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Henningsen: Political Chicken

03/14/12 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Maine Senator Olympia Snowe recently announced that she's retiring because she's fed up with political gridlock. Commentator Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian who says that this news reminds him that American political discourse has always been pretty bad.

(Henningsen) Supposedly, compromise is what Americans do best. We're told that agreement by mutual concession is the most reliable way we've managed to resolve irreconcilable political differences. Compromises in 1787 gave us a Constitution and a federal union. Nineteenth century compromises saved the union and, as one historian noted, "When compromise broke down, the Union broke up." The Civil War offered final proof that the alternative to compromise is chaos and carnage, a lesson that has guided us ever since.

On the other hand, it's possible to see today's divisiveness as evidence of a consistent thread in American political life and the intransigence of the two major parties as intelligent political behavior. After all, were those earlier compromises really compromises?

The short answer is "No". Blackmail at the Constitutional Convention caused the famous "Great Compromise" when smaller states threatened to bolt the convention if they weren't protected by equal representation. That's how we got proportional representation in the House and equal representation of states in the Senate. Desperate to gain a Union, delegates wrote protections of slavery into the Constitution because Georgia and South Carolina threatened to leave if they didn't. These weren't mutual agreements but concessions made because of intimidation. They may have looked like compromises, but they weren't.

And what about the famous Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state in return for a tougher Fugitive Slave Act? Sure looks like a standard horse-trade until you learn that each measure was voted separately, with different majorities. No mutual concession, no shared ownership of the result, hence no real compromise.

Even the infamous "Compromise of 1877", wasn't as much of a mutual exchange as it first appeared. As inauguration day neared without a declared winner of the 1876 election, political and economic chaos loomed. This forced both sides to give Rutherford B. Hayes a presidency he didn't win at the polls in return for a promise that he wouldn't enforce civil rights in the South.

Then there's last summer's debt-limit deal, in which President Obama accepted deep spending cuts but Republicans blocked any tax increase. Obama caved because the nation risked economic catastrophe if it could no longer borrow to pay its debts - a possibility Republicans claimed to be willing to risk. The deal was called a "compromise", but it really wasn't because there was no mutual concession.

In fact, for most of our history, political compromise has been, as historian Julie Doar has written, "a problem masquerading as a solution". At best compromise is effective in the short term, cobbling over immediate disagreements. Far from resolving irreconcilable differences; it mostly postpones resolution, which tends to make things worse.

So it may be that our cherished belief in a past in which compromise saved the day isn't true. Today's inability to resolve major issues by mutual concession; our on-going game of political "Chicken"; and settlement by short-term postponement, are, in many respects, business as usual.
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