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Of principle and compromise: A paradox within America’s political discourse

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It is no revelation to claim that political compromise on issues of serious national consequence has become dangerously rare—and seemingly impossible—in the United States. The built-in institutional tensions between and among the branches, designed by the Framers to produce outcomes based upon compromise, have been largely transcended in recent years by party allegiance, and essentially replaced by inter-party ideological conflicts over interpretations of some of the fundamental principles upon which the American system stands.

Out of this environment, there has developed a troublingly deep contradiction that has more and more intensely permeated the American political discourse over the past few decades—and has manifested quite acutely in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Put simply, there is in the abstract an innate awareness among most Americans that compromise is a necessary and vital outcome, fundamental to the function of the American political system; yet, paradoxically, the very thought of the act of real compromise on specific issues has become anathema to many, if not most, people’s concepts of political progress or success.

{mosads}Anecdotally, it seems commonplace that when one asks any American what is wrong with government, there is almost always one, consistent answer: elected legislators cannot get anything done. Government doesn’t function because legislators cannot work togetherNo one compromises

However, ask that same American about a specific issue, and he or she will typically express that, on this issue, there cannot be any compromise with the party opposite. Compromise on that issue would be tantamount to a capitulation to the wrong-headed opposition, or even a betrayal of America’s very principles.

The adoption of such contradictory logic arguably inheres in the ongoing attitudes of the parties’ elected legislators. For decades on end leading to this historic moment, most congressmen and senators have more and more often, at the urging of their party leadership, sought to actively avoid or undermine compromise on issues of real consequence in favor of characterizing the next election as a referendum on the rectitude of their own party’s positions. To this end, both parties have been for years raising the possibility that the opposition can be electorally vanquished; it is only then, it is often claimed outright, that progress can occur.

With the continued diminution of compromise in American government, political progress concomitantly diminishes in American politics. As political progress becomes rarer, many Americans have to a great extent been conditioned to not only expect, but to demand, more purely partisan solutions from issue-to-issue—even when the structure of their government demands the very reverse. As a result, the party opposite is too often vilified, portrayed as an obstacle rather than a partner, and too frequently deemed un-American. In turn, over time, one finds that much of America’s political rhetoric increasingly conflates legislative issues that persist from year-to-year and term-to-term with founding principles. The next election is more about what will be lost than what has been, or can be, achieved.

What has resulted is that issues of great import—issues that by now have long demanded virtually immediate resolution—have become ideological bargaining chips; reduced, out of political expediency, to being proxies for greater ideological struggles, and characterized as political “holy grails.”

These attitudes, which have cascaded from the Congress down to constituents, may explain a great deal about what has just happened in this presidential election.

While enthusiastic and confident expressions of grandiose, and sometimes overtly partisan, goals are not strange for primary campaigns, once the primary is over, such declamations are usually tempered by the very different nature of the general election. In any general election, the electorate is much more diverse in both attitudes and identity. Candidates are usually forced to pivot toward a more moderate position on most, if not all, issues.

What is, however, disturbingly unique about this election cycle is the almost quixotic belief by so many millions of Americans in the feasibility and achievability of extreme ideas—many of which are designed (when they are detailed) to almost ham-handedly accomplish goals that have otherwise been considered complete nonstarters in past general elections.

That belief in extreme and simplistic concepts translated to victory in the primary for Donald Trump as he eliminated a massive Republican field. But, what is more troubling is that those same concepts—largely unmoderated—won the general election this time as well.

In truth, the notion that political opposition can be electorally vanquished was not unique to Republicans during this election. After all, well-intentioned, but extreme, ideas nearly won the Democratic Primary for Bernie Sanders. Whether it was promises of “free” universal healthcare or “free” college education—paid for ostensibly by massive tax increases—Bernie Sanders’ supporters seemed to just as wholeheartedly believe that if elected, his ideas could and would become reality.

Donald Trump’s and, yes, even Bernie Sanders’ ascendance is more of a result of the evolution over time of the contradictory logic that, while compromise as a concept is important, the party opposite can be and must be electorally vanquished in order to achieve ideologically pure political progress that will in turn preserve principle.

Donald Trump did not cause these attitudes. The so-called “Trump Effect” is better characterized as a symptom of the near ossification of this paradoxical thinking. He is a unique figure, seen as a vessel for partisan success, despite his foibles. His much touted appearance of strength and accomplishment, power and bravado is appealing to those who want their results on their terms at the expense of all other views.

Thus, when Trump draws no distinctions between Muslims and extremists, or labels people who have entered the U.S. illegally via Mexico rapists, or speaks of establishing a “deportation force,” or offers overly-simplistic solutions to many other complex problems, claiming that he is the “only one who can solve them,” Trump is acknowledging a very Manichaean worldview that many Americans have developed and share. The solutions, many of these voters would argue, to immigration, to terrorism, to economic upheaval and the like, are black and white and have always been simple. No one, until now, has had the courage to implement them.

Simplicity needs no nuance; indeed, in most campaigns, simplicity is the politician’s friend. It has permeated campaign rhetoric from time immemorial. But, simplicity rarely reflects reality. Political problems are complex and layered. That is why politics exists. Nuance is essential when governing.

Now, as the nation sits on the cusp of a unified Republican government, many on the right see an opportunity similar to that seen by the Democrats in 2008: an advantage that will allow “political progress” in the form of one-sided legislation. The Democrats were indeed able to pass healthcare reform in the face of unified opposition from the Republicans due to their numerical advantages (a choice the Republicans made, it must be conceded), but ultimately could not muster any more momentum to achieve much more of their agenda on other issues.

Short-term legislative advantages that produce one-sided solutions typically assure more long-term political rancor.

The only real solution to this conundrum of American democracy can be seen itself as overly-simplistic. The reality is that the only “cure” for the continued cycle of gridlock is for enough lawmakers to conjure the political courage to reach out to each other—regardless of numerical advantage—and compromise on some, if not all, of the major issues Congress has allowed to fester for so long—immigration, the deficit and spending, healthcare and the like. If compromises are achieved, both sides will have something to defend to their constituents and it will, perhaps, reverse the process of vilifying the party opposite as an enemy rather than as a partner. Over time, many in the American public will be able to move back toward the center, by moving on from the issues that seem to have no resolution today.

This is easier said than done, of course. Much opposition will come from people either conditioned to expect all-out victories (even when they never materialize), or desirous of the continuation of gridlock to lock in the votes of constituencies who now believe most issues are inextricably intertwined with principle, and can therefore never be compromised upon.

The desire for ideological purity will never go away—nor should it in a sense, because it acts as a check on the extremism of the other side. But, extremism can never be the normal result of any source of political conflict in America’s system. Ideological “best case scenarios” must not be confused with the reality that there are other sides with sometimes countervailing solutions or desires grounded in real concerns and desires. Electioneering will never be a replacement for governing. They should never be conflated.

America’s is a system designed to find middle ground. After all, compromise is in and of itself perhaps the most fundamental of the founding American principles. One can take heart that there is evidence Americans have not forgotten that. But, what is discouraging is that no one seems to want to pursue it. It will take massive, collective political courage at the legislative level to change that. Congress’ role is to moderate extremism through compromise. As long as the parties abdicate their role in working with, rather than against, each other at the legislative level, they will engender more dysfunction—and even more extreme attitudes.

Dennis R. Bullock recently ran for the California State Assembly 43rd District Seat. He continues to teach AP U.S. Government & Politics and AP Macroeconomics at Providence High School in Burbank, Calif. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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