ColumnsFeatureGray Friday

I Love Compromise, But…

Compromise as a Democratic Necessity or as Democracy's Corruption?

I love compromise. It is a key reason why I am a gray partisan. I know that it is often the case that the pursuit of a good compromise solution to a contentious problem yields a better result than does the pursuit of perfect solution imposed against opponents. I know, further, that when different interests, insights and perspectives inform our action, a better result is likely to endure.

Yet, I also know that there is a second meaning to the word compromise, that compromise can be understood as the abandonment of principle, often insuring the continuation of a pressing problem, even making matters worse. Think of the compromises about slavery leading up to the American Civil War. Compromise sometimes prolongs injustice and suffering, yields irrational results, supported by no one, with profound unintentional negative consequences.

Observing the Democrats’ response to Trump and Trumpism leads me to think about the underside of compromise this gray Friday morning. Facing a government shutdown, the Democrats negotiated with Trump and the Republicans, who just had passed a “tax reform” law that gave vast sums to the super rich, and crumbs to the middle class and poor, taking away from the more progressive parts of the country, while giving to the Trumplands. The Democrats’ compromise on the budget with the Republicans yielded huge increases in military spending (as Trump tweeted: “Just signed Bill. Our Military will now be stronger than ever before. We love and need our Military and gave them everything — and more. First time this has happened in a long time…”) and minimally sustained non-defense spending such as disaster relief, infrastructure projects, programs to combat the opioid crisis, and the Child Care Development Block Grant program. The compromise was sealed when the Senate Majority, Mitch McConnell, promised an open debate on immigration, which White House sabotaged yesterday.

While the Democrats were, therefore, not complicit in a government shutdown, their compromise did nothing for the cause of immigration reform, and will lead to a huge increase in the deficit, an irrational policy at this stage of the economic cycle. When deficit spending and tax cuts made sense immediately following the financial crisis, the deficit hawk Republicans were intransigent, and now they are unconcerned, revealing a profound bad faith, as Paul Krugman observes in his column today.

Krugman notes that a balanced accounting of this makes little sense. There are not two sides of the question. The Republicans have been lying about their deficit concerns, and about their concerns for protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In the name of fiscal responsibility, they are now talking about so called entitlement reform. They are stealing from the less affluent to give to the rich. Compromise with an opponent who acts in such bad faith is profoundly dangerous, especially as it is supported by and is supporting a president who does little to hide his authoritarian ambitions, as I reflected on last week. 

I am not sure that this means that ultimately “the populist bastard” Trump is really but a player in the march of neoliberalism, as Quinn Slobodian maintained here. But I do think he is right to note how market fundamentalists are shaping the political economic system to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, and using populism creatively and cynically. (I still am unconvinced by the idea that there is clear neoliberal project.) Truth matters little for both the market fundamentalists and the new populists, compromise with them is extremely dangerous.

But that leads me to the positive promise of compromise. There is a clear and present danger, and it must be identified and opposed. But to do so requires working with people with whom you don’t completely agree, doing so creatively, not insisting upon purity. Thus, maintaining that solidarity is not a liberal value, as Bryant William Sculos insists we should, may be an interesting topic for a seminar debate, or a debate in academic journals. In fact, on these grounds, in terms of the history of ideas, his is a cogent position. But that liberals find their way to a commitment to solidarity in a more circuitous way than do socialists (for example Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea about individualism properly understood) is not the crucial issue, and questioning their commitment is politically off the central topic. It is decidedly less significant than the potential for liberals and socialists to come together in support of solidarity, democracy, the welfare state, and racial, gender and class justice. There are differences of judgment and opinion, but they are the differences that democratic practice should be about.

Sculos is certainly right, from his political and theoretical position, that “socialist values are feminist values and feminist values are socialist values.” But, I find it baffling when he asserts stark distinctions between the good socialists and the bad liberals. For example when he asserts “The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the differences between telling your boss to get his hands off your ass and working together with your fellow employees to fight for democratically-accountable management or democratic unionization.” As a matter of fact, in the United States many liberals have been at the forefront of unionization and a democratically accountable system of management. There are certainly significant differences between socialists and liberals, but compromise would seem to have been the key to realizing their ideals, and more crucially today figuring out effective ways to oppose their common enemy. To speak quite specifically, it is time for liberal democrats and democratic socialists, for Clinton and Sanders supporters, to work together, recognize their differences, compromise and get the pressing job done. To imagine that anything resembling the present horror show would be happening if Hillary or Bernie were president is absurd. To blame either of them for the present horrors is equally absurd. Compromise, as I cherish it, is now imperative.

I should add that I appreciate the grayness of compromise and my ambivalence about it as I go through my weekly schedule, this week including: Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Blue Monday column, a visit of Melvin Rogers to the lecture class  The Women and Men in Dark Times and a session of the Media and Micropolitics seminar.

Issac translates music into words, and words into music, offering commentary on the culture of Trumpism and the political power of resistance. I think he demonstrates that the texture and richness of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” and its embeddedness in the traditions of jazz and the blues, and the struggles for racial justice, speaks to the problems of our times. The music reveals the necessity of resisting dubious characters in a way that is textured and rich, that is not one dimensional, that includes many in their differences, concerning related common principles. The refined art of jazz and the blues provides a way to bring us together, to imagine together, in shared sensibility.

Roger’s lecture had two sources, the development of his appreciative critique of work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his work in progress on the longer history of African American political thought, the working title, The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought . I was struck by his interpretive empathy. His ability to be critical and appreciate at the same time. To create dialogue based on a drive for mutual understanding that I think is a significant ingredient for successful compromise, as opposed to compromised politics.

And the Media and Micropolitics seminar met in the Orozco Room, in the midst of the five panel fresco of Jose Clemente Orozco. Focusing especially on the panel that accompanies this post and ones soon to come from the students, we noted what was happening and what was not happening in the mural from the perspective of alternative theories of social interaction and power. We noted the openness and the incompleteness of interactions around the table, and we joined in, sharing it as we thought about the theme of our seminar: “Media, the New Authoritarianism and its alternatives from the perspective of the sociology of interaction.” We noted that the depicted figures didn’t seem to be really interacting but suggested the need for it.

Thinking of that discussion, I can imagine that the depicted figures could observe the shared ideal of universal brotherhood, as the title of the mural suggests, but also could see both how that shared principle could be compromised and how it could propel them to work together.

Compromise as a democratic necessity or as democracy’s corruption.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • Tenured_Radical

    I think the compromises prior to the Civil War are an excellent example, because political compromise literally supported the expanding domestic market in souls, and thus, in state-sponsored terror and human misery. But it is also a good example of why these compromises occur: politicians pushing solutions to the next generation, rather than creating principles for human freedom that might be costly to them.

    • Exactly, “Tenured Radical,” and I believe we are facing a similar challenge right now. The majority of Republicans are cynical and heartless in their mission to give to the rich at the expense of everyone else, and Trump and his enablers (aka mostly the same Republicans) are true enemies of democracy. My hope is that those who compromise with them will see the errors in the ways, not compromise with them, and compromise with everyone who sees a clear and present danger, the center left and the left, and I hope the center right. (A Purple Hope).

      On the one hand, compromise threatens the Republic as it did prior to the Civil War for the reasons you state, but compromise in opposition is a key to resisting this trend.

  • Bryant W. Sculos

    While I would certainly contest some of this, I appreciate the thoughtful engagement as always. For example, I don’t think that liberals (ones at least, as I say, who are not deeply influenced by the social democratic tradition–so excluding the ones I suspect you would consider “good liberals”) have ever been at the forefront of workplace organizing.

    I certainly don’t disagree though that liberals and socialists can work together on certain things, but it is exceptionally difficult to do when the liberals seem more interested in compromising with Trump and the GOP. Compromise should indeed be at the heart of democratic politics, but compromising with forces that care nothing for democracy is indeed a dangerous bargain that you highlight well here.

    • On the dilemma of compromise we agree, Bryant, though we might address the dilemma differently, that is the stuff of democracy. On liberals, I think it is important to remember that in the U.S. FDR defined liberalism, which was of course hard to distinguish from Social Democracy. I think I appreciate the fuzziness of the terms more than you do. An aesthetic distinction, with political implications?

      • Bryant W. Sculos

        Perhaps you not only see greater fuzziness but find more value in that fuzziness than I do (especially, as I say in my essay, when it comes to what principles and traditions people look to for guidance and inspiration; this is where I see the fuzziness dissipate in practice. While liberals may draw on a wider range of thinkers or events, very few liberals look to Marx or the Paris Commune or May 1968 or the Russian Revolution for example.).

        On the point about FDR, nearly all of the reforms he acceded to or ended up promoting were driven by two related factors (neither one of which are some connection between his liberalism and workplace organizing or valuing solidarity as a means and end): 1. Grassroots labor radicalism pushing for these demands, and 2. FDR’s fear of this radicalism leading to the potential increase in communist organizing in the US. While this may have shaped subsequent US liberalism during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when liberalism supports workers out of a broader fear of (greater radicalism on the part of) workers, this speaks to the influence and power of socialism–not liberalism. While I don’t think this is the kind of “compromise” relationship you were theorizing (though maybe it was!), it is interesting to think about.

        I tend to think that the liberals who take solidarity and workers seriously are better categorized as social democrats (especially because these social democrats tend to have other important discontinuities with liberalism as well; the most important of which I would suggest is a greater value placed on democracy itself, as well as that capitalism is a hindrance to democracy that needs to be at least severely regulated, as opposed to capitalism being a positive mechanism for the defense of individual liberty and the pursuit of self-interest).

        All that said, I am much more interested in the political consequences of these different perspectives and (self-)categorizations. In the context of US politics more generally, one of the most notable manifestations of what I mean here is the difference in perspectives on the viability of the Democratic Party (though I don’t have empirical data for this, I’m extremely confident that those who self-identify as liberal would be far more likely to view the Democratic Party as a potentially successful avenue for achieving genuine progress than someone who identifies as a socialist). You might say that “good liberals” would have a similar distrust of the Democrats as socialists, and if that’s the case, those two groups working together is certainly possible, regardless of the theoretical categorizations we’re discussing here. I still, of course, see value in highlighting the distinctions–without that necessarily disparaging attempts at compromise among the similarly-minded.

      • Bryant W. Sculos

        Perhaps you not only see greater fuzziness but find more value in that fuzziness than I do (especially, as I say in my essay, when it comes to what principles and traditions people look to for guidance and inspiration; this is where I see the fuzziness dissipate in practice. While liberals may draw on a wider range of thinkers or events, very few liberals look to Marx or the Paris Commune or May 1968 or the Russian Revolution for example.).

        On the point about FDR, nearly all of the reforms he acceded to or ended up promoting were driven by two related factors (neither one of which are some connection between his liberalism and workplace organizing or valuing solidarity as a means and end): 1. Grassroots labor radicalism pushing for these demands, and 2. FDR’s fear of this radicalism leading to the potential increase in communist organizing in the US. While this may have shaped subsequent US liberalism during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when liberalism supports workers out of a broader fear of (greater radicalism on the part of) workers, this speaks to the influence and power of socialism–not liberalism. While I don’t think this is the kind of “compromise” relationship you were theorizing (though maybe it was!), it is interesting to think about.

        I tend to think that the liberals who take solidarity and workers seriously are better categorized as social democrats (especially because these social democrats tend to have other important discontinuities with liberalism as well; the most important of which I would suggest is a greater value placed on democracy itself, as well as that capitalism is a hindrance to democracy that needs to be at least severely regulated, as opposed to capitalism being a positive mechanism for the defense of individual liberty and the pursuit of self-interest).

        All that said, I am much more interested in the political consequences of these different perspectives and (self-)categorizations. In the context of US politics more generally, one of the most notable manifestations of what I mean here is the difference in perspectives on the viability of the Democratic Party (though I don’t have empirical data for this, I’m extremely confident that those who self-identify as liberal would be far more likely to view the Democratic Party as a potentially successful avenue for achieving genuine progress than someone who identifies as a socialist). You might say that “good liberals” would have a similar distrust of the Democrats as socialists, and if that’s the case, those two groups working together is certainly possible, regardless of the theoretical categorizations we’re discussing here. I still, of course, see value in highlighting the distinctions–without that necessarily disparaging attempts at compromise among the similarly-minded.

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