How Not to Compromise

What Americans need now is not compromise for its own sake; it’s smarter compromise based on finding the real middle in negotiations

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, before delivering his State of the Union speech at a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 12, 2013.

As high-stakes fiscal showdowns have become a constant feature of our national politics, calls for compromise have come from every corner and are growing louder. But political compromise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is a bit like the weather: while everyone talks about it, no one does anything about it.

Maybe that’s because we’re confused about how we should compromise. It’s certainly true that we live in an overly polarized political culture and that governing requires more than the base-pleasing demonization and posturing that feeds campaigns. What we need now, though, is not compromise for its own sake; it’s smarter compromise. And that means two things: finding a real middle in negotiations (it’s not where Washington thinks it is) and getting politicians to yield on matters of principle.

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Many pundits presume that compromise means splitting the difference between extremes. But to find the real middle, we have to distinguish between mean and median. The mean is what we usually call the average: add up all the points along a spectrum and divide by the number of points. Modern politics, unfortunately, has become about chasing the mean, which means that if one side’s outliers becomes far more extreme than the other’s, then over time what counts as average (or centrist) drifts in that direction. This is what happened when the Tea Party pulled the GOP rightward — and many Democrats allowed the center to be reset accordingly.

The median, by contrast, is the point on the spectrum at which half the people can be found on one side and half on the other. It yields a very different result — one less distorted by outlier opinions, more truly representative of the middle and thus a more democratic basis for compromise. Following the median is what our politics could use more of. The median public view on responsible gun laws, for instance, is further to the left than the mean is. The same is true for cutting entitlement programs, as President Obama is quite aware. But the median view on whether the federal government threatens individual liberties appears further to the right than the mean does.

Properly setting the midpoint for any compromise is only half the challenge. The other half is rejecting the belief that compromise is inherently suspect because it waters down a morally pure position. The president of Emory University, James Wagner, recently cited the Constitution’s three-fifths provision — in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person — as a model of compromise that today’s leaders could emulate. Outrage ensued, Wagner recanted, and the lesson seemed to be that some principles simply must never be compromised.

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But the Emory case — or rather, the case of slavery itself — is an exception that proves the rule. Freedom and slavery were fundamentally incompatible. Three-fifths was indeed a corrupt bargain. Most of the time, though, American politics is precisely about compromising principles. Should civil liberties be limited in the name of national security? Should free speech be infringed to reduce the role of money in politics? Should austerity trump fairness as the prime directive for budgetmakers? These are legitimate three-fifths questions.

On rare occasions, the difference between principles is irreconcilable. That’s how we got the Civil War. Today’s fight about the size of government is not such an occasion. Taxing and spending — the everyday work of self-government — demand not moral absolutism but a mind-set that you win some and you lose some. The current budget negotiation isn’t sudden death; it’s one in a never ending series of negotiations about the proper role of government, punctuated by a never ending series of elections that will continuously reset the median of public opinion.

That may sound like your version of hell, but it’s simply democracy in a republic. Doomsday devices like fiscal cliffs and sequestration create the form of compromise to avoid the substance of it. It’s time we citizens make our representatives practice more actual compromise — and make ourselves accept the results.

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