Democracy and Compromise

The Budget Debate, which will continue today as the National Assembly transforms itself as the “Committee of Supply” to decide on the specific “line items” of spending, is another opportunity for the politicians in our parliamentary democracy to demonstrate their commitment to its fundamental tenets. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a heightened polarisation of politics which threatens democratic values not only in our country but across the globe and especially in the United States that plays such an important role in our affairs. How do we deal this this phenomenon?
Back in 2012, as the polarisation of politics was becoming intensified both quantitively and qualitatively in the US, political scientists Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson offered some very salutary advice to our political elites in their book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It”. Their advice a decade later is even more relevant now that we have witnessed formerly unthinkable physical attacks on the bastions of democracy in societies as diverse as the US and Brazil. The authors declare:
“If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy. Unless one partisan ideology holds sway over all branches of government, compromise is necessary to govern for the benefit of all citizens. A rejection of compromise biases politics in favour of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis.
“Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible. Why is compromise so hard in a democracy when it is undoubtedly necessary? Much of the resistance to compromise lies in another necessary part of the democratic process: campaigning for political office. Though valuable in its place, campaigning is increasingly intruding into governing, where it is less helpful. The means of winning an office are subverting the ends of governing once in office. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in (Guyana) “every day is election day in the permanent campaign.
“Resistance to democratic compromise can be kept in check by a contrary cluster of attitudes and arguments—a compromising mindset—which favours adapting one’s principles and respecting one’s opponents. It is the mindset more appropriate for governing because it enables politicians more readily to recognize opportunities for desirable compromise. When enough politicians adopt it, enough of the time, the spirit of compromise prevails.
“In general, compromise is an agreement in which all sides sacrifice something in order to improve on the status quo from their perspective, and in which the sacrifices are at least partly determined by the other sides’ will. The sacrifice involves not merely getting less than you want, but also, thanks to your opponents, getting less than you think you deserve. The sacrifice typically involves trimming your principles.  We call these defining characteristics of compromise mutual sacrifice and wilful opposition.”
What we recommend therefore, is that starting from this afternoon, the need for “mutual sacrifice and wilful opposition” be practiced as the line items are considered. Take the mundane matters of fixing roads in communities which has now been given a huge bump through funding of the Ministry of Housing. Roads throughout Guyana are in a dilapidated state for a host of reasons – including the fact that local roads were not built to handle the number of “sand trucks” that are necessitated by the housing boom. All of these roads cannot be fixed immediately and the politicians across the divide must accept the need for compromise.
As the authors point out, the almost continuous campaigning with an eye on the next elections have now become a permanent feature of our democratic practice. But in Guyana, because of the changed demographics that now deny either of the two major parties an in-built ethnic majority, only the spirit of compromise for instance, during the voting on appropriations from this afternoon, will signal that the interests of others outside of traditional constituencies are being considered.
In this fashion, for purely partisan reasons, the rhetoric should be less heated and the compromises more habitual.