Finding the Middle Ground: The Art of Governing (Or “Compromise” is not a four-letter word)

Study group led by Congressman Joseph J. Heck; Fall 2018

Joe Heck is a former Congressman and State Senator from Nevada, a Brigadier General in the US Army Reserve and the current Chair of National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. 

Politics is frequently called the “art of compromise,” where those elected by a demographically diverse population meet to develop policies that all constituencies can accept. This requires a give and take in order to achieve a majority vote and accepting that no one gets everything they want in the final product. Economist Donald Wittman observed, “That is what good politicians do; create coalitions and find acceptable compromises.” Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote, “But compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.”

Our entire government is based on compromise. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Connecticut (or Great) Compromise defined the legislative structure and representation that each state would have. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” introduced several ideas that he could not get through the Convention, but was instrumental in shifting the debate toward a compromise of "shared sovereignty" between the national and state governments.

But to what degree is the “art of compromise” demonstrated or embraced by elected officials today? In order to be viewed as successful back home, constituents want legislators to show meaningful results in Washington, DC – which requires compromise. Yet with a growing ideological divide and gerrymandered districts, voters often seek representatives that are “principled” or “uncompromising.” Thus, legislators face the difficult task of being an expert compromiser in chambers while appearing to voters to be an uncompromising champion of principle (Boudreaux and Lee, “Politics as the Art of Confined Compromise”).

Have our politicians become too partisan? Are they too focused on positioning themselves and their party for the next election to believe, as Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”? Is “The Art of the Deal” applicable to governing?

This study group will examine the factors that influence the perception, by both elected officials and the electorate, on bipartisanship, the role of compromise, and its impact on effective governing.

NOTE: Weekly topics and speakers are subject to change, based on scheduling and availability. Study Groups are closed to press and not for attribution.