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We’ve heard it a million times: What Washington needs is more bipartisanship, more cooperation among the parties … like the old days. To which I say: Bah, humbug.
I have long been bothered by the rhetorical canonization of political cooperation as a great American ideal—as if it somehow “made” America. It bothered me when President Obama criticized those who had made “compromise a dirty word” in last year’s debate over the debt ceiling.
And it bothers me when politicians and pundits blame Washington’s dysfunction on Congress’ inability to get along, assuming that if lawmakers would only “get together and work things out,” the economy would improve, unemployment would evaporate and Americans could move on with their more prosperous, more fulfilled lives. Even the conservative Washington Times recently criticized Congress for “doing nothing.”
Progressives have a point when they argue that refusal to compromise on principle helped to end slavery, gain women the right to vote, and extend civil rights protections to all Americans. How, they ask, can you compromise on moral questions?
Our history books talk of the Great Compromise that led to our constitutional republic. But that same compromise led to a Civil War that almost destroyed our nation and cost us nearly another century of slavery.
Now, I agree that unanimity is important within a political system, especially when it comes to serious matters such as waging war. But that doesn’t translate into a need for “consensus” or ‘“compromise” in all aspects of the nation’s life.
The Founders did not value compromise for its own sake. Instead, they put their trust in distrust. All those “shall nots” in the Bill of Rights sprang from the Madisonian premise that human nature, and its resulting political institutions, are prone to sin, rather than virtue. Sound political and economic institutions, the Founders believed, should provide an arena for healthy debate, not work toward some trumped up “consensus.”
I’m all for cooperation—voluntarily taken of course. There is compromise within families and between spouses and neighbors and friends. But those are inherently private and voluntarily.
Public “compromise,” on the other hand, usually results in some group or institution—whether public or private—achieving something on the back of the labor and wealth of others. Public debate in America has long ignored this.
As a result, our political culture faces an interesting dichotomy. We tell our children never to compromise their principles, but we revere it when it comes to the political arena. And that reverence is divorced from reality. Consider a few examples.
In 1798, Rep. Matthew Lyon spit in the face of Rep. Roger Griswold after Lyon called Griswold a crook and Griswold called Lyon a coward. In 1832, Texas Governor Sam Houston beat Rep. William Stansberry, R-Ohio, with a cane right on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Stansberry tried to shoot Houston, but his gun misfired. In 1850, the Senate adjourned for the day after Sen. Henry Foote, D-Miss., pointed a pistol at Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Mo. And in 1857, Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts within inches of his life with a cane.
I’m not saying bring back the duel. I’m saying those who think today’s political climate is particularly poisoned have neglected their history. There hasn’t been so much as a punch in the face since 1902. Today, we argue with op-eds and media appearances, trying to sway public opinion.
Yes, this makes it difficult to pass big, comprehensive legislation. But considering the legislation that has passed in recent years—the Affordable Care Act, the Stimulus that didn’t stimulate, the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” bill that launched a thousand regulations—this ought not be viewed as a bad thing.
The president himself seems to have abandoned the pretense of worshipping at the altar of compromise.
Time and again—in his second inaugural address, his latest State of the Union speech, and elsewhere—he has clearly conveyed his frustration with Congress and his willingness to impose his agenda via executive orders and regulatory fiat.
Even his move to consult Congress on whether to attack Syria reeked of political necessity rather than an honest acknowledgment of Congress’ constitutional role in authorizing military action. Which raises the question: What if Congress does not approve? We will soon find out.
Politics is not about settling arguments; it’s about winning them. Like all markets, the marketplace of ideas delivers prosperity for all when it is set free. The process of adding laws that restrict our freedom ought to be cumbersome and difficult and clunky. That’s one machine that does not need to be efficient. When it comes to our political system, its propensity to catch sand in the gears is a feature, not a bug.