Art Of Compromise


?Art Of Compromise? Essay, Research Paper

I. The label “art of compromise” and it’s reference to


Politics is referred to as the “art of compromise”. It

is essential to a democratic society. Elected officials meet in

legislative chambers to hammer out policies that all constituents

can live with. Successful politicians learn early on the

survival value of compromise. Economist Donald Wittman (1995:

154) correctly observes, “That is what good politicians do:

create coalitions and find acceptable compromises.” Also

political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain (1995: 61) states “But

compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an

adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.”

II. Reasons why compromise is essential.

Politicians need to be able to compromise and be good

at bargaining with other elected officials. One reason is that in

order to get what is important to them, they must be willing to

negotiate with others who also want support, it’s is a trade off

in that each wants support for the their cause and in turn, must

support someone else’s cause as well. They must do this type of

bargaining in order to win enough support to get the votes

necessary to win for their constituents. If the constituents

don’t see that the elected official can bring home the bacon,

they won’t vote for them in the next election. In other words,

without compromise, nothing will be acheived for the

contituency, and as a result the official will not likely

continue to hold office for long.

By the same token, no politicians or voters, will get everything

they want. There must be a majority to implement policy, which

means that means that almost every time supporters of policy will

have to give up something of value to others in order to win

enough support for their cause. This is referred to as

“logrolling.” In order to function well, Congress needs members

who understand the need for and have the ability to compromise;

who are willing to be team players and fight for what they

believe without demonizing their opponents, so that they may work

with them again on different issues. A politician who refuses to

compromise is typically labeled as an “ideologue”, a title which

has little prestige among members of political class.

III. Backlash of compromise and the role politics play

in regard to effectiveness of compromise.

Politicians who are known for compromise are less

attractive in the public opinion. The public prefers rigid

adherence to principles they believe are important, and don’t

generally understand the essential need for compromise, or how

necessary it is to get things done. Because compromise is

essential to being effective for the constituency, each

legislator is confronted by the difficult task of being an expert

compromiser in legislatures while appearing to voters to be an

uncompromising champion of principle.

Democratic politics falls short of achieving optimal

compromise not only because of immoderate ideological restraints

imposed on representatives by voters, but also because it

displaces arrangements which could achieve a far greater amount

of progress. Politics stifle more beneficial compromise than it

promotes. President George Bush Sr. learned how damaging a

non-compliant attitude in regards to his 1990 “read my lips, no

new taxes” campaign pledge. President Bush Sr. did what comes

naturally to all politicians: compromise first and worry about

ideology later. However, his problem was he was caught in the act

and his political rivals easily portrayed his character as an

unprincipled leader. He stated “The biggest mistake of my

presidency was that I damaged my credibility by agreeing to a tax

increase…I worked a compromise and it cost me plenty” (Bush

1996). However, when Ronald Reagan compromised during his

presidency, he had such refined communication skills that he was

able to deflect the public’s attention from his compromises, and

focus it instead on his proudly proclaimed ideological beliefs.

Institutional effectiveness requires officials with a relatively

long time goals who see policy making as an ongoing process in

which there are no final winners and should be no total losers.

IV. A voice by all is not heard.

The political bargaining table only has a limited

number of seats. While all parties at the table must compromise

amongst themselves, they are the lucky few to have a say in what

will be compromised upon. Individual citizens rarely have

political influence. Political influence requires that people be

organized into lobbying groups of sufficient size and with

sufficient resources to attract the attentions of elected

officials. Politics is weak at compromise because politics

artificially and unnecessarily limits the number of bargaining

parties (Crew and Twight 1990; Twight 1994). Parties excluded

from the table never have their interests on the table to be

weighed against the interests of the select few sitting at

the table. The interests of unorganized groups are ignored by

political processes. Thus describing politics as the art of

compromise is misleading because the value to interest groups

using political process depends on the inability of other groups

to organize effectively and join in the bargaining. Because of

this advantage, interest groups have incentives to limit the

number of parties sitting at the table. The end result is that

the general, unorganized public typically are compromised by

political compromise. If the public does not trust the

institution, and does not understand the crucial role that

bargaining and compromise play, it becomes much more difficult

for politicians to make the hard choices.


Compromise is an ingredient of a democratic society

that cannot be excluded. It has helped our society to be able to

make changes, which without compromise, we could not have

benefited from the positive effects of had it not been possible

to compromise with others. Compromise does have it’s pitfalls,

and it is restrained for two basic reasons. First, the

indecisiveness of each voter’s vote in democratic elections

causes voters to vote too ideologically, and voters reward

politicians for supporting policies consistent with ideological

beliefs, whether or not such policies pass any reasonable

cost-benefit tests (Sinclair 1996). Fear of punishment from

voters keeps politicians from compromising as openly and fully as

they otherwise would. Second, political decision making is too

sensitive to special interest groups, and too insensitive to

unorganized groups. That is not everyone who is being affected by

policy decisions is having a say in what is being considered.

Thus, although compromise does weigh in heavily in support of the

processes of a democratic society, it is not without fault, and

does neglect a large part of the public’s interests by not

allowing them the representation they deserve to have a voice

about all policy making which goes on behind closed doors, and

away from public view. However, compromise should be more open

and accepted by the public, criticized and debated upon, in order

for our society to be considered a true democracy.



Bush, G. (1996) “Notable & Quotable.” In Wall Street

Journal, 26 January: A10.

Crew, M.A., and Twight, C. (1990) “On the Efficiency of

Law: A Public Choice Perspective.” Public Choice


Elshtain. J.B. (1995) Democracy on Trial. New York:

Basic Books.

Sinclair, B. (1996) Vote for Me: Politics in America.

American Political Science Association, September,


Wittman, D.A. (1995) The Myth of Democratic Failure.

Chicago: University of Chicago

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