Can America Survive Without Compromise?
In a recent article at Prospect Magazine, Cullen Murphy asks the question, “Is America ungovernable?” It’s a reasonable question, given the stubborn refusals to compromise which recently delayed implementation of the national budget until the last possible moment, and the outrageous insults being flung about the nation’s capital.
Even when the goal is to cut a mere $1.2 trillion (less than ten percent) from the nation’s deficit over the next decade the two parties in our government and would rather blame each other for the lack of compromise than actually compromise to reach a solution.
Does this behavior mean the end of effective government in America?
Not necessarily. In fact, as Murphy points out in the Prospect article, the Founding Fathers reacted to the historical excesses of totalitarian power in centralized government by deliberately establishing a form of government which makes it very difficult to change anything. In designing a government which requires three branches of power to agree, one of their overarching principles seems to have been if a compromise can’t be reached, it’s usually better not to pass the law. As Murphy puts it: “The truth is, America has always been hard to govern: ungovernability is its default condition.”
Still, the Founders did know how to compromise.
The original document governing the United States after their successful separation from British rule was known as Articles of Confederation. It gave very few powers to the central government, reserving almost every governmental responsibility for the individual states. The U.S. Constitution was enacted because many states were refusing to abide by the Articles of Confederation, especially with regard to taxation, and the union was in danger of dissolving. If the United States was to survive as a single entity, major changes had to happen. But there were many points of disagreement between the states at that time, just as there are between political parties today.
How should power be shared between states with larger and smaller populations? Who should be allowed to vote? How should the slave population be counted? How should free states deal with slaves who escaped from slave states?
These and many other issues had to be resolved, and the various opinions among delegates to the Constitutional Congress were firmly rooted in uncompromising moral and financial world views. Indeed, the budgetary crisis in our headlines seems insignificant compared to questions such as that. Yet a union was established between people with radically different views, and its governance was enshrined in a constitution without bloodshed, at least initially.
Tragically, our nation soon forgot the art of compromise. When national opinion shifted further toward a proper view of slavery, rather than resolving the matter with further compromise in the right direction, it required the deaths of hundreds of thousands of white Americans to settle the question of how to treat the African Americans. Consider for a moment the photograph at the head of this article. It is a civil war cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, filled to overflowing with fresh graves. That is what government without compromise looks like.
The Founding Fathers–men of the highest moral principles in most cases–were willing to accept a lesser evil to avoid another, which seemed to them more evil still. Slavery continued. Blacks were counted as merely three fifths human when establishing the number of representatives a state could send to Congress. Runaways had to be sent back to their masters. These were ugly compromises indeed, but America would not exist at all if they had not been made.
We face difficult choices today. When the money runs out, should we take more by force from those who have worked hard to earn it, or should we allow the elderly and infirm to suffer instead? Should we retain our liberties exactly as they were before 9/11, or should we give up some of our freedom in exchange for physical safety? Can America continue to survive without the willingness to compromise?
Constructive debate and principled positions are essential to our process of determining the best course of national action, but if the difference between the choices which led to the founding of this nation and the choices which led to over 600,000 American deaths in the Civil War have taught us anything, it is that there comes a time when we must set aside our disagreements and find a way to stand together, or we will fall apart.