There are few voters who are content with the choices we have in this year’s presidential election. There are even fewer who are satisfied with the performance of Congress, which just bolted for a seven-week vacation with next to nothing accomplished.
New York Times reporters David M. Herszenhorn and Jennifer Steinhauer provided a solid synopsis of what is not happening and why: “Although Congress began the year with some legislative accomplishments, including an important energy measure, Democrats have been eager in recent months to rob Republicans of even modest victories as they head into the election. Republicans, in turn, have been unable to resist attempts to legislate social policy through spending and other unrelated bills, furthering the impasse. The result has largely been inertia.”
How deep is the spiral? Herszenhorn and Steinhauer reported that on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent 45 minutes on the Senate floor “trading insults … over who was most to blame for the gridlock that has defined Congress since divided government began in 2011.”
Too many of our elected leaders have rejected the concept of compromise. For decades, representatives on both sides of the political aisle were able to establish budgets, pass laws and govern effectively by compromising, standing on principle but not obstructing progress.
In a 2012 conversation on National Public Radio, science correspondent Shankar Vedantam said a psychologist who studies politics told him “compromise is really, really terrible politics” because “one of the dominant opinions is that we believe that consistency and the ability to hold firm is a core trait of leadership.” In essence, we project our selfishness onto our elected officials and if they give any ground on the issues we care about most we castigate them and look for someone who will remain in lockstep with us.
In a commentary for Reuters, UCLA communications professor Bill Schneider wrote, “(T)he Tea Party movement in 2010 … claimed that Republicans in Washington were failing to do what Republicans elected them to do — namely, stop (President) Obama.” He added that backers of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders regard the stances of both Bill and Hillary Clinton “as a betrayal of Democratic values. They cite Wall Street, trade deals, the Defense of Marriage Act, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ welfare reform, Clinton’s balanced-budget deal with then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the 1994 crime bill.”
Compromise has real value, in real life and in governance. Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University, completed a research paper on “The Mindsets of Political Compromise” (http://www.upenn.edu/president/meet-president/Mindsets-Political-Compromise). In the abstract, they contend “political compromise is difficult in American democracy even though no one doubts it is necessary.” They cite the never-ending campaign cycle and its creep into governance.
“(T)he so called ‘permanent campaign’ … encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult,” they wrote. “These constitute what we call the uncompromising mindset, characterized by politicians’ standing on principle and mistrusting opponents. This mindset is conducive to campaigning, but not to governing, because it stands in the way of necessary change and thereby biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo.”
Congress will not change until voters change their views on what constitutes success. Absolutism will extend gridlock and perpetuate campaigning, which only adds to the already draining political fatigue we all are experiencing. If voters continue to browbeat every politician who doesn’t provide 100 percent support for 100 percent of their pet issues, the only people running for office will be those content to win elections but not serve the people.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.