Winner Take Nothing

What Ails Our Politics

The Spirit of Compromise
Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson
Princeton University Press, $24.95, 256 pp.


Our Divided Political Heart
The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent
E. J. Dionne Jr.
Bloomsbury Press, $27, 336 pp.


What ails our politics? Polarization, incivility, and partisan squabbling are weakening our system’s ability to respond to major national crises. Not that this is new. Our political history is littered with stories of gridlock, bitter rhetoric, and seemingly intractable disagreements. Even so, recent events provide cause for concern: a congressman shouting “You lie!” during a presidential address, a 2009 bill proposing modest steps to address global warming that couldn’t get passed even though it was supported by the president and a clear majority in both houses of Congress, a once-routine debt-ceiling vote that threatened a devastating federal default. Why this, why now?

In The Spirit of Compromise, political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson offer a partial diagnosis. On their account, democracy requires a “compromising mindset”; that is, the willingness to sacrifice some principles in order to govern. Theirs is not a naïve call to “put aside our differences” and “do what is best for the country.” Rather, they acknowledge the real difficulties involved in compromise. Political disagreements are often rooted in differing visions of the common good; win-win solutions are rare. More often, compromise demands trading away something you believe in, and usually comes with the nagging sense that you could have secured more concessions from the other side.

For Gutmann and Thompson, the biggest challenge to compromise is the “uncompromising mindset” that flourishes in political campaigns as candidates stake out positions, promise to stand on principle, and sharply criticize opponents. It offers voters clear choices and provides the principled disagreement that democratic vitality needs. Yet that mindset has a shadow side: intractability. In recent years, Gutmann and Thompson argue, the uncompromising tendency has become dominant. With the rise of the “permanent campaign,” an all-or-nothing attitude pervades political discourse—an attitude reinforced by a media all too eager to cover the “horserace.” The “principled tenacity” and “mutual mistrust” of campaigning is increasingly poisoning the “principled prudence” and “mutual respect” governing requires.

What can be done to correct this imbalance? Drawing on examples of legislative battles over the past several decades, Gutmann and Thompson point to legislative strategies and political reforms (separating issues, restraining partisan rhetoric, building personal relationships across party lines) and political reforms (longer terms in office, campaign finance reform, open primaries, civic education) that they believe can help restore the balance by creating more space for democratic compromise.

While the argument has the feel of a longer article padded to make it the length of a short book, Gutmann and Thompson do provide a nuanced yet accessible assessment of the challenges to compromise in U.S. politics today. One dimension they mention but could have explored more is the growing mismatch between our political parties and the structure of our governing institutions. With the fall of Southern racial apartheid in the 1960s, both the Democratic Party and the GOP, which were once ideologically diverse coalitions, have become the kind of disciplined, unified parties more often found in parliamentary systems. But unlike parliamentary systems that give one party or coalition the keys to the entire government and periodically let citizens vote to keep or change drivers, our system gives both parties at least some control of the vehicle—even, owing to certain Senate rules, when one has lost the presidency and both houses of Congress. This not only gives those with a stake in the status quo more opportunities to block reforms; it also gives those on the outs both the means and incentive to resist constructive compromises. Denying opponents legislative accomplishments, especially those that might improve things for citizens, actually helps the minority party’s chances in the next election.

Tracing such political shifts over time is central to E. J. Dionne’s compelling diagnosis of today’s political ailments. Where Gutmann and Thompson focus more narrowly on the dynamics of compromise, Dionne offers a much broader view. His book skillfully draws on U.S. intellectual and political history to illuminate contemporary political disputes.

Dionne argues that a creative tension between individualism and community, the “divided political heart” of his title, has marked American public life from its beginning. A balance between those two values, which both support and correct one another, is central to our political culture. Consistent with the Catholic tradition, Dionne argues that government has a limited but critical role to play as a “constructive force” supporting individual liberty and community vitality, both locally and nationally.

On Dionne’s account, both liberalism and conservatism are prone to bouts of excessive individualism. He praises the communitarian turn in liberalism over the past few decades, led by philosophers such as Michael Sandel and William Galston, as well as political leaders such as Presidents Clinton and Obama, for balancing individual rights with social responsibility. At the same time, Dionne details the long communitarian tradition within conservatism, from Edmund Burke to Richard John Neuhaus to Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidents. Just as liberalism became more attentive to communitarianism, Dionne laments, conservatism has rejected it, dropping compassionate conservatism in favor of a radically individualist, anti-government, pro-market vision inspired by Ayn Rand.

The book is remarkably effective in exposing the flaws in the Tea Party’s one-sided view of U.S. history. The founding generation certainly valued individual liberty and limited government, but they were also deeply influenced by a classical republicanism emphasizing self-government, civic virtue, and community action. The founders believed in using government policy to help create prosperity, security, and opportunity. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Gilded Age that laissez-faire rhetoric of rugged individualism and unfettered markets began to emerge. That period’s excesses were quickly challenged by the rise of the Populist and Progressive movements, both of which reasserted communitarian themes linking individual liberty and economic opportunity to government regulation and reform.

Dionne argues that Populism and Progressivism laid the foundation for the New Deal, all of which produced what he calls the “Long Consensus.” This was the balance struck between individualism and community that dominated for most of the twentieth century. It saw an expansion of government action—economic regulation, legitimizing unions, pension and health-care protections, education and infrastructure investments, civil rights, and so on—that helped to increase individual freedom. It helped foster greater economic opportunity, more social mobility, greater protection for individual rights, and a flourishing civil society. It is what helped spark the rise of the modern middle class at home and American power and prestige abroad.

The country has reached a “decision point” according to Dionne. Conservatism’s turn toward extreme individualism and “loathing for government” is a direct challenge to the communitarian foundations of the Long Consensus.

Dionne’s book is one of the better reflections on what the Tea Party represents for modern conservatism. I do wonder, however, whether in focusing on the movement’s individualistic, anti-government character, Dionne gives too little attention to another dimension of the movement, one he touches on but not does not pursue at much length. While the Tea Party includes libertarian and social-conservative strands, it also contains a strong element of identity politics, which center on, for example, the threat of immigration, tax-paying ‘makers’ versus parasitical ‘takers,’ and various images of President Obama as not a real American. As a group, Tea Party adherents tend to be older, whiter, and wealthier than the country as a whole. They are opposed to big government in the abstract, but actually support programs like Social Security or Medicare. They criticize programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and housing assistance—programs associated in the public mind with younger and poorer racial minorities. This strand of the movement is not especially individualistic, but neither does it represent a common-good based communitarianism. It is an uglier form of solidarity.

Apart from underplaying that element of the Tea Party, Dionne’s book is outstanding. It is a rich source of historical and contemporary insight. The writing is clear, lively, and accessible. Even though his argument comes from the left, Dionne shows a real respect and appreciation for the conservative tradition, and he doesn’t have some of the blind-spots, especially with regard to religion, that are often apparent in liberal political analysis. This makes the book an excellent example of how to develop a principled political argument free of partisan rancor, one committed to certain ideals while seeking common ground. In other words, just the kind of medicine our body politic needs.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 

David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).

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