Saturday, December 14, 2013

#348 / Compromised

I found the cartoon above in a Calbuzz commentary titled "Why 'Compromise' has become such a dirty word." Calbuzz operates a website devoted to "political news, analysis, commentary and more about California and beyond." The article properly notices that our political process is currently failing to reach compromises that could have benefit to both sides: 

To the Founding Fathers – who had an actual claim to the concept of a Tea Party – compromise was not a dirty word; it was the essence of governance. Without principled compromise as a result of robust debate, Delaware and New Jersey might still be at each others’ throats. Thank you to the boys from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth. 

Which brings us to the sorry situation we face today, in California and Washington in particular, in which leaders of the Republican Party are so terrified and intimidated by the noisy anti-tax absolutists in their know-nothing right wing that they are incapable of principled compromise. Even when flexibility would yield them pension reforms, spending controls, entitlement reductions, long-term fiscal stability and more, the Republicans would rather cut off their noses to spite their faces.

All this is quite true. However, I am always leery of the word "compromise" because so many people involved in politics and public policy seem to believe that compromise, in and of itself, should be the "objective" of our political efforts. Not true, in my opinion. 

"Politics" is the process by which our society makes choices about issues when there is a significant disagreement over what the society ought to do. IF there is a clear majority in favor of one thing or another, then a healthy politics will result in a decision that effectuates the majority position. IF, on the other hand, there isn't a strong enough majority to achieve what one side of a debate would like to achieve, then a "compromise" is often the next best thing. 

I simply want to warn against a politics (at the local, state, or national level) that suggests that "compromise" ought to be the "objective" of politics. Not true if the majority has the ability to do what it actually thinks is best, despite significant (but minority) opposition. In a democratic system, the majority should "rule," though we also do commit that the majority cannot override the fundamental political rights of those in a minority position.

During my twenty years on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, I frequently heard appeals to "compromise" a particular decision, even though it was clear that there was a majority desire to do something that didn't involve the compromise. Probably the most significant example with which I was personally involved was the debate that occurred over growth management and the preservation and protection of prime agricultural land. The majority of the voters of Santa Cruz County clearly wanted to achieve a result (one actually enacted in Measure J, in 1978) that would preserve and protect for agricultural use all the lands in Santa Cruz County that are economically productive when used for agriculture. In other words, protecting agricultural land was a very high priority for the majority of the people in the county. The landowners didn't agree, but they were in a minority position. The appeal was to "compromise," as if that were the objective of politics. Luckily, the voters didn't see it that way. Santa Cruz County is fundamentally different today, and better off, than it would have been had "compromise" been the goal. 

From the point of view of an elected representative, who is actually called upon to vote on public policy issues, my rule was always to seek to do what the people I represented really wanted done. If I couldn't achieve that (if I didn't have the votes), then compromising, and getting the best deal I could, was the next best thing - and the right thing to do. 

Calbuzz is right to fulminate about political actors who refuse to compromise when they have no chance of prevailing on a particular public policy issue. My caution is for the situation in which elected officials do have the votes, and are in a position to do what the people they represent actually want. In that situation, if the elected officials heed appeals to "compromise," they will fail to do what the majority actually wants them to accomplish, and that is a failure of democratic politics itself.

So, for those who think that turning "compromise" into a political "objective" is a great idea, and that "compromise" ought to be the purpose of politics, I'd like to suggest a trip to the dictionary: 

[obj.] weaken (a reputation or principle) by accepting standards that are lower than is desirable: commercial pressures could compromise safety. 
[ no obj. ] accept standards that are lower than is desirable: we were not prepared to compromise on safety. 
bring into disrepute or danger by indiscreet, foolish, or reckless behavior: situations in which his troops could be compromised.

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  1. Wow! Thank you, Gary, for penning this treatise on compromise and sending us to the dictionary.

    Of late, we have been dealing with exactly what you described. A controversial issue (one of public safety as well as environmental protection) seems to have been reduced to a call for "compromise. We are being branded as unwilling to "compromise," even though there is no evidence that a majority of the County's 268,000 residents supports the suspension of a public safety ordinance. In fact, in this case (dogs off leash at a County beach) the record shows that those who have engaged in several public hearings in the last two years are split evenly. There is no majority, yet the mantra is consistently to "compromise" the existing public safety law.

    I shall heed the dictionary at the very next opportunity.

  2. It is however important consideration that increased number of Ugandans feel ready to take up political positions -in absence of assurance as to whether their decision is in mutual interest with the nation or just selfishness at play. guarantor loans


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