The Dissatisfaction of Compromise

Barack Obama’s constant search for consensus is undermining his agenda.

In the modern political discourse, the search for compromise is revered beyond convictions. It is thought of as righteous to surrender one’s staunchest of principles — which are easily denounced as “extreme” — in favor of consensus. More and more “moderates” are voted into public office while radicalism of any kind is scorned.

Barack Obama’s approach to health-care reform is a case in point. Even before his election to president, he announced that his administration would seek a bipartisan approach to reform. Although the Democrats managed to gain overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans, too, would be involved in the passing of legislation which they opposed in principle.

Unsurprisingly, the Republicans refused. Instead, they launched a campaign more vigorous than they ever had. With the collaboration of Fox News and “tea parties” attended by millions, Republicans smeared health-care reform as extreme, “socialist” and so much as the path to America’s downfall. It took the Democrats almost a year to maneuver their way through the opposition to present two different plans for reform, both toned down versions of what the party had originally promised to do. Now, they have the difficult task ahead of them to “harmonize” these both drafts; a process that is bound to last for many more months.

The Obama Administration made the mistake to declare itself willing to compromise from the very start. It seemed to think that reaching consensus and achieving bipartisan support were of greater importance than the realization of its very principles. The Republicans were able to exploit that weakness. Unfortunately, they hadn’t even to stress any moral objections to universal health care. Rather, criticizing the Democrats’ intentions proved enough to garner support.

The doctrine of compromise is a persistent one that has known little intellectual resistance during the last century. Yet as early as in 1513, the Florentine public servant Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) outlined in his classic political treatise Il Principe why it is essential that a statesman take a firm stand on issues of principle. A leader is respected, he wrote, “when, without any reservation, he declares himself in favor of one party against the other; which course will always be more advantageous than standing neutral.” For only one’s enemies demand neutrality: “he who is your friend will entreat you to declare yourself with arms” — or, in today’s political arena, with words.

The irresolute leader will attempt neutrality in order to avoid present dangers. But he is “generally ruined,” according to Machiavelli. President Obama’s drop in popularity and the Democrats’ general downfall in public support are ample proof that he was right.

Machiavelli warned against the practical dangers of seeking compromise. Four hundred and fifty years later, philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) argued against the righteousness of it. In an article entitled “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing,” published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), Rand declared that, “There can be no compromise on basic principles,” nor, she opined, “on moral issues.”

In “The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion’,” published in the same volume, Rand elaborated. “Contrary to the fanatical belief of its advocates,” she noted, such compromises do not satisfy anyone; they dissatisfy everyone. “Those who try to be all things to all men, end up by not being anything to anyone. And more: the partial victory of an unjust claim, encourages the claimant to try further; the partial defeat of a just claim, discourages and paralyzes the victim.”

Observe how easily President Obama is portrayed as weak and ineffective while the Republicans continue to accuse his administration of leading America in the charge for communism. They found that fear is a powerful tool and that the Democrats’ apparent lack of self-confidence makes them an easy target for claims of promoting an “extreme” left-wing agenda.

Rand believed in absolutes and liked to reiterate from her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) in which she wrote: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”

The man who doubts that he is right before any argument is had, is doomed to lose. The leader who believes in moral relativism and professes that compromise therefore is the only justifiable course of action, is bound to fail. His political opponents will stick to principle and undermine his quest for consensus, no matter how well intended, whereas the public inevitably comes to think of him as inane and nothing of a leader at all.


  1. “It is not only more honourable but also more productive to spend a life making mistakes than to spend a life doing nothing”. Whilst this old quote may be true, a dogmatic belief in black and white absolutes is only morally appealing to a few, it is and should be intellectually bankrupt to all. In issues such as the one you outline, Rand and ‘Mach’ may be correct but to use the this formula:..

    “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”

    …across all issues seems foolhardy. We have lived in an age of Empiricism for some time and I don’t believe scientific man has ever determined or observed ‘evil’ or for that matter universally agreed on the nature of right and/or wrong.
    Machiavelli was a real theorist applying good, strong rules of observation: Obama’s weaknesses are being paraded all over his administration.

  2. If you are convinced that something is wrong, say, slavery, don’t you think it’s evil to compromise on that and condone a “middle road”, say, segregation?

  3. Evil is a far too abstract concept for the government of apes.
    Ones own moral code may disagree with such a thing, and very well, but to compromise is no more against ones principles than ignoring it.

  4. […] to compromise is no more against ones principles than ignoring it.

    What’s the difference?

  5. In either case one may be giving up on principles that they may think are ‘right’ for some reason.
    If you compromise to a large extent then some may argue you may as well not have tried. But on the other hand even a little good achieved in compromise may be better than a steadfast resolution that fails. It depends on effectiveness

  6. But on the other hand even a little good achieved in compromise may be better than a steadfast resolution that fails. It depends on effectiveness.

    Sure, but there’s a difference between compromising on trivialities and elevating compromise itself to a principle. The latter, I think, we see more and more in politics, and I don’t think it’s a very good development.

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