Book review: ‘The Spirit of Compromise’ by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson

The Spirit of Compromise Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It By Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson Princeton University Press. 288 pp. $24.95 Reviewed by Alexander Heffner

To the voter, and presumably all elected officials, American politics appears as acrimonious as ever. The executive and legislative branches are totally uncompromising, much as with the continuing clash of two-party partisanship. Take the House of Representative’s unanimous vote March 28 against a budget proposal — brought to the floor by a Republican representative — supposedly based on President Obama’s 2013 proposal. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the conservative Budget Committee chairman, counterpunched with his own proposal.

But between the White House and the antigovernment deficit hawks, there was zero attempt to find a middle ground. If there are open minds in Washington, voters seldom see them, and in recent years, they have rarely scored any legislative achievements.

With this in mind, it’s important to recognize any efforts designed to overhaul Washington’s current brand of politics. For example, AmericansElect.org, championed by moderate pols David Boren and Christine Todd Whitman, has opened a nonpartisan primary to directly nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.

And those disturbed by these trends can also engross themselves in The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, by political scientists Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, professor of government at Harvard University.

“Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible,” they write. In their introduction, they point to the debt impasses of 2011 — and the prospect of greater economic calamity — to stress the long-term “necessity of compromise.” They add, “When the spirit of compromise fades, the spirit of the laws suffers.”

The “uncompromising mind-set” jeopardizes more than an abstract notion of working constitutionalism, Gutmann and Thompson contend. In fact, the survival of democracy hinges on compromise.

Most of the book analyzes “the role of mind-sets in the process of political compromise.” This discourse is not particularly exciting. It may be informative, but the authors’ discussions of the values and limits of these attitudes are both dry and sometimes obvious.

Their fundamental point is summed up in their subtitle: Governing requires compromise, while campaigning unleashes a vicious cycle of noncooperation. The demise of compromise in U.S. politics has been brought about by today’s permanent campaign.

The most dynamic chapter of Spirit of Compromise focuses on policy prescriptions, although here, Gutmann and Thompson tend to echo the ideas of colleagues rather than offer their own master plan. Highlights:

Congress must alter its schedule, as political scientist Norman Ornstein has proposed, to accommodate more interaction among officials. “When adversaries know each other well, they are more likely to recognize whether the other side’s refusal to compromise on a principle is a negotiating tactic or a real political constraint.”

Open primaries and more careful consideration of candidates, the authors suggest, can help “increase the number of politicians who are inclined to compromise to facilitate governing.”

Congressional chambers ought to create internal legislative incentives for compromise, rather than herding their members into the party line: “Building of broader coalitions … reduces factionalism that makes compromise harder.”

Instead of focusing on flip-flops or poll positions, the media should focus on officials’ actual policy goals and policy-making strategies, especially when officials challenge their parties.

Not only do we need civics courses in every classroom, but also they specifically need to promote “the value of both disagreement and compromise in politics” and how to accommodate diverse viewpoints “to improve on the status quo.”

On campaign finance, the most important threat to American democracy, Gutmann and Thompson fall far short. “For the project of protecting time for governing with a compromising mind-set, we do not have to commit to any particular reform for campaign finance. What is important is to recognize that whatever reforms are proposed need to be directly targeted to the problem of the permanent campaign and its effect on compromise.” In a post-Citizens United political universe, this open-ended nonsolution seems wildly inadequate. Especially since Gutmann and Thompson believe legislators need longer terms to work out their differences — not term limits. Their suggestion of longer terms, further shielding veteran officials who have already proven unwilling to compromise, seems bizarrely ill-advised.

Despite the flaws of Spirit of Compromise, Gutmann and Thompson articulately identify the conundrum that has made compromise unlikely, if not impossible, in Washington. Institutional reforms, they write, “will not be adopted without the change in mind-sets that is the very aim of the institutional reforms. This is because to make most institutional changes, including those needed to encourage compromise, politicians have to compromise.”

And unless civic-minded citizens stand behindrather than againstelected officials and candidates who buck their party, the age of uncompromise will live on.

Alexander Heffner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Today.