The Genius of America
Forward to compromise!
By Steven Martinovich
In politics, compromise is a dirty word. Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that compromise was the antithesis of leadership while philosopher Ayn Rand argued that in the compromise between food and poison, the later always wins. Those unwilling to fight to the death, rhetorical or otherwise, for their political beliefs are viewed as weak and not worthy of our support. A true leader vanquishes all opponents and rules without pity for the enemy.
Except, write Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, that isn't how politics in the United States was practiced for much of its existence and the current climate is due to a lack of compromise. In The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Again they report that Americans are becoming dissatisfied with gridlock, partisan warfare and a lack of results. The solution? A return to what they call a "constitutional conscience."
America's Constitution is, at least theoretically, the highest law in the land. The Founders, the authors argue, knew that people were inherently selfish and shortsighted and designed a document and political system that took that into account. Where most constitutions are designed to allow a government to quickly accomplish whatever it sets out to do, regardless of what a majority or minority thinks, America's constitution was crafted to force everyone to come together to produce a result that most people were satisfied with.
Although they delve considerably into the history of the crafting of the Constitution, it's what happens after that Lane and Oreskes sink their teeth into. America's leaders and the Constitution have had to deal with a number of issues – from slavery to the civil rights movement – that challenged the polity and their view of what was permissible under the system. The current political climate also comes under their scrutiny as they accuse Congress of failing to exercise its considerable oversight powers while an Executive Branch has expanded its powers over the past several decades.
Political conservatives will understandably be wary of Lane and Oreskes' efforts given that compromise in modern American politics seems to be defined as conceding everything to the political left. Constitutional historians know, however, that the Founding Fathers put together the American political system to force everyone to agree on a course of action before it could become reality. The gridlock and debate seen ahead of every resolution is a necessary precondition to achieving a result. The inessential is burnt away leaving something that hopefully everyone can support. Compromise isn't to blame for the failure of political conservatism to achieve many of its aims, but rather the incompetence of its leaders on Capitol Hill is.
The Genius of America is, however, at the end of the day not a book favorable to small-government conservatives or libertarians. They argue that the advent of the Reagan era brought an increased distrust to government institutions, something they believe is taking Americans down a road away from the system as designed by the Founding Fathers. Although they speak glowingly of a "constitutional conscience," they never seem to question whether compromise itself is destroying the Constitution.
As written, few can argue with a straight face that the America that exists today could possibly be sanctioned by the Constitution. Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Americans "compromised" on a radically increased role in the private lives of citizens by government, but where in the Constitution did the Founders give that right to Americans? In the end, the words written on that parchment are only worth the respect given their original intent, not the ability of politicians, the courts and Americans themselves to negotiate whatever meanings they wish the words to have.
That said The Genius of America is a valuable contribution to the debate over debate. Although politics in America has seen more vicious ages – it's well known that the attacks suffered by politicians in the early days of the Republic were far more savage then what occurs today – there is a case to be made that not every issue needs to be a partisan one. We can all agree on certain fundamental truths and work from there to institute policies that most Americans can agree on. What are those issues? That's up for debate.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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