Victor Nuovo: The lost art of compromise
Editor’s note: This is the 20th and final in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
I began this series of essays confident that our nation would long endure, because it could always rely upon two institutions to sustain it, and, when needed, to serve as sure means of renewal: those institutions are the Constitution and the two-party system.
The former prescribes a way of managing competing interests and ambitions through the separation of powers under the rule of law; the latter makes possible a continual exchange of opinion, through political debate, seasoned by a constant stream political wit and wisdom proceeding from opposite perspectives, yet united in a common national purpose.
The attractive force of this common purpose, or national good, draws the opposing sides together and creates a moderating center of discourse and opinion that facilitates constructive engagements between them and thereby ensures the continuation of a vital and thoughtful political life, which is essential for any civil society. In sum, I hoped that by reminding ourselves of this legal and political heritage there would always be a way available to us of ensuring political stability, continuity and renewal.
In this hope, I chose my theme. Lately, I have been beset with doubts whether this confidence is any longer warranted. Current political discourse on the left and the right not only failed to raise my hopes, rather it plunged them into the depths. Yet I was left with a choice: to despair or to reassert my hope. I have chosen the latter.
Presently, our national political discourse consists of slogans shouted from the extremes, or lately, tweeted, or by the use of some other variety of the auto-erotic social media, rather than calmly voiced hypotheses proceeding from a thoughtful center.
The moderating center has grown silent. This is evident by an unwillingness, if not incompetence, of all parties to compromise and hence a loss of the art.
It has been said many times that politics is the art of compromise, although it is mostly said unknowingly and without meaning. There is, however, a specific meaning that I should like to attach to this saying, and it derives from John Stuart Mill.
Mill, it will be recalled, was a liberal and in his politics and his social thought he maintained a consistent liberal outlook. But he also displayed an openness and sympathy with the opposite side and even, as his essay on Coleridge shows, an ability to speak in its behalf and in its voice.
Mill defined the political art of compromise as a willingness of opposing parties to settle for half-measures in order to achieve a common good that they may see differently. He added conditions: compromise is an acceptable policy so long as there is real progress towards a goal of universal good and so long as the adoption of such measures does not regress. Thus, he believed it would be wrong to adopt measures that increase the wealth of a nation at the expense of the poorest and least advantaged among the people, and that political reform must always give priority to rectifying injustice and removing the worst conditions — for example, the abolition of slavery and of inequality.
It is this agreement on a common goal that makes possible the establishment of a moderating center from which both parties can retain confidence that they are moving forward and not backward, towards greater liberty, not less; towards more equality, not less.
Now it may be asked, has this ever been achieved? Or, what is even more pertinent, has it ever been achieved in this country? And, if so, is it still possible here and now?
It is in search of answers to these questions that I intend to begin a new phase in this series of essays. A positive answer to the first question is requisite for a positive answer to the second, for unless there is a real heritage of principled compromise on which to build, the possibility of achieving it now is nil. Nation building from nothing is always doomed to failure.
What I have written thus far may be taken as preparation for what is to come. What I propose is a plain and accessible account of the political and intellectual history of this nation since its founding. I can claim no originality in recognizing the necessity for this task. What is original is the presentation of this theme in a local newspaper in a small town in in Vermont.
The contest of liberal and conservative politics is present from the beginning, for example, and evident in the competing interests of two of this nation’s most prominent founders, Adams and Jefferson, who engaged in the earliest contest of liberal and conservative politics.
But in this upcoming series, which will be selective, I will focus also on other lesser known seminal persons, whose political and intellectual accomplishments have been forgotten. For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841–1935), who served as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years. Many took him for a liberal, others considered him a conservative, whereas he was neither. Rather he was a moral pessimist and political realist, so that all three traditions (i.e. conservative, liberal, pessimist) of American political thought converge in him. Holmes is proof of the vitality of our traditions. He exemplifies an experimental political life. He saw clearly that this nation is an experiment, as are all of its laws and institutions, some of which succeed while just as many fail, after which it is only through calm judgment and resolve that it is possible to proceed.
To be continued.
Postscript: The saying “Politics is the art of compromise” is commonly attributed to the 19th century German politician, Otto von Bismarck (1815–98). In fact, he never said it, but something like it, which is also worth noting: “Politics is the art of the possible—the art of the next best.” Bismarck meant something different from what is intended in this essay. For him, the give-and-take of politics was a play of power rather than one of principles, which is what Mill proposed.
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