You can’t compromise with people who aren’t working on the problem.
Compromise is great when it works, but it only works in a certain setting.
You can compromise with people who want to solve the same problem through different means. American households do this all the time. You can compromise with your spouse on what car to buy, because ultimately you both want to drive something. Similarly, the kids need a school, we have to live somewhere, we all want to eat something for dinner … so the details will work out somehow.
But without that sense of a common challenge, negotiations have nowhere to start. If I don’t think my drinking is a problem, if one of us wants children and the other is happy without them, if we disagree about whether monogamy is a good idea — those are the kinds of things marriages founder on, because without recognition of a common problem, you can’t both win.
The same thing is true in politics. Mainstream pundits never tire of writing pox-on-both-your-houses columns that praise bipartisanship and compromise, but compromise is impossible when only one side wants to solve the problem, or admits there’s a problem at all.
Historically, slavery was like that. Skillful politicians managed to work around the edges of the conflict and so delay the confrontation for almost a century, but ultimately Northern abolitionists thought slavery was a problem and Southern slaveowners didn’t, so there was nothing to talk about. One side or the other had to lose.
Once you recognize that pattern, the current stalemate in American politics makes sense. Because increasingly, the United States faces problems that Republicans either deny or would rather not solve.
1. Americans without health insurance. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, 47 million Americans had no health insurance, and perhaps has many as 30 million had “junk insurance” that would be useless in the face of a major illness. So if they got seriously ill, maybe as many as 1 out of every 4 Americans would have had to choose between not getting treatment and going bankrupt.
A Medicare-for-everybody system would have been the simplest way to solve that problem, but the conventional wisdom said that was too “socialist” for this country to swallow. So we wound up with ObamaCare, which isn’t a complete solution but will cut the numbers down considerably.
The Republican slogan about ObamaCare is “repeal and replace”. Since they took control of the House in 2011, Republicans have voted dozens times to repeal ObamaCare. But no Republican replacement plan has even come to a vote.
As for the repeal-and-then-we’ll-think-of-something option, remember that the Republicans had an alternative proposal to HillaryCare in the 90s. (That proposal is actually an ancestor of ObamaCare.) But as soon as they had disposed of the Democrats’ plan, they lost interest in any alternative. Expect the same thing this time, if Republicans ever succeed in repeal.
2. Climate change. Republicans don’t all agree on global warming. Some ignore the issue while others ridicule it. Some think it’s a conspiracy to establish global tyranny while others just think that all proposed actions are too expensive. But they all agree on this: Do nothing.
The exception that proves the rule is an NYT op-ed written by former EPA heads from past Republican administrations — back in the days when Republicans did occasionally try to solve problems. As you can see in the comments, they were quickly denounced as RINOs. So was Jon Huntsman, the only Republican presidential candidate to take climate change seriously.
3. Decaying infrastructure. The occasional bridge collapse makes headlines, but every day Americans face delays and disruptions caused by worn-out or obsolete infrastructure.
We sit in traffic. When it rains, we lose power. Our cars wear out faster. Our internet is slower. And as for new technologies like bullet trains, smart bridges, or smart grids — who do you think we are, China?
The current situation is perfect for dealing with this problem: Real interest rates are negative, people are unemployed, and inflation is low. So borrow money to invest in the upgrades we need to grow our economy, hire people to fix stuff, and pay back (in inflation-adjusted terms) less than you borrowed. What’s not to like?
President Obama has made repeated proposals along these lines. The most recent was full of plums Republicans should like, like lower corporate tax rates. Its price tag was far lower than the $134-$262 billion per year that a bipartisan commission estimated we need. Republicans panned it as “tax-and-spend”; they made no counter-proposal.
Instead, the Ryan budget calls for cuts in all forms of discretionary spending, including infrastructure. When it came time to fill in the details, House Republicans were unable to do it.
4. Undocumented immigrants. Something like 11-12 million undocumented immigrants are currently in the United States. The existence of such a large class of people off the grid creates a wide range of problems, from security to public health. (Someday there will be another major epidemic, and undocumented disease carriers will be afraid to show up at hospitals.) Most of all, undocumented workers can’t avail themselves of the protection of police or the courts, so employers can exploit them at will. That atmosphere of exploitation makes it harder for documented American workers to claim their rights.
Some Senate Republicans, to their credit, took this problem seriously enough to join Democrats in passing an immigration reform bill. That was five months ago. In the meantime, the Tea Party dominated House has done nothing, and has no plans to do anything. Not only won’t Speaker Boehner bring the Senate bill up for a vote, in the unlikely event that the House passes an immigration bill of its own, he says “Frankly, I’ll make clear we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”
Once again, Boehner is not holding out for some alternate solution, so there is no deal he could be offered.
5. Gun violence. A Reddit subgroup is keeping a list of all incidents in which four or more people are shot. So far in 2013, it’s up to #320. So this year we’re averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of one mass shooting a day.
Sandy Hook was almost a year ago. At the time, it seemed inevitable that at least some changes would result. Maybe renewing the assault weapon ban that lapsed during the Bush administration. Maybe mandating smaller-capacity magazines, which would have saved lives at Sandy Hook and probably Tucson as well.
Maybe universal background checks for gun buyers, a policy that polls around 90%. (Huffington Post tried to find anything that would poll that high. Only ice cream met that standard. Kittens, apple pie … nothing else was as popular as universal background checks.)
What did we actually get out of Congress? Nothing. Even background checks died in a Republican Senate filibuster.
But maybe there’s a different Republican approach to limiting gun violence, one that ignores the gun-control approach that has worked so well in Australia. Nope. Nothing.
6. The shrinking middle class. The American middle class used to be the envy of the world. It didn’t just happen, it was the result of policies that started with the Homestead Act and really took off with the New Deal: minimum wage laws, protection for workers forming unions, a social safety net, anti-trust laws, and tax policies that limited the accumulation of wealth.
The result was that median family income roughly tracked productivity growth … until the end of the Carter administration, when a new consensus started forming around de-regulation and supply-side economics.
That consensus was cemented by the Reagan administration and Bill Clinton ratified it. So now we have a situation where the median household income is declining (down 6.6% since 2000), monopolies and monopsonies are increasing, and almost all the growth in the economy is being captured by the very rich.
You can’t even get Republicans to talk about this long-term problem, or to acknowledge that income inequality is a problem at all. Their proposed solutions to the economic problems they do recognize are to do more of what got us into this situation: lower taxes on the rich and on corporations, end the estate tax, more union busting, weaken the safety net, and so on.
Post-policy nihilism. Greg Sergeant and a few others have been referring to the current GOP mindset as “post-policy nihilism“. Making policy — having actual ideas and proposals about governing — is so old-fashioned. Just say no, propose nothing, and criticize the other party for refusing to compromise with you.
So the next time you read one of those both-sides-are-at-fault columns, ask yourself whether both sides have actual proposals. If one side does and the other doesn’t, then the two sides are not equally to blame. Before you can expect people to compromise with you, you have to tell them what you want.
That’s how it works in marriage. That’s how it works in government.