead of justifying and arguing for a centrist position, they tout a supposed moral authority by claiming that compromise—in itself—is the goal, something that responsible statesmen do to serve the public interest.

Absolutely right. I don’t think the people who wrote this editorial would enjoy the implications of what they argue; if compromise is a basic principle of democratic government, something we should strive for, then we should be willing to violate other principles to seek it. For example, groups advocating that we restrict the rights of Muslims should be compromised with—we should meet somewhere in the middle, they give some ground in their position and we give some in ours, and we’ll agree to a middle ground between us.

The end result of that compromise, of course, would be the violation of Muslim citizens’ rights. Less so than the groups in favor of it advocated, yes, but is that a compromise worth seeking?

Giving any ground on that issue is morally wrong, because there’s actual principles at play: individual rights.

Compromise is not a principle. It is a tactic used to secure an improvement in the status quo when the preferred solution isn’t possible.

This editorial was written in response to a pledge most Republicans in Congress have made not to raise taxes. The editors see this pledge as “pernicious” and the single-biggest reason Democrats and Republicans have not reached an agreement on raising the debt ceiling.

The editors think this pledge is repugnant because it stands in the way of compromise on the issue, their basic principle. In this case, the editors are right for the wrong reasons; Republicans should compromise their pledge not to increase taxes for the better good—the deal offered by the White House would have meant serious cuts in entitlement spending and, of course, we would continue to make good on our debts.

But it is wrong to argue that a political pledge is repugnant. Republicans pledged not to raise taxes during the 2010 campaign and they won a sizable victory over Democrats. Now, they are sticking to that pledge—and they are being demonized for making good on their campaign promises. There’s a bit of damned if you do, damned if you don’t here; we routinely chastise politicians for their post-election amnesia of their campaign promises, and accuse them of making those promises just to get votes, but now that politicians are actually doing what they said they would, people are outraged.