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Lee Hamilton: Don’t hate compromise – it’s the keystone of democracy

🕐 2 min read

You may not be ready for next year’s elections but they’re coming up fast. At some point one or more candidates will declare: “I will not compromise!” – and the crowd will go wild.

It’s an easy applause line but I shy away from politicians who use it. In a democracy, being willing (and able) to compromise is a core skill for governing. Shouting “No Compromise!” may fire up the crowd, but it’s a recipe for failure when it comes to getting things done.

Legislative bodies do need members who set out pure ideological positions as part of the public dialogue. But if they’re allowed to control or dominate the process, nothing gets done. Politicians have to understand that working together must prevail in the end.

So why doesn’t it happen more? Because compromise is not easy and it’s especially hard today, when the country is so deeply divided. Even the word “compromise” causes disagreement. To someone like me, it’s a way forward. To others, including a lot of voters, it’s a betrayal of principle.

The thing is, politicians never control the political environment in which they’re working. They have to seek the best solution given the cards they’re dealt.

We need legislators who want to make the system work, and who will consider the broad concerns of the entire population.

One day during World War II, Judge Learned Hand told an assembled crowd: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women.”

Congress struggles because its members don’t know how to compromise, are afraid to, or don’t want to. And voters don’t have much room to complain; we sent them there.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.

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