Compromise and consensus: leadership in a democratic republic

A local politician recently got into hot water over comments she made that appeared to compare public assistance to feeding stray animals.  The person in question is not important nor is the course of the furor over her remarks.  The situation is similar to what is happening throughout our broken, leaderless democratic republic on a nearly constant basis.  A “talking point” that appeared clever was used as a substitute for rational policy discussion.

In the follow-up on the outrage the politician in question sent a guest editorial that deflected criticism through a long, rambling discussion about “leadership” and “compromise” in the legislature.  It occurred to me that very few people understand that “compromise” itself is not an end, but a means to achieve an end – consensus, the way work is done in our system.

The word “compromise” is stained in US History by the Missouri Compromise, the agreement that allowed Missouri to be admitted as a slave state but prohibited any more slavery that far north in the territories.  It failed because it never produced a consensus in congress – if anything, it hardened the anti-slavery activists which felt it gave away too much.  It is regarded as a solid step toward the Civil War, the ultimate failure of our system to peacefully resolve differences and provide a clear path forward.

Our system is a Democratic-Republic, which means a lot more than electing leaders who run the government.  The democratic functions have their own ebb and flow among the people and the republican system of bargaining among those who are elected.  Together they represent the yin and yang of a system that is supposed to produce a cohesive nation that is capable of getting done certain critical tasks necessary to maintain a free and ordered civilized society that moves ahead as one people.

Compromise among leaders is one way of moving beyond an impasse, but it is not the end.  Through a compromise, a legislature is supposed to garner support for a bill or policy question that it could not gain otherwise.  It is nothing more than a tool for developing consensus.  Consensus itself was foisted on us in the system devised by our Founders in the Constitution for moving ahead as a single nation, E Pluribus Unum.

On the democratic side, the development of a movement through activism is how consensus is developed, gradually convincing the general population that something must be done.

Where “compromise” is often a bad word, suggesting weakness, “consensus” is often missing.  Little has been written about it and the processes for achieving it in popular media.  Both terms are active and imply that the work and progress of a certain policy is still open for debate, but all sides are committed to moving forward together.  There is no reason that the success or failure cannot be revisited after the consensus plan has been implemented, so a good compromise should have measures of success built into it whenever possible.

Consensus, or progress together as a single people with shared work, is often missing as a word because the concept underlying it appears absent.  Outrage and absolutism has become far more appealing.  For example, one side refuses to allow not just taxpayer money but any sense of “coercion” paying for abortion or contraception in health care plans.  They believe that abortion is murder and that should be that.  But among a untied people things like this happen all the time – I am forced to pay for both wars and executions that I do not support.  These are, in fact, the same thing because all are condemned by the Catholic Church in the same encyclical Evengelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), issued by the soon to be sainted Pope John Paul II.  This was the basis for his condemnation of our Iraq War, which we are all still paying for.

The Millenial Generation tends to have taken the gravity of this problem more to heart, often favoring a consensus process of “direct democracy”.  This works well in small groups that are highly motivated, such as “Occupy” groups, but the lack of identified leaders makes it difficult to get things done and implement larger policies.  The yin and yang of a democratic-republic were given to us for a reason.  Still, the interjection of this youthful optimism in consensus is very important and, with an eye towards achieving real change, can provide a fresh perspective.  There is hope, but it is still in development.

In the meantime, leaders of all kinds need to understand what this dirty thing called “compromise” is all about.  It is not the finished product by any means.  It is a way that consensus can be found so that everyone can be a part of actually finishing the things that a government needs to accomplish – such as a budget, security for the next generation, and so on.   There is certainly a lot of work for our government to do.

This post was written by Erik Hare and originally published on Barataria. Follow Erik on Twitter: @wabbitoid.

If you blog and would like your work considered for Minnesota Blog Cabin, please submit our registration form.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/27/2012 - 10:22 am.

    Democracy is not a Consensus

    “Through a compromise, a legislature is supposed to garner support for a bill or policy question that it could not gain otherwise. It is nothing more than a tool for developing consensus.”

    This is confusing two very different things, compromise and consensus. Our government does not require a consensus on any specific issues. The consensus it requires is that we agree to abide by decisions made through our democratic process. We don’t require a consensus where everyone agrees to a result on any individual issue, only that 50% +1 agree to the result. And we agree that result can be changed any time a different 50% +1 decide to change it. Of course we have some other limits on what a majority can and can’t do. But the basic rule is that the majority rules, but only as long as it is in the majority.

    The Civil War was largely fought over exactly this principal. The confederates didn’t like the decision of the majority and decided to go to war rather than abide by it. The specific issue was slavery, but the war was caused by breaking the consensus that we would abide by democratic decisions.

    We have a significant number of people who no longer accept that consensus that we will abide by democratic decisions. They are willing to abide by democratic decisions only so long as they agree with them. If that process continues it will eventually lead to war, as decision by force is the only real alternative to democracy. It was superior force that settled the Revolutionary war breaking us off from Britain and creating the United States. It was superior force that settled the Civil War preserving both the supremacy of democratic decisions and the United States as a country.

    So long as we have a consensus on how decisions are made, the decision can be made and changed without resort to force. The role of compromise is to allow decisions to be made and implemented. Compromise is often achieved by adding together the different interests of different people until 50% +1 agree. Sometimes it is achieved by 50%+1 making a decision that is contrary to the interests of the minority. But any compromise in a democracy is an agreement by a temporary majority to move forward with an action. Its not a consensus.

    • Submitted by Erik Hare on 03/27/2012 - 02:56 pm.

      Overstated, perhaps?

      I’ll agree that I may have over-stated the need for consensus on everything, but the separation of powers does force consensus on nearly everything. Our Senate, in particular, has ancient rules that allow fillibustering with 60% necessary to invoke cloture. This was done to purposely force consensus on all bills that leave that body – a process that choked them into inaction more than once in our history (as they pretty much are now).

      Beyond the Senate, however, any bill must pass both houses and then be signed by the President. That generally requires a very broad consensus – at least something far more than majority rule. That kind of consensus is not possible on everything, so compromise is the main tool used to win enough support to manufacture something like consensus. That was my main point.

      I did leave aside lighting up an appropriations bill like a Christmas tree as another tool, but … it seems rather tawdry by comparison. There are other ways of achieving enough consensus to get the work done.

      So while I take your point, I hope you can see that while I may have over-stated the need for a genuine consensus there is still something like consensus that is necessary to get any work done at all in Washington – and that this was installed deliberately by our Founders.

Leave a Reply