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Compromise and Consensus

A local politician recently got into hot water over comments she made that appeared to compare public assistance to feeding stray animals.  The person in question is not important nor is the course of the furor over her remarks.  The situation is similar to what is happening throughout our broken, leaderless democratic republic on a nearly constant basis.  A “talking point” that appeared clever was used as a substitute for rational policy discussion.

In the follow-up on the outrage the politician in question sent a guest editorial that deflected criticism through a long, rambling discussion about “leadership” and “compromise” in the legislature.  It occurred to me that very few people understand that “compromise” itself is not an end, but a means to achieve an end – consensus, the way work is done in our system.

The word “compromise” is stained in US History by the Missouri Compromise, the agreement that allowed Missouri to be admitted as a slave state but prohibited any more slavery that far north in the territories.  It failed because it never produced a consensus in congress – if anything, it hardened the anti-slavery activists which felt it gave away too much.  It is regarded as a solid step toward the Civil War, the ultimate failure of our system to peacefully resolve differences and provide a clear path forward.

Our system is a Democratic-Republic, which means a lot more than electing leaders who run the government.  The democratic functions have their own ebb and flow among the people and the republican system of bargaining among those who are elected.  Together they represent the yin and yang of a system that is supposed to produce a cohesive nation that is capable of getting done certain critical tasks necessary to maintain a free and ordered civilized society that moves ahead as one people.

Compromise among leaders is one way of moving beyond an impasse, but it is not the end.  Through a compromise, a legislature is supposed to garner support for a bill or policy question that it could not gain otherwise.  It is nothing more than a tool for developing consensus.  Consensus itself was foisted on us in the system devised by our Founders in the Constitution for moving ahead as a single nation, E Pluribus Unum.

On the democratic side, the development of a movement through activism is how consensus is developed, gradually convincing the general population that something must be done.

Where “compromise” is often a bad word, suggesting weakness, “consensus” is often missing.  Little has been written about it and the processes for achieving it in popular media.  Both terms are active and imply that the work and progress of a certain policy is still open for debate, but all sides are committed to moving forward together.  There is no reason that the success or failure cannot be revisited after the consensus plan has been implemented, so a good compromise should have measures of success built into it whenever possible.

Consensus, or progress together as a single people with shared work, is often missing as a word because the concept underlying it appears absent.  Outrage and absolutism has become far more appealing.  For example, one side refuses to allow not just taxpayer money but any sense of “coercion” paying for abortion or contraception in health care plans.  They believe that abortion is murder and that should be that.  But among a untied people things like this happen all the time – I am forced to pay for both wars and executions that I do not support.  These are, in fact, the same thing because all are condemned by the Catholic Church in the same encyclical Evengelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), issued by the soon to be sainted Pope John Paul II.  This was the basis for his condemnation of our Iraq War, which we are all still paying for.

The Millenial Generation tends to have taken the gravity of this problem more to heart, often favoring a consensus process of “direct democracy”.  This works well in small groups that are highly motivated, such as “Occupy” groups, but the lack of identified leaders makes it difficult to get things done and implement larger policies.  The yin and yang of a democratic-republic were given to us for a reason.  Still, the interjection of this youthful optimism in consensus is very important and, with an eye towards achieving real change, can provide a fresh perspective.  There is hope, but it is still in development.

In the meantime, leaders of all kinds need to understand what this dirty thing called “compromise” is all about.  It is not the finished product by any means.  It is a way that consensus can be found so that everyone can be a part of actually finishing the things that a government needs to accomplish – such as a budget, security for the next generation, and so on.   There is certainly a lot of work for our government to do.

19 thoughts on “Compromise and Consensus

  1. Naming what’s going right in leadership would take less time than naming what’s wrong, but this is a good start. Great blog!

  2. Its the commitment to getting things done that is completely lacking today. It may be that no one sees any common purpose that means we have to get something done. I do not know just where the problem is but there is no leadership at all and no one ever talks about consensus, you are right. So there is no reason to compromise for so many reasons. It makes my head spin thinking about it. Its all so wrong in so many ways.

    • On google+ the problem was identified as greed, but I’ll state it as selfishness. People do not seem to believe that there is a common good that can solve our problems and move ahead together. That’s a social problem that is very hard to solve, but it means that many things are going to become far worse before they become better (last Friday’s take on “The Coming Jobs War” shows the urgency in at least one area).
      So yes, it can make your head spin there are so many ways to look at it that all come back to the same place at some point. But I think that place is ultimately selfishness and/or greed.

  3. Win at all costs is the name of the game. It is nothing more than a game to most politicians too. All about power.

    • That is what I was going to say. It is the game that makes me sick. Maybe if politicians were forced to get something done it would all be different but I do not know how to do that.

      • I don’t think we can get anywhere without focusing on important goals. But then again, we have a Congress that cannot pass an actual budget – we’ve been flying on “continuing resolutions” for 3 years now. It’s very sick and they do need to be held accountable for the inability to get even the most obvious thing done.
        But once we have goals, and a bit of leadership, some kind of consensus will be essential. We will see how it comes. It has to come someday.

  4. I don’t agree with this. The Repugs are indeed getting things done. Evil things, but they are happening. From their point of view–I suppose–calls for “compromise” are the whinings of losers.

    (By the way, this was the second time I tried to comment only to have the copy disappear with a comment that I wasn’t logged in. This one I retyped as it was so short, the other just forgot about.)

    • There have been weird problems posting lately, sorry.
      They did get things done, quite destructive and genuinely evil, when they had both houses of Congress and the Presidency, I’ll agree. But lately I don’t think anyone can point to even the most basic things happening – like a budget. The Dems do tend to compromise to the extreme, it’s true, but the last time Obama really gave in to them was on the debt ceiling – and nothing actually happened in the end. There was no sequestration or anything else. Nothing. There’s been a lot of noise about all kinds of side issues but I don’t see anything actually passing.

  5. I am with Alan on this one. compromise is a dirty word when the other side is doing pure evil (and lets not mince words about this) and won’t budge an inch. this is how they get their way and if democrats don’t stand their ground they will lose everytime.

    • I agree with you to the extent “compromise” is just a tactic to “win” and not a way of achieving consensus. That is the way it has gone lately, and it’s not good at all. If one side has no interest in consensus, or for that matter getting the actual work of the government done, then “compromise” will always be an empty gesture at best.

  6. Hmmmm I was thinking more on the state level I guess, having been reading some horrible bills. A lot of incredibly evil stuff is happening in DC. This, for example: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/8095-chris-hedges-|-totalitarian-systems-always-begin-by-rewriting-the-law
    True, underlying economic issues aren’t being addressed. But most pols are only marginally interested in these. They like “the debt” as something to hammer the opposition ideologically, but reducing it is vague and abstract compared to delivering pork to their districts….
    Or look at Dayton. Does he care that his damn stadium is a terrible investment and an insult to everyone who cares about the appearance of integrity in government? Not in the least!


    • Oh! Yes, I agree that there is terrible evil being done here in Minnesota, all directly to the Constitution. I am with you on this.
      But an example of what I’m talking about is pretty well illustrated in Wisconsin. The Repubs took their narrow control of both houses and the Gov as a “mandate”, a word that is truly meaningless most of the time. Since they had no interest in consensus, they thought they could do whatever they wanted. That spawned a movement among the people of the state that is rather likely to erase whatever the Republicans thought they gained.
      If they had sought consensus, they probably could have gone some distance towards gutting public unions and the fuss would have been minimal. They probably could have gotten much more of their way in the end. Time will tell, of course, but I think the recall effort is likely to at least change the Senate, if not the Governor. What will that get the Republicans for all the fuss and fury?
      So even if your plan is to do something dastardly, consensus is still the way to go, at least in the long run, IMHO.

  7. Erik:
    OK, I agree that the Repugs in Wisconsin likely have overreached, been harsher and more aggressive than was wise from a long-term point of view. Maybe they felt a backlash was inevitable and they needed to move ASAP? It would be interesting to know what their real thinking was/is. (If they have managed to cripple public employee organized labor in WI, doesn’t this change the balance of power in a fundamental way?)
    It’s not reliably possible to reason inductively here, from our personal preferences and beliefs…..

    • Yes, we can only speculate here. But it’s fun. 🙂
      There is little doubt that reducing the power of public employee unions is a long-term strategy of Republicans for some very good reasons. Having been involved in a campaign I have to say that the resources unions can bring to bear, including the databases and telephoning infrastructure, is absolutely critical to running a modern campaign. There is a reason they are being targeted, no doubt.
      But the over-reach has cemented the relationship between all unions and public employee unions in Wisconsin, which was a terrible tactical mistake, IMHO. The sheer number of people made it clear that “an attack on one union is an attack on all”.
      Going back to the topic at hand, I think that reducing the power and influence of public employee unions could have been done with a kind of compromise that would have been far more productive in the long run, yes.

  8. Pingback: Five Years On | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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