When asked, “Just exactly what are your politics,” I always answer with a unique expression of neutrality. “I’m a member of the Algebra Party,” I state. “Whatever you do to one side of the equation, you have to do to the other.”
Though my words are nothing more than a personal refusal to commit to one particular party, they seldom fail to draw looks of suspicion. You can’t be neutral, their eyes say. You have to choose one side or the other. Yet recent Gallup polls show that the percentage of voters who call themselves Independents has grown to 43%. In the same time frame, the percentage who say they’re Democrats has dropped from 36% to 30%. The percentage of voters defining themselves as Republicans has also fallen, but by a more modest two points: 28% to 26%.
These declines in party allegiance show a distinct change in the body politic. Today, more voters identify themselves as Independent than as Democrat or as Republican. A nagging discomfort with government is behind this shift, political scientists say—an obvious failure of our leaders to get something done.
In her recent book, Penn president, Amy Gutmann offers her insight into the root cause of these feelings. With co-author, Dennis Thompson, she cites failure to compromise as the culprit that prevents us from moving ahead. Even when compromise might favor a common good—improved education or a fairer tax code, for example—politicians on both sides seem unwilling to yield their cherished beliefs in favor of cooperation. In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, gave this answer to Lesley Stahl’s question about compromise, “I reject the word.” I believe this unyielding partisan mindset keeps our nation from reaching consensus.
A major reason behind this intransigence is the media. They’ve taken the simple act of changing one’s mind, redubbed it “flip-flopping” and virtually criminalized it. In such an adversarial atmosphere, what politician—of either stripe—would dare compromise? Concede a point to your opposition by backing off, and the media will skewer you for backing down.
In the coming 10-day stretch from July 18th to 28th, both parties will have completed their quadrennial conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Before the delegates settle down to contemplate their sweeping November victory, they might seriously consider this Gutmann/Thompson advice: partisan dominance is not the way to eliminate gridlock. Compromise is. Politicians can extricate our nation from the mire of the status quo if they see compromise not as defeat, but as victory for both sides. The below sonnet uses poetry to make the point. When both sides compromise, both sides can claim victory.
I fear our leaders and their rigid minds
Unbending, taut and loath to compromise.
I dread the mindset that so often blinds
Their thinking—and their rush to polarize.
Can they not join to seek the common good?
No crime exists in seeing eye-to-eye.
Why can’t they fuse their aims as leaders should?
And to their endless combat bid goodbye.
When prized beliefs can yield to middle ground
The dry-rot status quo can be dismissed.
When seeds of conflict find no fertile mound
Then progress can take root and growth persist.
When leaders meet halfway, their journey’s done
And then both sides can claim their victory’s won.