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HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, Emeritus, FAS and HKS

Abstract

Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible. Anyone who doubts either the difficulty or the necessity of compromise need only recall the heated politics of the summer of 2011 in Washington, D.C., when a sharply divided Congress confronted the need to raise the sovereign debt limit of the United States. Compromise appeared to be the only way to avoid further inflaming the financial crisis and risking an unprecedented governmental default on the debt. With the approach of the August 3 deadline (after which the government would no longer be able to pay all its bills), many observers doubted that any compromise could be reached in time. The spirit of compromise was in short supply. Only at the last moment—on the evening of July 31—was President Barack Obama able to announce that leaders in both the House and the Senate had reached an agreement. Congress and the White House would now compromise. Yet criticism of the compromise abounded on all sides. The best that supporters could say for it was that its terms were less bad than the consequences of doing nothing. The episode stands as a dramatic reminder that compromise is the hardest way to govern, except all the others.

Citation

Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. "The Case for Compromise." Harvard Magazine. July 1, 2012.