What do the most ardent supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common? The fear that their party’s “establishment” will compromise key principles to maintain their powerful standing in the political system. The “make America great again” and “feel the Bern” crowds share a profound disdain for the elected representatives who forsake party principles once they have been elected and make even token gestures of working with the other side.
Such tension between rigorous adherence to principle and the ability to seek prudent compromise is not new. The nineteenth-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once remarked that politics was “the art of the practical”—that is, politics should be a process of compromise to achieve the best possible end given the circumstances, rather than a refusal to accept all but the most perfect outcome.
Politics should not be an exercise in ideological rigidity where one preserves one’s political bona fides at the expense of societal benefit, but rather an exercise in statesmanship that recognizes the shared goal of improving collective well-being and compromising to achieve political progress towards that end. Unfortunately, too many politicians today have denied that long-tested wisdom, prioritizing instead ideological conformity and in the process dooming the nation to years, if not decades, of intense political infighting and stagnation.
Don’t Play Chicken With Our Country
In a rare show of bipartisanship, this ideological inflexibility is something both left and right agree on. Conservatives are lambasted as “RINOs” by their party members if they dare to discuss, much less question, sacred right-wing stances such as Second Amendment rights, the pro-life movement, or tax reform. Progressives are equally denounced by their constituents and peers as corrupt or fraudulent if they fail to agree wholeheartedly with hallowed liberal views such as the corrupting influence of money in politics, the deleterious effect of systemic racism on minorities, or the necessity of universal health care. Both sides are excoriated for attempts to reach across the aisle to achieve any sort of workable compromise.
Thus, contrary to Bismarck’s observation, politics today has become the art of the palatable—the exercise of dispensing comforting platitudes that confirm preexisting ideas. Rather than statesmen, we have salesmen, those who sell us the idea that none of our problems are our own to bear, that all that is wrong with the world can be traced back to the foolhardiness and willful malice of the other side, and that if only we pushed a little bit harder to ensure our opponents could not carry out their twisted aims, all would be right with the world (or at least it would all be a hell of a lot more comfortable for people like us).
The strength of our democratic system rests upon the diversity of views and values that it allows to flourish and the framework it provides for living those out in coordination with others. Examples abound of potential compromises that have been bypassed in pursuit of ideological purity, but perhaps the most relevant and destructive is the current opposition from both parties to tax reform.
We Really Can Find Common Ground
While both liberals and conservatives pay lip service to goals such as reducing the national debt and promoting business development and job growth, both refuse to accept or pursue attempts at tax reform where realistic compromises could further these goals. In 2015, conservative members of Congress sought to overhaul the tax system to ease tax burdens on businesses. Despite the fact that such an act would have spurred economic growth and promoted industry development for everyone from small business to large corporations, progressive members opposed the plan due to the tax cuts large corporations would have received.
Progressive opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy led them to oppose legislation that would have benefited small businesses and those at all levels of society. Conservatives are not off the hook, either. They have consistently opposed any form of tax increase, despite the clear advantage that limited increases would offer towards reducing the national debt.
A potential compromise between these two extremes would be to focus on lowering tax burdens for businesses, which would promote development, encourage entrepreneurial endeavors, and discourage large corporations from moving their operations offshore or to foreign nations, while including marginal tax increases to support initiatives such as the earned income tax credit. This would satisfy the most pressing demands of both factions—preserving their commitment to core principles while allowing for prudent compromise.
Society ought to be led by statesmen, leaders who seek prudent compromise and accept a less than perfect outcome rather than accept no outcome at all. Today’s politicians should take a lesson from statesmen such as Bismarck and refuse to allow ideological creeds to limit their ability to pursue the good. Both sides, liberal and conservative, should welcome this change.