Bookman: Without compromise, extremism dominates

US Capitol

by Jay Bookman, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

October 19, 2023

If you make compromise impossible, you make extremism inevitable.

We see that dynamic playing out once again, with tragic consequences, in the Middle East. For decades, Hamas and its extremist backers have refused to acknowledge that Israel has a basic right to exist; Israel in turn has given lip service to the creation of a viable Palestine, while diligently working to ensure that such an entity can never exist.

Both Palestinians and Israelis have allowed their extremists to veto any potential deal; neither has been able or willing to compromise. That leaves them where they are, with war as their only remaining means of working it out.

We see the same dynamic at work in Washington. For decades now, reaching back to the days of Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, conservatives have rejected compromise as a means of problem-solving. They have treated compromise as surrender, as defeat, and anyone of their tribe who proposes compromise with the other side is rejected as a traitor to the cause, as a RINO.

As we’ve seen in the GOP’s debacle over choosing a speaker, the no-compromise approach has become so ingrained into the party’s DNA that House Republicans can’t “get to yes” even when dealing with each other. They’ve learned that saying “no” is easy; “no” is safe. “Yes” involves risk; it requires a degree of courage that they simply don’t possess.

And if compromise is removed as a way of getting things done, if no deals can be cut, then one of two things are going to happen.

The first is nothing.

Without compromise, nothing passes, no decisions can be made, no speaker can be elected. Tough choices are put off, year after year, and problems that might have been addressed relatively easily are allowed to fester and grow. That’s a particular problem under the system created by the Founders. The U.S. Constitution, with its intricate checks and balances, was designed as a compromise-forcing mechanism. Without compromise, it simply cannot function, and governing ceases.

As a result, we can’t address the debt, we can’t address immigration, we can’t address climate change. All would require compromise, and compromise is impossible. We almost lost our democracy after the 2020 elections because somehow, Republicans convinced themselves that allowing the peaceful transfer of power wasn’t their duty as Americans, it was an unacceptable compromise with the Democrats that only RINOs like Liz Cheney would support.

Without compromise, the only alternative way to get things done is through brute domination. My side can get what it wants only if it achieves overwhelming power over your side. In the brief window when Barack Obama had the votes, he passed the Affordable Care Act. When Donald Trump had the votes, he passed tax cuts for the rich. When Joe Biden had the votes, he passed a major infrastructure bill. But over the past 20 years, that’s about the extent of legislative success.

But the politics of domination require that you dominate, and Republicans do not and cannot.

They do not hold the White House — in the past eight presidential elections, Republicans have won the popular vote just once, in 2004 when George W. Bush was still riding a post-9/11 wave of patriotism. They also don’t hold the Senate. They do hold the House, but by a very slender five votes. Yet they have convinced themselves and their base that with that five-vote margin in the House, they can dominate by holding the government and the country hostage, threatening to do real damage to both unless they get their way.

It’s a ridiculous theory; it has never worked and will never work. But to even attempt such a stunt tells us a lot about the frustration that conservatives have brought on themselves. They spurn compromise in favor of domination, and they aren’t capable of achieving that domination through the ballot box. So where does that leave them?
Increasingly, in social media and “think tanks” and even in outlets such as Fox News, conservative thought leaders have begun toying with the idea that if they can’t achieve domination through the electoral process, then domination must be sought through some means other than elections. And in case you think that’s alarmist, what was the Jan. 6 insurrection and attempted overturning of the election, if not a bid to seize power through means other than elections?

When you hear mutterings of “civil war,” or secession, or references to the Second Amendment, what you are hearing are the late-stage consequences of rejecting compromise, because without compromise democracy cannot work, and we are at the mercy of extremists.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.