From an early age, around the time we learned our Schoolhouse Rock!, we were taught that our system of checks and balances is a pillar of American democracy. The different branches serve to check each other so that no one branch becomes too powerful and driven by a narrow set of interests.
The same goes for our party system. The value of having two or more parties—in our case, Republicans and Democrats—is that they can further check and balance democracy across and within branches. In theory, divided government is a good thing. In practice, our norm of divided government has become problematic because of its heavy dose of checking and scant amount of balancing.
Politics is about give and take. But compromise is the one thing that seems to be missing from politics today, not only between branches, but in the case of Republicans even among partisans. Herein lies the problem: How can we expect the branches to compromise if the parties themselves cannot agree on how to proceed?
We tend to point the finger at our elected officials. And yes, they do deserve a fair share of the responsibility, or blame—depending on your point of view. However, as individual constituents we also need to share in the responsibility of the diminishing role of compromise. We can’t ask our elected officials to want to compromise when we as voters do not want to. We citizens are the ones who hire and fire our elected officials, so in large part our elected officials are responding to us.
The Pew Research Center recently came out with a study that shows how we as Americans think about political compromise. The good news is that half of us like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with. This is especially good news given that just two years ago only 40% of Americans liked officials who compromised. However, a very different picture emerges when that figure is broken down by party.
Close to 60% of Democrats like to see elected officials compromise. In contrast, slightly more than one-third of Republicans do not like to see their elected officials compromise. For a majority of the GOP’s rank-and-file, it’s their way, or “no way.”
In his column last Saturday, the New York Times‘ Charles Blow referred to these unbendable Republicans as “suicide conservatives.” These are the folks that will not support any sort of compromise even among their own party. Not only are these conservative partisans willing to go down, but they’ll take down those around them.
The test of just how true to the cause these “suicide conservatives” are will come in the 2014 election. It’s one thing to say that you don’t like compromising on a political survey and another to vote against your self-interest come election time. Would a conservative Republican really prefer to see a liberal Democratic Senator elected rather than a moderate Republican?
We will know soon enough how this shakes out, but in the short term the collateral damage is being felt by all of us in the stalemate that has gripped our political system. If only we could ask our elected officials—and especially the “suicide conservatives”—to simply follow the playground rule of playing nice in the sandbox.
Victoria Defrancesco Soto
Friday, 15 February 2013