Everyone loves to use the c-word today — compromise.
We hear Democrats ranting about Republicans needing to compromise, Republicans complaining that Democrats aren’t willing to compromise, political experts saying Congress needs to compromise and the President asking for compromise in Washington. Heck, even Penn President Amy Gutmann wrote a book about compromise.
As much as the word is thrown around, it’s used mostly as a rhetorical tool instead of a practiced ideology.
As we observed a month ago, legislators in Washington could not come close to agreeing on a fiscal plan until faced with the potential of sinking the country back into recession with large-scale spending cuts and tax increases or severely damaging the public’s perception of Congress.
In 2011, the super committee composed of both Democrats and Republicans in charge of preventing a default struggled to create productive progress and ultimately failed to reach any compromise.
Even in the midst of all the demand for compromise in recent years, rarely do we hear a call for voters to compromise their own political beliefs and expectations of the political system and politicians.
In the most recent presidential election, many people blamed President Obama for the lackluster recovery of the country from the recession, but realistically, it is not possible for one person to change an economy and country as intricate as ours in such a short period of time.
Even a person running for the House can’t realistically fulfill all the promises that he makes, since there are 434 other legislators he will have to work with.
Obviously there is no panacea for the political gridlock that has characterized Washington lately, but getting voters to compromise is one part of the solution.
The problem is that we as voters hold unrealistically high expectations for politicians.
As Gutmann, who wrote “The Spirit of Compromise,” said, “We elect politicians to lead the country forward and then to explain why they made the deals they did. What I would advise is calling on citizens to support politicians when they do make good deals and to be realistic about how much can be accomplished.”
And what many of us might not realize is that when we don’t compromise, neither can politicians.
The behavior of most politicians can be linked to the desire to be re-elected by their constituents. We often expect politicians to be the sole solution to our country’s problems, forcing them to make many hard-to-keep promises.
Voters then evaluate politicians based upon if they have fulfilled their promises to voters, making politicians less likely to deviate from their campaign platforms. Politicians who stray from strict party lines on various issues are criticized for being disloyal or even weak.
Instead of labeling candidates as “weak” for showing bipartisan qualities and not staunchly sticking to their guns on all issues, we should embrace this quality as a strength.
If we are willing to accept the fact that certain issues may take years to solve — perhaps even more than a decade — and that issues cannot realistically be solved as to purely satisfy either Republicans or Democrats, politicians would be more willing to accept a greater amount of leeway on how issues are approached or solved.
This is not a suggestion that people should completely abandon their values and stride for the middle and expect little of politicians. But perhaps we as voters have gone too far in how strongly we hold onto our beliefs and what we expect of the political system. Ultimately, a democracy’s power comes from the people, so changing how our democracy operates must start from the people as well.
As Benjamin Franklin once insightfully commented, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable and those that move.”
As you might imagine, I would take the middle option.
Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton sophomore from Novi, Mich., is a Civic Scholar. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Casual Observer appears every other Friday._
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