Democracy Fund

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Fostering a Culture of Problem Solving in Washington

By Joe Goldman / 2013 August 14th

“Compromise” is a dirty word in today’s political environment. To admit to making a compromising implies weakness and a lack of principle. In their new book, “The Spirit of Compromise,” Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson recall a 2010 interview of Speaker John Boehner on CBS’s 60 Minutes:

JOHN BOENER: We have to govern. That’s what we were elected to do.

LESLIE STAHL: But governing means compromising.

BOEHNER: It means working together.

STAHL: It also means compromising. …

BOEHNER: When you say the word “compromise” … a lot of Americans look up and go, “Uh-oh, they’re going to sell me out…”

STAHL: Why won’t you say – you’re afraid of the word.

BOEHNER: I reject the word.

By design, our political system does not function without compromise. While partisans on both sides may hold out for the day in which they control super majorities who can make decisions at will, the reality is that these circumstances are rare and temporary. Failure to accept the need for compromise privileges the status quo and robs our political system of the capacity to solve problems. Compromise need not entail a violation of core values, but it does often require giving up some battles and letting the other side win something. To political leaders who are stuck in a permanent campaign, the idea of losing anything is unacceptable, which takes any compromise off the table. Gutmann and Thompson write that improving mutual respect and trust among political leaders can help shift this mindset and make compromise possible. They write:

“Because in politics motives are usually suspect and bargaining leverage often uncertain, capitulating to opponents is an ever-present fear. Mutual respect is an indispensable antidote. Without it, the parties to a compromise have little reason to believe that they are getting as much as they can reasonably expect, and they cannot assure their supporters that they are not selling out. Political leaders who combine being principled partisans with cultivating close relationships with their partisan opponents bring both the intrinsic and the instrumental values of mutual respect to the table when the time for compromise is ripe.”

Mutual respect cannot solve everything that is plaguing our politics – it may only be a small part of the solution. Real political incentives – votes, money, promotions – often stand in the way and can overpower any good will that exists between people. But some modicum of trust and respect is often a pre-condition to solving problems and can make a real difference. With this in mind, I’m happy to share that the Democracy Fund has added a new member of our portfolio aimed at encouraging bipartisan problem solving – the No Labels Foundation. As you may know, the No Labels Foundation is the educational arm of No Labels – a group of Democrats, Republicans, and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving in America. They join the Bipartisan Policy Center, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and the Faith & Politics Institute in our portfolio of organizations working to ensure that our government has the capacity to rise to the challenges facing our nation. Over the past year, 82 Members of Congress have joined a Problem Solvers Coalition organized by No Labels to encourage greater communication and collaboration among political leaders from both parties. The No Labels Foundation has organized educational events in order to foster greater trust among these political leaders, their staff members, and other key stakeholders in Washington. By building relationships across the aisle within the policy making community, the No Labels Foundation believes it can foster an environment of trust among policy makers and their staff members. Their approach to building personal relationships between political leaders from opposing parties and focusing attention on common interests is well aligned with our aim at the Democracy Fund. I’ve personally attended several events convened by the organization to foster dialogue among policy makers. What has stood out more than anything else is how rare these opportunities seem to be where leader can get to know colleagues from the other side and identify space for genuine common ground. My sense is that there is a real hunger for these opportunities, especially among newer members. The Democracy Fund will continue to explore how structural changes – like redistricting reform and changes to Congressional procedures – can further shift incentives in our political system. But we are enthusiastic about the work that grantees like the No Labels Foundation are doing to contribute to a more productive governance process.

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