Rescuing Compromise

Jonathan Rauch

Fall 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to legislative gridlock and fiscal meltdown in the past few years. In paralyzed, polarized Washington, where Democrats refuse to reduce spending without revenue increases that Republicans peremptorily reject, Democrats have accepted spending cuts, Republicans have accepted tax increases, and deficits have come down.

It is true that all of that happened in an ugly, piecemeal fashion, with the two parties lurching from one self-created crisis to another. At one stage, Republicans seemed willing to default on the national debt rather than compromise; at another, an automatic "sequestration" cut spending in what everyone agreed was a nonsensical fashion. Instead of joining hands in the grand bargain so ardently desired by pundits and much of the public, Congress and President Obama fought their way through a series of stopgaps, each of them greeted as disappointing if not appalling.

Yet the results bear pondering. The cumulative effect of Washington's serial muddling has been to stabilize the national debt as a share of gross domestic product over the coming decade, according to Congressional Budget Office projections. The resulting level, by many accounts, is still too high, and more remains to be done about long-term increases in health-care spending and other entitlement costs. But the near-term debt emergency is over.

To get here, Congress cut spending by about $2.6 trillion over ten years, and raised taxes by about $700 billion (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). After adjusting for padding and assorted gimmicks on the spending side, that ratio of spending cuts to tax increases looks remarkably close to the ratio of between 2-to-1 and 3-to-1 recommended by many of the mainstream economists and pundits who called for a grand bargain.

And at least as important, all of that fiscal tightening happened at a pace that slowed but did not abort a delicate economic recovery. Too much deficit reduction would have caused a recession, aggravating the debt problem; too little would have left the underlying crisis untended. Unlike Europe, America seemed to have gotten both the pace and the magnitude of the fiscal adjustment about right.

In short, the system acquitted itself quite well, and better than any of the individual actors within it — steering a course between hostile political factions and dangerous economic outcomes. Somewhere, James Madison is smiling.

Madison understood something that many contemporary political commentators forget: Politicians, like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to. So he modeled a system that would compel them to bargain. Looking at the budget battles of the past few years, he would not be surprised to see stubbornness, partisanship, and rancor. He saw his share of those in the scorching political strife of the 1790s. But he might have been pleasantly surprised to see that, more than 200 years on, the system he helped design to force compromise is still working.

That cheerful narrative, however, is not the only way to see the events of the past few years. There is an alternative story, one in which Madison and the Constitution are not vindicated but betrayed. In this story, compromise has led to a triumph not of the Constitution but over it: a victory for self-serving politicians eager to expand the federal government and their own power far beyond the bounds Madison and the other founders imagined. Compromise, in this story, undermines, rather than underlies, the constitutional order, and the results of the budget debates of the past few years traduce rather than transmit the founders' vision.

Neither of those stories is by any means new. Both reach back to the founders' own era. But the second story, the one that would have patriots draw a line against compromise when the size of government is at issue, has lately enjoyed a major resurgence advanced by a prominent political insurgency — namely the Tea Party and its kin.

This argument, which has claimed for itself the mantle of constitutionalism in our politics, demands an answer in the form of a vigorous conservative and constitutionalist case for compromise. Compromise is not merely a political expedient; it is a republican virtue — indeed, a cardinal virtue, according to no less a conservative luminary than Edmund Burke, who insisted that "All government, indeed every human bene-fit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter." In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.


The Constitution was designed to do many things at once. Modern conservatives who say it set limits on the power of government are correct. Modern progressives who say it created a flexible framework to promote the general welfare are also correct. Those who say it established federal supremacy are as correct as those who say it safeguarded the sovereignty of the states.

The foremost thing it does, however, is embodied in its structure, rather than its text. It forces politicians to compromise, by creating competing power centers and depriving any of them of the power to impose its will on the others. The resulting system is often referred to as one of "checks and balances," but that phrase, as William Connelly, Jr., notes in his 2010 book James Madison Rules America, fails to do justice to both the intricacy and the dynamism of the constitutional order.

The Constitution forces compromise not merely between the branches, levels, and institutions of government but also within each of them, and within each of the parties that populate them. Members of the majority party in each chamber of Congress must negotiate with one another to garner votes, and members of the minority party must negotiate with one another about whether to cooperate with the majority or obstruct it. "Factions within each party constantly fight over whether they are part of the government or part of the opposition," writes Connelly. "The majority party in Congress is not the government, nor is the minority party merely the opposition, whether under conditions of divided government or even under conditions of so-called united party government. Neither Democrats nor Republicans govern; rather, the Constitution governs."

For its part, the executive, though more unitary than Congress, must constantly alternate between cooperation and conflict with the opposition party, and between solidarity and "triangulation" with its own allies. And all the participants must dance with ever-shifting congeries of interest groups. Even individual politicians balance competing roles, playing the loyal partisan foot soldier one day and the self-interested political entrepreneur the next. Politics in Madison's system is a constant struggle for balance. Case-by-case compromise generally supersedes durable coalitions. Absent a rare (and usually unsustainable) supermajority, there is simply not much that any single faction, interest, or branch of government can do. Effective action in this system is nothing but a series of forced compromises.

Why arrange things in such an apparently chaotic and unstable way? Why should every little thing involve negotiation and coalition building? The architects of the Constitution had two reasons in mind, only one of which is well appreciated today.

The better known reason was famously explained by Madison himself: Setting faction against faction, ambition against ambition, and interest against interest can help contain the excesses to which unopposed faction, ambition, and self-interest will run. Madison's greatest insight was the counterintuitive proposition that the remedy for political predation is not less politics but more. No mere "parchment barriers," as he says in Federalist No. 48, could contain ambition; the only effective container is ambition itself. As markets enlist competition and exchange to direct and harness the energy of greed, so Madisonian politics enlists competition and compromise to direct and harness the energy of ambition.

The checking and balancing of power is the negative advantage, so to speak, of forcing compromise. It guards against tyranny. Less widely appreciated, but just as important, is a positive advantage: Compromise forces adaptation.

The founders had no way to know what sorts of problems the government they were designing might be called upon to cope with decades (and now centuries) in the future. They faced an apparently impossible conundrum: how to provide enough stability to make the system durable while also ensuring enough flexibility to let it adjust to changing circumstances. Their ingenious solution is the core of our system of government.

Periodic elections, of course, are an essential element. But what happens between elections? What happens when electoral results are ambiguous or produce deadlock? The Madisonian answer was to build constant adjustment into the system itself, by requiring constant negotiation among shifting constellations of actors. As Connelly notes, the idea that Madison and the founders sought to bias the system against change is only a half-truth; after the trauma of the Articles of Confederation, they were also interested in ensuring that the government would be sufficiently energetic. "[T]hey designed the constitutional separation of powers to promote stability and energy — to impede change and advance innovation." They wanted to discourage undue haste while encouraging essential reform.

Compromise was the mechanism they believed could allow for that difficult combination. Forcing actors to bargain and collaborate slows precipitous change while constantly making negotiators adjust their positions. Except over short intervals, stasis of the kind that afflicted so many monarchies and empires in the past is impossible in Madison's government. The requirement to bargain and find allies provides new ideas and entrants with paths into politics and ways to shake up the status quo. But that same requirement prevents upheaval by ensuring that no one actor can seize control, at least not for long.

Ingenious though it was, the two-edged constitutional system supports two quite different interpretations of its purpose. How was the country to understand it: as a brake on change, or as an engine of innovation? Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, and their successors have been arguing over that question ever since the first congress. But the man who played the most critical role in designing the system, James Madison, wanted it both ways.

Madison was first and foremost a practical politician, and a very skillful one. He saw the Constitution as a dynamic political mechanism, while today many Americans tend to see it as a substantive ideological statement. In Madison's dynamic framework, it matters less whether Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians have the right idea about government than that neither side ever finally prevails. Compromise, then, is not merely a necessary evil; it is a positive good, a balance wheel that keeps government moving forward instead of toppling.

Of course, this does not mean that compromise is admirable in every instance or person. The cliché about compromising, that whether it is good or bad depends on the compromise, is obviously true. But there is a crucial difference between virtue at the individual level and at the systemic level. What individuals may dislike (often rightly) in particular cases may nonetheless be good for the system, and for the country, in repeated instances over time. The Madisonian system neither requires nor desires that every individual should be a deal-cutting moderate. It assumes that people are entitled to strong beliefs and have every reason to enter negotiations reluctant to budge. Hard bargaining and adamantine opinion provide much of the energy that invigorates politics and forces new ideas into the system — provided, crucially, that the energy can be contained, mixed, and channeled through compromise.

At the end of the day, the Madisonian framework asks not that participants like compromising but that they do it — and, above all, that they recognize the legitimacy of the system that makes them do it. It asks them to acknowledge that the compromise-forcing constitutional structure is principled and admirable, even if some particular compromises are not.


Most Americans do in fact acknowledge the virtue of compromise as a general principle; polls have shown it again and again. The level of public support depends on how the question is asked, but the overall sentiment is not in doubt. For example, when people were asked in 2013 by the Pew Research Center whether they prefer elected officials who stick to their positions or those who make compromises with people they disagree with, respondents favored compromise by a margin of 50% to 44%. In 2011, when Gallup asked (using less neutral wording) whether it is more important for political leaders "to compromise in order to get things done" or "stick to their beliefs even if little gets done," compromise prevailed by 51% to 28%. If anything, the culture of compromise has strengthened in recent years. According to Pew, the preference for compromise has risen since 1987, and markedly since 2011.

There is, however, a counter-trend. Many polls find that today's Republicans differ in their attitude toward compromise from both Democrats and independents. Depending on how the question is asked, they are either significantly less supportive of it (they were split down the middle in the 2011 Gallup poll, with its compromise-friendly wording) or downright hostile to it (as with Pew's more neutral 2013 wording, which found Republicans preferring "stick to positions" over "make compromise" by a strong margin of 55% to 36%).

Significantly, the Tea Party movement is several notches more hostile to compromise than are Republicans in general. In 2010, when the Tea Party was in full flower, Pew found Republicans preferring "stick to positions" over "make compromise" by 59% to 36%. Among Tea Party sympathizers, however, the margin was an even more lopsided 71% to 22%.

I have interviewed many Tea Party supporters and leaders in the last few years. What comes across when they discuss their concerns is not just fiscal libertarianism and hostility to big government, though those are certainly defining strains. Nor, importantly, did I find extremism or radicalism as conventionally thought of; these are smart, successful people who have no interest in upending the social order as we know it. (In fact, they tend to think of themselves as seeking to protect the social order from government's efforts to usurp it.) They are not temperamentally opposed to compromise; in their daily lives, they do it all the time. Rather, they are ideologically opposed to compromise. They have made a reasoned judgment that compromise has served the country and the Constitution poorly.

It has served the country poorly, they say, by corrupting politicians who promise one thing and then go to Washington and do the opposite after being absorbed by the deal-making, log-rolling culture of politics as usual. Leaders who showed up swearing to master big government wind up serving it instead. Pushed to defend themselves, such craven politicians say "we didn't have the votes" or "at the end of the day, we had to get something done." This kind of Realpolitik, whatever its tactical merits, is a one-way ratchet toward ever bigger government. And it can hardly be rational to continue to support a counterproductive strategy, the very strategy that got us into the present mess. When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. So compromisers should just stop. That is the only way to restrain the growth of government.

Underpinning that strategic judgment, and strengthening the conviction on which it rests, is a view of the Constitution. Compromise, in this view, has sold the Constitution down the river. The Constitution was never fixed in stone, of course, but its essence — a federal government with limited and enumerated powers — has been compromised out of existence over the course of the past century.

It is fine, in this view, to compromise up to a point — but not to the point where the Constitution itself is swallowed up by the compromises made in its name. Anything Madison, Jefferson, or even Hamilton might have recognized as a reasonably bounded federal government has vanished beneath layer upon layer of federal self-aggrandizement. By now, politicians are just compromising on how much more of the Constitution to whittle away. Today, when compromise has become the enemy of the constitutional order, the first injunction is, once again: Just stop.

Of course, Tea Partiers are hardly the first to argue that compromise has undermined or distorted the Constitution. Barry Goldwater inspired millions (though he alarmed millions more) with his declaration that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" and his claim that much of what the government did was unconstitutional. The antebellum South developed an elaborate ideology holding that any compromise on slavery would sabotage the Constitution, while many abolitionists believed that any compromise that allowed slavery to persist in any form was anathema to America's constitutional ideals.

The Tea Party, however, stands apart by being strategically focused. Instead of mainly aiming to defeat liberals or moderates in national elections, it aims to defeat conservatives in primary elections — if they have compromised on fiscal matters. In that way, it deters a specific behavior (compromise) rather than merely promoting a general ideology (fiscal conservatism). Although many Tea Partiers would certainly like to build a constructive national majority and hope someday to do so, they are more than willing to begin by building an obstructive congressional minority.

Even those who disapprove of the Tea Party's goals may grudgingly admire the canniness of its asymmetrical political warfare. A firm anti-compromise minority, if willing to play the spoiler, can exert leverage far disproportionate to its numbers. The Tea Party Republicans have sought to use that leverage to change the basic calculus of compromise in American politics. If Madison's premise was that politicians don't compromise because they want to but because they have to, the Tea Party's premise is that politicians can and should be deterred from compromising even when they want to.

As hard-edged and ideological as Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan could be rhetorically, both were accomplished legislative deal-makers. And both could get away with cutting deals because their conservative base trusted them to bargain in pursuit of conservative goals. For anti-compromisers, by contrast, the very fact that a deal is a deal makes it suspect, never mind who presents it. If the other side would agree to it, after all, something important must have been given away, and that is the kind of horse trading that got us into today's mess.

As Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party-backed candidate who beat a more moderate incumbent, Richard Lugar, in Indiana's 2012 Republican Senate primary race, put it, "We are at that point where one side or the other has to win this argument. One side or the other will dominate." He averred that he was for compromise and bipartisanship, provided "compromise" and "bipartisanship" meant that Democrats capitulated to Republicans in rolling back the size of government.

To some extent, anti-compromise ideology may be self-defeating, or at least self-limiting. Much of what it gives insurgents by way of leverage in particular races it takes back by way of unpopularity among the broader public. In the 2012 general election, Mourdock himself lost what should have been a safe Republican Senate seat to a Democrat — a stinging defeat that did not go unnoticed among Tea Partiers. In March 2013, when Gallup asked respondents, as an open-ended question, to "tell me one or two specific things you dislike about the Republican Party," 21% cited the party's inflexibility and unwillingness to compromise — swamping all the other responses. In fact, an even more dominant share of Republicans themselves, 26%, cited unwillingness to compromise as their party's biggest flaw.

As with any insurgency, so with the Tea Party: The same hardball tactics that amplify its influence also restrict its reach. Punishing compromisers may work tactically for a while, but as a longer-term strategy it may so damage the Republican brand as to marginalize itself in all but a hard core of congressional redoubts. And even at its peak the Tea Party and its allies were able to make compromising harder but could not make it impossible, as the fiscal deals of the Obama years show. If Madison were around today, he might argue that the anti-compromise movement may enjoy some success for a while, but that sooner or later it will burn out.

Even so, there are reasons to be concerned. "A while" can be a long time, especially in a House of Representatives where congressional districts are so thoroughly gerrymandered that incumbents can effectively ignore the views of all but their most hardline constituents. Worse, the feedback loops on which self-correction depends have been weakened by today's primary system, with its vulnerability to small, ideologically committed groups.

Moreover, even if the Madisonian system can ultimately digest even a pretty big helping of anti-compromise ideology, it will suffer from indigestion along the way. Elected officials who put protest ahead of governing have their place, but the more of them there are, the more friction the system will encounter. A minority of spoilers on either side of a prominent debate can increase by an order of magnitude the political danger and difficulty of transactional politics, even when majorities on both sides want to cut a deal and would gain by achieving one.

In particular, spoilers have three pernicious effects. First, they make it difficult for leaders to lead. If any deal that a leader brings back from negotiations is suspect precisely because it is a deal, and if any leader who brings back such a deal is likely to be accused of treason by a significant share of his base, then it will be hard for a leader either to accept or deliver on a compromise — exactly the kind of problem that has weakened House speaker John Boehner in recent years.

Second, the presence of a knot of spoilers on one side increases polarization by hardening opinion on the other side. Why compromise, after all, if you think the other side will put any concessions in its pocket and then ask for more without giving any ground? "We won't compromise because they won't" is not an unreasonable attitude. As opposing positions polarize and harden, the substantive ground for compromise shrinks, and the trust necessary to find it erodes. That, in turn, makes it harder, not easier, to make painful but important policy changes such as long-term budget restraints or entitlement reform.

Finally, either party's isolation from the political mainstream, and from the mainstream's acceptance of the give-and-take of transactional politics, is undesirable in its own right. At some point, when insurgent voices within a party become dominant (or at least disproportionately influential), that party will begin behaving less like a party and more like an interest group.

Parties traditionally combine disparate factions under a single political tent; they gather diverse ideologies and interests together and forge durable coalitions for political gain. Interest groups, by contrast, pitch separate tents. They pursue narrow agendas and form only temporary, goal-oriented coalitions; they distill rather than blend their identity, and they focus on one aim, or just a few, to the near-exclusion of all others. Republicans' recent emphasis on ideological purity, and their obsession with fiscal policy to the near exclusion of other priorities, suggest they have veered in the direction of becoming a conservative interest group, when what the country needs is a conservative party.


Various structural reforms might help restore the internal feedback loops on which the Madisonian compromise-forcing system relies. Thoughtful observers have made cases for changing the primary-election process, or adjusting congressional rules, or reforming the redistricting process to reduce gerrymandering.

But to concentrate on narrow technical changes is to miss the forest for the trees. Tinkering with filibusters and gerrymanders and the like may be worthwhile, but wholesale change requires an injection of ideas. Small-bore change will not work without an intellectual effort to advance a principled, positive, patriotic case for compromise, especially on the right.

The Tea Party's critique of compromise has merit, at least from the point of view of someone who believes that modern government is far too big. The problem is not that this critique is present in the conservative movement, but that it is inadequately opposed. It encounters nothing like the sort of robust ideological response it deserves.

Fighting something with nothing is always hard. When one prominent strand of conservative thought vigorously propounds a thought-through ideology opposed to compromise, while those with a different view twiddle their thumbs in embarrassed silence, no one should be surprised that the vocal, ideologically coherent group is dominant. As long as conservatives perceive and portray compromise as at best a negative virtue — and more often as a violation of conservative principles — its reputation will be dim and its legitimacy shadowed.

Playing hardball in politics is not unhealthy. Hardball is often necessary and important, and many who complain about it should pay more attention to getting better at it. Madison's framework does not require or desire that individuals should all be moderates. But to valorize hardball for its own sake is unhealthy, and even more unhealthy is to veto a compromise simply because it is a compromise. There is no contradiction between compromise and political principle, or at least no necessary contradiction. Nor is compromise at odds with constitutional principle. Just the reverse: Compromise is the most essential principle of our constitutional system. Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.

No one is saying, of course, that anyone should support anything only because it is a compromise, any more than that he should oppose something only because it is a compromise. The point, rather, is that compromise is a republican virtue. It endows the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best. It is patriotic, not pathetic, and it deserves to be trumpeted as such.

An encouraging, if still embryonic, development on the right is the emergence of some prominent conservative defenders of compromise. Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush administration official, has written critically of the knee-jerk rejection of compromise, and supportively of the willingness of politicians like Madison and Lincoln to reject the "seductive appeal of the absolute." He defends moderation as a conservative virtue, and praises a conservatism "disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances." Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, recently published a superb little book called Constitutional Conservatism that makes a case for a conservative politics that weighs and weaves many values and seeks a balanced public life. Constitutional conservatism, he writes, "stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution." This is the politics, Berkowitz notes, of the first and greatest modern conservative, Edmund Burke.

Berkowitz and Wehner and a handful of others are not a sea change, but they are a start toward rebuilding an intellectual foundation on the right for a multivalent politics. And that is important. If the right is to effectively advance its own cause, it needs to restore compromise to respectability in the conservative movement.

Burke, Henry Clay, Lincoln, and more recently Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were not just imposing conservatives and committed patriots, but all were deft compromisers, too. And so of course was Madison himself. They understood in their various ways what American conservatism urgently needs to rediscover: Patriotism, principle, and compromise, though sometimes in tension, stand or fall together in the constitutional pantheon, and compromise is in no respect the least of the three.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working, among other books. This essay was written as part of a project on Madisonian thought in contemporary public policy sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Montpelier Center for the Constitution.


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