As events unfold in our political landscape, it is obvious that our politicians are determined to ignore the message delivered by the electorate at the last elections: they must work together. With the PPP controlling the executive and the APNU and AFC controlling the legislature there is no other way. In the real world, whenever two groups have to work together and they do not share the same world view, compromise becomes the only option.
But it appears that this word is absent from the lexicon of our politicians. This year, the eminent political theorist of liberal democracy, Amy Gutman, co-authored a book on the need to compromise in politics but also pointed out to a feature of our democracy that militates against compromise. She uses the US to illustrate her contention: imagine how much more pointed is her advice for our polity.
“If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy. Unless one partisan ideology holds sway over all branches of government, compromise is necessary to govern for the benefit of all citizens. A rejection of compromise biases politics in favour of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis.
Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible. Why is compromise so hard in a democracy when it is undoubtedly necessary? Much of the resistance to
compromise lies in another necessary part of the democratic process: campaigning for political office. Though valuable in its place, campaigning is increasingly intruding into governing, where it is less helpful. The means of winning an office are subverting the ends of governing once in office.”
Gutman is referring to the mindset of the politicians to pander to the sentiments of their ‘constituencies’ – no matter how myopic those may be – in ‘campaigning”. We saw an example of this compulsion to ‘campaign’ when the leaders of APNU, after making compromises along with the President to craft an agreement on certain budgetary measures, felt compelled to backtrack after “their constituency’ was riled up by the AFC. The compromises were ridiculed as ‘sell outs”.
Gutman continues by outlining the features of the uncompromising mindset associated with “campaigning”: First, it reinforces all the other factors of politics. Even sharp ideological differences would present less of an obstacle to compromise in the absence of the continual pressures of campaigning that the uncompromising mindset supports.
Second, for compromise to play its proper role in the process, politicians and citizens need to understand not only the partisan positions and political interests that influence compromise but also the attitudes and arguments that resist or support it.
Third, unlike some of the other factors, such as ideological polarization, campaigning is an essential and desirable part of the democratic process. It becomes a problem only when it interferes with governing—another equally essential part of the process.
“In general, compromise is an agreement in which all sides sacrifice something in order to improve on the status quo from their perspective, and in which the sacrifices are at least partly determined by the other sides’ will. The sacrifice involves not merely getting less than you want, but also, thanks to your opponents, getting less than you think you deserve.
The sacrifice typically involves trimming your principles. We call these defining characteristics of compromise mutual sacrifice and wilful opposition.
“The character of legislative compromise is shaped by its distinctive democratic and institutional context. Within the arena of legislative compromises, we need to distinguish between what may be called classic compromises and other consensual agreements. Classic compromises express an underlying and continuing conflict of values: the disagreements among the parties are embodied in the compromise itself.
Other consensual compromises are based on an underlying convergence of values or what is often called “common ground”. These agreements set aside the original disagreement and conclude in a complete consensus. Some advocates of consensus see it as a way to promote the value of community.”
Our politicians must seek the “common ground” as a matter of course.
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