As its mission statement makes clear, the Gerber Institute exists to promote dialogue. We believe that genuine dialogue — dialogue that takes seriously the contributions of every participant — has the capacity to be truly transformative. If there is anything that Americans have been talking about for the past several months, it is the recently concluded presidential election. Yet there is good reason to wonder whether very much of that talk actually amounted to genuine dialogue. And so, in the wake of the election, the Gerber Institute has invited a few of Newman’s faculty to contribute reflections on the meaning or significance of the election, and to do so in the spirit of dialogue.
First up is Newman’s Provost, Michael Austin. Author of the recently published That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Amazon), Dr. Austin’s newest blog, Arguing as Friends, offers a good example of what dialogue looks like.
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Governing Is Compromise; Everything Else Is Theatre
Michael Austin, Provost
Analysts love to pretend that elections mean things—that 150 million people making millions of different decisions for billions of different reasons somehow come together to send a single, clear, and coherent message to their leaders. This is a fantastically inaccurate way to interpret elections, of course, but it can also be a useful exercise. The human mind (Nate Silver aside) evolved to make sense of useful and focused narratives not to process billions of messy and contradictory pieces of data. We need to have stories to tell, and those stories usually contain some truth, even if they are comically oversimplified and myopic.
The three elections previous to the most recent one have been stories of change. In 2006, voters, angry at George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, threw Republicans out of power in both the House and the Senate, defeating six incumbent Republican senators in the process. In 2008, the rout continued with the election of Democrat Barack Obama and a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. In 2010, however, the story changed dramatically: Republicans made substantial gains in the Senate and won back control of the House of Representatives with a convincing swing of more than 60 seats.
By these standards, the elections of 2012 had very little to do with change. After our candidates spent six billion dollars on millions of television ads across the country, our government looks almost exactly the same as it did the day before the election: Barack Obama is still the president, Republicans still control a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, and Democrats still control an equally comfortable (but by no means filibuster-proof) majority in the Senate. All of the sound and all of the fury signified very little. Collectively, we decided to give a huge thumbs-up to the status quo.
So what does the election mean? How should we put a billion data points into a single, coherent narrative? Here’s how I do it: For the last six years, the American people have tried changing their government. Now we are asking our government to change itself. Specifically, we are asking the people who run our government to stop engaging in political theatre and start governing. And, under America’s constitutional system, “governing” means “finding ways to compromise with the other guys.”
Through the course of recent election cycle, we got a pretty good idea how each party would govern if the other side did not exist. We know, for example, that, if they had complete control of the government, Republicans would lower taxes, decrease spending, loosen regulations, and generally shrink the size of government. We know, too, that, if Republicans suddenly ceased to exist, Democrats would rise the top tax rate, increase taxes on the wealthy, expand health care, and try to use the power of the government to stimulate the economy. The problem, as David Brooks pointed out in an excellent New York Times column last August, is that the other side isn’t going anywhere—no matter which side you are on. And this leaves us with only two options: compromise or gridlock.
Nobody likes to compromise, of course. Nobody ever has. Our Founding Fathers hated it, but they did it very well. As a result of their compromises, we now have a Constitution, a government, and a country. Today’s liberals and conservatives don’t want to compromise any more than the Founding Fathers did. Like them, we know that we are right, and, perhaps more importantly, we know that the other side is wrong. Deeply and fundamentally wrong. And we know that, if they get their way, America will cease to exist.
Political certainty has been part of every election in our nation’s history, and so have predictions of doom. The Election of 2012 was relatively mild compared to the election of 1800. That year, Federalists swore (and honestly believed) that Thomas Jefferson would outlaw God and decency and set up guillotines to the banks of the Potomac. Not to be outdone, Jeffersonian Republicans proclaimed (and also honestly believed) that Hamilton and Adams were scheming to restore monarchy to America and reunite the colonies under George III. Neither side could even imagine the American Republic surviving four years of the other guy.
But America survived Jefferson—and Jackson, and Polk, and Wilson, and Roosevelt, and Kennedy, and Reagan, and every other President who, according to the opposition, was going to destroy America, God, and the Constitution—which, it turns out, was all of them. America continues to survive, and flourish, because, after each hard-fought election, we come together as a people and find ways to magnify our similarities, minimize our differences, and, above all, craft meaningful compromises that allow us to move forward and solve our most difficult problems.
Compromise is not something we expect our leaders to do because they have goodwill, or because they love their enemies, or because they are looking for bi-partisan fuzzy-wuzzies. It is, rather, the only way to get things done in a Republic where people don’t all think alike. If the American people spoke with one voice in the 2012 election this is what they said. That, at least, is the story that I plan to tell.