Alan Greenspan called compromise on public issues “the price of civilized society, not an abrogation of principle.” Greenspan’s position is probably the result of advising and working closely with each president from Gerald Ford until George W. Bush. Yet his pragmatic approach is lost on many politicians, especially those with parties in the majority. The passage of health care reform and the present conflict in Madison, Wisconsin are sure examples of politicians using majority status as an excuse to avoid compromise.
“No compromise” is the default position almost whenever the opportunity pokes its head. Compromise is written off as politically inexpedient, weak, and unnecessary when there is a legal means to avoid it. These assumptions are inappropriate in light of our history, the Constitution’s spirit, and political reality.
On the road to passage of health care reform, Republicans were told to take a back seat. Democrats had been elected to govern, and they were going to govern. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s goal was to create a bill that would pass by one vote, not a bill that could enjoy wider bipartisan support. This, even though some Republican support may have been added by cutting out components like the individual mandate or by adding in stronger tort reforms and real pro-life protections.
Now, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is staring-down the Democratic minority in the legislature. Senate Democrats have left the state to prevent passage of a bill that would limit the benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers. Democrats are willing to accept some of the bill's provisions, even some that would decrease teacher take-home pay, but Democrats will not support the bill as long as it limits collective bargaining. Gov. Walker and his majority won't budge. He says that the changes are necessary to fix the state's budget crisis, a somewhat tenuous connection since we are talking about a present budget crisis and future collective bargaining rights.
In either case above, the possibility of real compromise was categorically written-off, at least publicly. This way of governing, though possible and technically constitutional, is out of step with the Framers’ intention. In Federalist 51, James Madison touted how a system of rival interests would prevent one branch of power from dominating the whole republic. In Federalist 10, he showed us how the Constitution would prevent, insofar as possible, a majority faction from controlling the whole government, which would make the protections outlined in Federalist 51 ineffectual. Taken together, Federalist 10 and 51 are persuasive because compromise was necessary to the survival of the Republic; the Framers built compromise into the system.
Compromise is sought, but not mandated. If a majority faction (the target of Federalist 10’s criticism) or party refuses to compromise, it is within its right. But exercising a technical Constitutional right is not always consistent with the spirit of the Constitution, which sought to avoid total majority rule. The positive law attempts to manifest a greater goal, where the positive law is not sufficient to bring about that goal, leaders should still abide by the goal. Leaders with majority status should not write off compromise as quickly or as casually as they do.
In his Lyceum Speech, Abraham Lincoln called attention to the insufficiency of our governmental framework alone to prevent abuse. Observing that the passion that once sustained us was now gone, Lincoln appealed to reason, reason restrained by “general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws…” We are bound to something higher than the letter of the law, higher than the structure defined by the Constitution. The same values that made the Constitution worth defending in The Federalist should be revered when the structure falls short of its goal. Compromise may not always be the solution, but compromise carries its own merit that shouldn’t be dismissed by leaders of controlling majorities like Gov. Walker, despite how much merit his proposals may have.
Political realities also warn against readily dismissing compromise. As the Democrats learned last November, a disenfranchised minority is loud and powerful. By settling on “no compromise” from the beginning, Gov. Walker limited his chances of pure victory. He may successfully limit collective bargaining for teachers, but will his victory be Pyrrhic? Voters in his traditionally left-leaning state will wonder if they want an uncompromising Republican governor. If he does not successfully limit collective bargaining rights this late in the game, then not only will he be perceived of as ineffective, but also unreasonable.
Politics is a game of practicality. That is why Lincoln, who was uncompromisingly anti-slavery as president, idolized “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay. It is how a student of Ayn Rand’s black-and-white-there-is-no-grey worldview can grow up to call compromise, “the price of civilized society.” Today, Gov. Walker is convinced of his cause, but his approach deserves a second guess.
In these days of transition in Egypt, while all the world is watching, we wonder if something new will come about. In the heady excitement, the New York Times offered a euphoric headline: "New Era Dawns in Egypt and Across the Arab World". The drama of Tahrir Square has awakened the world's passion for justice and self-determinacy. Still, we know revolutions can go very wrong, such as Iran's 1979 revolution, and even if some polls are more optimistic than others on Egyptian attitudes, there is no assurance that this change will be peaceful and positive.
Some recent revolutions have gone better than others. After Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, Lech Walesa founded a trade union, Solidarity, setting the stage for pulling down the Iron Curtain. In 1986, the "Rosary Revolution" in the Philippines, after the assassination of Benigno Aquino, led by his widow Corazon Aquino and backed by Cardinal Jaime Sin, brought about the overthrow of the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the establishment of a democratic state.
Hope is universal, but real change can seem elusive. So often revolutions, with the best of intentions, are hijacked for other interests. For these two successful revolutions, Christ was the factor of change. As Fr. Carron notes in his presentation on The Religious Sense: "[I]f Christ is present, it isn't because of our words, but through His signs that we can acknowledge Him." The Pope's presence in Poland was such a sign. The peaceful transition of whole nations is such a sign that is put on display for the world.
"Art, literature, science, law, politics, the arts, everything. And so, here in New York City this evening we kick off the New York Encounter with the same desire, to witness the passion for everything human" (Chris Bacich at the 2010 New York Encounter).
January 14-17, 2011
New York City
All presentation, exhibits, displays, and tours
are free and open to the public.
This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of Christ the King, the culmination of the Church’s entire liturgical year, and on Nov. 23 we remember the martyrdom of Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J. whose death came only two short years after the very first Feast of Christ the King.
Blessed Miguel Pro was a Mexican priest in a time of great revolt and religious persecution. Consequently, it was also a time of anti-clerical hounding based on a militant enforced atheism. This turmoil left many religious and priests with no option but to flee Mexico’s borders or take the Church underground. Fr. Miguel Pro S.J., only 36 years-old, fearlessly continued serving the poor, the destitute and the oppressed. As he biked from town to town, it was only a matter of time before he was eventually identified as a Roman Catholic priest and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Fr. Pro was able to evade authorities for nearly a year as he continued his ministry, but on Nov. 23, 1927 he was caught and immediately sentenced to death without trial.
Mexican dictator, Plutarco Calles, sought to use the priest’s death as a public example of the fate of any Christian and ordered that a professional photographer document the event. He wanted every countryman to see the gruesome death he too could face for proclaiming faith in God.
A firing squad and crowds were efficiently assembled and as his last request, Fr. Pro was brought before the people to pray in silence for two minutes. Upon rising, he said to the firing squad, “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you. Lord, You know that I am innocent. With all my heart I forgive my enemies.”
He was offered a blindfold, but declined. Instead, with a rosary in one hand and a crucifix in the other, he outstretched his arms as Jesus on the cross and said in a firm, unshaken voice, “Viva Christo Rey!” “Long live, Christ the King!”
The next day, as the priest’s lifeless body was carried to the cemetery, nearly 10 thousand Mexicans risked their own lives to accompany it, courageously passing in front of the dictator's house. They chanted Fr. Pro’s words throughout the somber walk. “Viva Christo Rey! Viva Christo Rey!”
Copies of the execution photo with Fr. Pro’s arms outstretched spread madly across the country and were immediately banned. People everywhere knew the power of his words and the power of his witness.
There was a point when the health care debate was very exciting, when pro-life Democrats were actively shaping a plan that would be about extending health care and not about destroying life. The active concern for life was spreading across party lines and giving hope for a change that had also been reflected in attitudes across the country. That consensus was lost due to powerful forces, and sadly those same politicians who were in the trenches fighting were targeted for not going far enough. Some pro-life groups decided to put their efforts into voting out those who were not pro-life enough, instead of targeting those who would actively promote abortion. Bart Stupak, a man I admire, was one of the casualties of the anger, though he retired after the ordeal. House Republican Joseph Cao voted for an earlier version of the health care bill, but not the final one. A consummate Catholic politician, he lost on Tuesday. What we propose, win or lose, should continue to come from the wealth and wisdom of Catholic social teaching and not the dictates of political parties in their rush for power.
The Catholic vote may swing, but it is also readily manipulated by party forces. And a vindictive politics will not consolidate and build. There is more moral consensus than is acknowledged by the media, as argued in a new book by Knights of Columbus leader Carl Anderson, Beyond a House Divided, but can any consensus be forged by cutting out the middle? I wonder how long it will be before the pro-life cause will have another chance to cross party lines.
See this perspective on the election from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good:
But, my argument that the Church was a loser in this election is not based on worries that Democrats lost or that Republicans won. No, my argument is that the moderates lost and that, in particular, that moderate pro-life and pro-Catholic social teaching candidates were defeated by currents in contemporary American political life that are pushing both the GOP and the Democrats toward their respective right and left wings. Not only do both of those wings stand in tension with the Church's traditional teachings, but their polarization undercuts the possibility for any real advance on the issues that are priorities for the Church.
What are the losses that I have in mind? Let me use two House races to illustrate the larger trend: Republican Joseph Cao in Louisiana's 2nd district and Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania's 3rd. Both of these Catholic incumbents are anti-abortion advocates. Both, too, evidence in their votes and public comments a sensitive appreciation of the larger parameters of the Church's social teachings. Both, moreover, are the sorts of moderates within their respective parties who might be inclined to reach across party lines and work for policies that the majority of American Catholics want on moral and social issues. Both, however, were especially targeted by opposition parties and lost last evening because moderates are cannon fodder in the ideological war that is contemporary American politics. Dozens of moderates from both parties went down in this election cycle, with the losses of pro-life, moderate Democrats most evident.