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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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