‘The Wisdom of Compromise’
Elected officials are there to get what their constituents want (they do, after all, ultimately work for us), and in order to do so, they have to give up some things they may sincerely believe. This seems to have become a problem on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, whose members would seem to value their own principles above the act of compromise necessary for democracy to work. While they call this principled, in the context of democracy it’s also called being selfish. “The wisdom of democracy is the wisdom of compromise,” said the eminent German statesman Helmut Schmidt, who as chancellor in the 1970s and early 80s managed to steer a damaged nation back into economic and geopolitical influence, despite enormous political pushback.
As Amy Gutman and Denis Thompson point out in their timely new book “The Spirit of Compromise,” democracy involves giving up some things you sincerely want and then begrudgingly accepting some of the things you don’t. And since getting things done is what we expect of our politicians, we ought to focus less on how sincerely a politician holds a given belief and more on how effective he or she is on achieving the ends with which he or she has been tasked.
In a 1951 book called “Minima Moralia: Thoughts from Damaged Life,” the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was exiled in New Jersey and California during World War II, wrote: “Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people.” Like much in Adorno, this is confusing. We tend to think of eliminating distance between people a sign that they are less estranged. But Adorno is right: The more that people have an immediate, unspoken sense of belonging to a cohesive society, the less they feel the need to show explicit outward signs of being connected — such as sincerity or awkwardly staged emotional openness. Rather, it is the measurable fact of connectedness — like in polls asking whether citizens generally trust one another, which in America are lower than in all Western democracies — that cancels out the need to show it.
As we head to the polls on November 6, we would be better served looking for domestic policy solutions that would alleviate social alienation — for example, through a shared sense of responsibility, social programs to which we all contribute and national initiatives that actually made Americans feel bound together — than on the displays of sincerity, “individualism,” and toughness that ultimately camouflage our more fundamental anomie.