Compromise, Principle, and the Government Shutdown

I have recently been rather puzzled by the responses of Americans who observe the political world and pass ambiguous, if not remotely anarchistic, judgments on its proceedings. Two conclusions have I reached about these groups: either they are entirely disengaged from politics, appealing simply to a uneducated generalization about the state of things, or they are so intently focused on a solitary political extreme or issue that the legislative action of even the most partisan congressman may not remotely satisfy them. 

As the abortion battle raged at the Texas Capitol in July, I attended a hearing out of curiosity as to what opinions certain experienced individuals might have to contribute. The pro-abortion witnesses arose and gave their spiel. The pro-life witnesses arose and gave their spiel. Things were fairly polarized as usual, which is not surprising: there is no middle ground in a debate like this. But after some time, one bearded gentleman stood up and delivered one of the most useless testimonies ever heard in the underground chambers of the Capitol. I paraphrase:

“I am the president of a major non-partisan organization” (no specification as to the issue) “and I’ve been around the Capitol for over twenty-five years now” (so he must surely be a persuasive expert) “and I just want to say that I am absolutely disgusted by what I’ve been seeing around here for the past week” (oh goody, he’s about to break his non-partisan mold and take a stance!). “I am incensed that all of you are here wasting your time and our money discussing this issue” (maybe not) “and I am astounded that this bill has even made it this far” (it’s Texas, sir). “I am pro-life and I don’t believe in interfering with a woman’s right to choose” (that’s a contradiction by the way) “and I am just disgusted that there’s a whole special session about this, and I just wonder when our government is actually going to do something productive with its damn time” (he’s sounding so mad he’s about to cry). 

And there you have it—an utterly useless testimony. It didn’t sound like this gentleman was doing anything productive with his, er, precious time either. He argued no case and offered no solution. He picked no side and defended no position, save his own personal disgruntled sentiments.

What were the premises of this fence-sitter’s testimony? That all of the legislators were to blame for this mess, that compromise is always an option, and that convictions have no place. 

I am sensing the same premises reflected in the sentiments of the American public. As I write, our federal government is experiencing a partial shutdown, much to the inconvenience of sightseers, campers, and 800,000 government employees. As long as neither side budges, there is no end in sight. 

The national response to this rare phenomenon is intriguing. “We should just fire ’em all—they aren’t doing their job,” says popular wisdom. But I would in fact argue the contrary. 

First, I am reluctant to say that the shutdown is anyone’s “fault”, not because I wish to avoid treading on  someone’s toenails, but because in this context the assignment of blame assumes principle to be a vice. A Republican can blame Democrats for not accepting the GOP plan. A Democrat can blame “the Party of No” for their staunch refusal of Obamacare in any shape or form. Either way, the blame cancels out. One might say that they are both at fault, but since both parties refuse to compromise on their convictions (or personal interests), such a description would be mildly pejorative. Regardless of which party is wrong or right, they are showing political backbone—and political backbone is hardly a vice. Backbone is the quality for which constituents always clamor to see in their representatives. Thus, while we do indeed always hope that the other side will eventually cave to our interests, it seems irrational to complain about congressmen sticking to their guns for at least once in American history. 

This means that your congressmen are finally doing what you elected them to do. You didn’t put them in office so that they could compromise. You may not be happy with the government shutdown, but consider that the reason our government is in this pickle in the first place is because at least one of your congressmen is doing his job. 

If you are a conservative, you have probably spent the past several years railing against Obamacare. You have desired representation by someone who is against the healthcare overhaul and refuses to back down from his or her principles in the slightest degree. Now your congressman is finally refusing to compromise in his opposition to Obamacare, and you’re angry at him for shutting down the government.

That doesn’t make sense. 

Flip it the other way. If you are a liberal, you have probably spent the past several years rallying for health care reform. You have desired representation by someone who supports Obamacare and won’t compromise in the slightest degree, and when he or she advocates bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle”, they really are talking at Republicans. You pray that your representative will never get in bed with the GOP on a serious issue. Now your congressman is refusing to compromise in his support of Obamacare, and you’re angry at him for shutting down the government.

That doesn’t make sense, either. 

So when you complain about the government shutdown and the goatheaded stubbornness of your congressmen, you can only be entertaining two ideas: you like compromise, or it’s the other party’s fault. I have yet to meet someone who elected their representative to office purely to cozy up with the opposition, and I have already explained the redundancy of assigning blame. To assign blame is to say that the shutdown is the “fault” of both parties refusing to compromise—and you don’t like compromise.

Let me return to the two groups of dissidents I identified at the beginning of this essay. One is disengaged, the other is dissatisfied. To say “Let’s fire ’em all” either reveals an ignorant preference for the circular logic I have just addressed, or places you squarely in a political position so extreme that even the most solidly conservative or liberal officeholder in Washington cannot appease you. If you are in the latter category, I have nothing to say—other than that I am flabbergasted that, in the thick of this political battle that for every American holds enormous implications, whether positive or negative, you cannot agree with either extreme in this one critical situation. 

I do hope that the conflict is resolved soon. And I do hope that liberty is upheld and that the Democrats will be the ones compromising on this issue (someone must, eventually). But I would want to fully understand the underlying assumptions at play before I use my breath to curse the backbone for which we have been clamoring for such a long time. 

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