Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amy Gutmann and the Academic Imprimatur For Compromise Fetishism

Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson promoted their upcoming book in a NYT op-ed Wednesday that told us that Congress just needs to learn to compromise. I mean, really.

Reading this stuff about how both sides need to give ground, you might think Gutmann and Thompson have been off the grid the last several years. They seem unaware that one, and only one, of the major American political parties was willing to hold the country hostage and extort concessions from the other party in exchange for votes to raise the debt ceiling. And the supercommittee, to them, was a "breakdown in an attempt at compromise in Washington" -- which makes sense only if you think that cutting federal spending amidst a rotten economy (policy even many center-right economists don't recommend) was an example of fair compromise in the first place.

Gutmann and Thompson call for grand compromise from both sides, but they have Thomas Friedman syndrome: they're unable to admit that President Obama -- much to our disappointment -- has offered the very kind of compromises they beg for. It's as if their way of thinking is unable to accept the results of the grand empirical experiment that is the Obama presidency: a guy who actually, truly believes in compromise giving it a go.

There was a time when compromise was relevant, because you could actually battle out policy differences. That's often not how it works anymore, at least for now. We're in an era of post-truth politics, where the outcome is mostly dependent on power politics, not the nuances of the policy.

It's annoying enough that Gutmann and Thompson buy into the notion that it's been Both Sides Fault in the last few years. But the broader problem is that they serve to give an academic imprimatur to the compromise fetishists, the line of DC pundits who think compromise is in itself a victory and necessarily good.

Much of the time "compromise" is used to give cover to the backroom deal that avoids a tough vote. In these cases, the deal is done by members of congress who aren't in it for compromise itself, but use "compromise" to put the best spin for all sides on what they've done.

Gutmann and Thompson seem to be the real deal, though: they actually believe that compromises are simply good, a goal in and of itself. But what about compromises that didn't turn out so well? The three fifth compromise -- was that one to be proud of?

I think many of the better moments in American history were in fact not compromises -- they were outright victories, instilling new rights. Sometimes a compromise can lead to an incremental victory that leads to final victory and justice, certainly. But some of our biggest advances in the end have nothing to do with compromise, be it the ending of slavery or the start of women's suffrage.

Gutmann (I'm a bit familiar with her work, and not Thompson's) needs an answer to American history. "Mutual respect" and "dialogue" sound well and good and all, but it sure helps if you're already the people in power. The victorious tactics of the civil rights movement, of course, would be looked down upon by Gutmann's prescriptions. How will they square that in the book?

Update 12/2: more on this from Daniel Denvir of the Philadelphia City Paper.


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