The politics of no compromise
In California, and across the nation, those who seek the middle ground are a disappearing breed.
As earnest pundits decry the shortage of moderate centrists and bemoan the partisan polarization afflicting governance from Sacramento to Washington, most Americans now appear to prefer stubbornness over consensus.
Vigorous debate followed by principled compromise — the political attitude and approach that long made representative democracy work — no longer finds favor among a large plurality of voters, according to a surprising new national survey.
The findings add yet another layer of troubling evidence to suggest that the dysfunctional dynamic that grips and gridlocks state government will persist, regardless of whether Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman becomes California’s next governor.
By 49% to 42%, Americans favor “political leaders who stick to their position without compromise” over those “who make compromises with someone they disagree with,” according to the survey by the Pew Research Center conducted for the National Journal and the Society for Human Resource Management.
There are clear differences in the findings for the major political parties: Democrats embrace compromise, 54 to 39%, while Republicans stand against, by 62% to 33%. Most startling, however, is that independents — whom conventional wisdom holds will favor less partisan political centrism — strongly embrace the anti-compromise position, 53% to 40%.
“This is further evidence that the current political atmosphere is not merely contentious but hostile to any hope of negotiated settlements to the many political and policy differences that define the current landscape,” wrote the National Journal’s Major Garrett.
“In essence,” he said, the survey “suggests a confrontational mood in the country that may mirror the partisan wrangling in Washington and might even give trumped-up cable TV’s political spout-fests some rationale for their vein-popping intensity.”
That’s quite a statement, coming from the truly fair and balanced former political reporter for Fox News, who recently fled the hype-partisan cable network to return to print journalism.
Though the findings are national, reflecting the emergence of the “tea party” and its passionate celebration of anti-government intransigence, the data also shed light on Sacramento’s politics of dysfunction.
Popular opposition to the very notion of compromise adds one more confounding entry to a familiar list of structural flaws that undercut governance in California: a wayward initiative system, a boom-and-bust taxation setup, the Proposition 13 straitjacket, a supermajority requirement for passage of a budget, plus gerrymandering and term limits.
This nexus of political and economic factors has eroded the authority and effectiveness of historic power centers within the state Capitol and so enfeebled “leadership” that no one can enforce a deal to forge solutions to intractable policy problems. Just passing a budget has become a Herculean challenge.
In the current political atmosphere, every lawmaker is essentially an army of one — and none of them need fear the governor, the speaker or any other leader. Gerrymandered districts all but guarantee most incumbents reelection, while term limits offer a perverse incentive for cynical selfpromotion in furtherance of individual ambition over cooperative collaboration in service of the public interest.
With every lawmaker essentially a free agent short-timer seeking from his or her first days in Sacramento a pathway up the ladder, it is most often lobbyists who retain institutional memory and remain the only long-playing experts on complex issues. That the latter control and direct an obscene flow of campaign contributions adds a layer of soft corruption to the process.
Just as term limits, since its 1990 passage, has framed a system discouraging compromise, so the redrawing of political boundaries following the 2000 census has shaped a political process encouraging partisan gamesmanship.
With legislative districts blatantly designed to ensure the victory of a Democrat in one and a Republican in another, the party primary, not the general election, became the crucial political contest. This process heavily favored, alternately, the most liberal or the most conservative ideologue who could motivate his party’s base in traditionally low-turnout primaries.
Thus the politicians arriving in Sacramento typically represent the left or right wings of their parties. Far from thinking about the interests of California as a whole, their only concern is servicing their districts, an arrangement offering no inducement to compromise on anything
Voters have taken steps to reform this situation — passing an initiative in 2008 to install an independent commission to oversee reapportionment and approving an initiative in June that reduces the importance of party in primary elections. It is instructive, however, that Democrats and Republicans found rare agreement in efforts to undo both measures, sponsoring a November proposition to seize back the Legislature’s control of redistricting and mounting an aggressive legal challenge to the “open primary” plan.
So while Brown’s big idea in the governor’s race has been a promise to summon all 120 legislators immediately after the election and apply sweet reason to their bitter differences, and Whitman vows she’ll veto most of their bills and lock them in a room until she gets her way, the plain fact is that neither will have much of a chance to find common ground with the opposition unless some fundamental changes are made.
This will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, at a time when large numbers of voters equate compromise with capitulation.