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A Republican and Democrat representing parts of Redmond held a joint downhill and defended a compromise on a ghost gun ban passed by the 2023 legislature.

Lawmakers from Opposing Parties Defend the Pursuit of the Possible

An unusual thing happened recently in Redmond. House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson and freshman Democratic Rep. Emerson Levy, who both represent parts of the Central Oregon city, held a joint town hall meeting at the Redmond Grange August 31.

The event’s most compelling exchange followed a question asking why House Republicans didn’t walk out to block passage of House Bill 2005, a ban on ghost guns. The legislators turned the question into an object lesson on political compromise.

“In that House bill, nobody got what they wanted,” Levy said. “On my side, I am getting yelled at that we didn’t ban assault rifles. Your representative fought like heck where we all got to a place where we all lost something. I think that is important. I don’t think we want chaos. We want democracy.” She added, “Walkouts don’t serve the public. It means the public’s business doesn’t get done.”

“It isn’t that we are saying that we just want to be friends,” Breese-Iverson said. “The way that the legislature and our founding fathers put our state together, we are supposed to have bills and a state budget that keeps our state moving forward. And if every time we get together we walk out … because there is something in front of us that we don’t like, then you stop everything, everything that the state does.”

Compromise in a polarized political environment is rare. It’s even rarer when lawmakers on different sides of the political aisle agree to explain in a joint forum why compromise is possible – and necessary.

The editors of the Bend Bulletin wrote, “The legislature is going to be a place of conflicting camps, beliefs, priorities. Moderation – and looking for compromise – is not milquetoast. It is the mark of the political warriors Oregon needs.”

The town hall occurred after a session disrupted by the longest legislative walkout in Oregon history.

Compromise in a polarized political environment is rare.

Why Political Compromise Is Difficult
“Political compromise is difficult in American democracy even though no one doubts it is necessary,” explains political philosopher Dennis Thompson. In an essay for the Harvard Kennedy School, Thompson lays the blame for the lost art of compromise at the feet of “permanent campaigns”.

“The incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy – the so called permanent campaign – encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult,” according to Thompson. “This mindset is conducive to campaigning, but not to governing, because it stands in the way of necessary change and thereby biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo.”

“The uncompromising mindset is characterized by politicians’ standing on principle and mistrusting opponents, Thompson says. “The uncompromising mindset can be kept in check by an opposite cluster of attitudes and arguments – the compromising mindset – that inclines politicians to adapt their principles and respect their opponents. This mindset is more appropriate for governing because it enables politicians more readily to recognize and act on opportunities for desirable compromise”.

Compromise Has Become a Dirty Word
Polarization has made compromise a dirty word, not just to hard-liners at both ends of the political spectrum but also to a lot of people who see compromise as a sell-out. Compromise, one partisan said , is the “companion of losers”.

That’s a stark contrast to Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of the 19th century. In a pre-Civil War speech in 1850, Clay said, “I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made.” “All legislation, all government, all society,” Clay said, “is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based.”

Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, said, “Today we have an increasing tendency to approach every task – and each other – in an ever more adversarial spirit”.

“Though the two-party system is oppositional by nature, there is plenty of evidence that a certain comity has been replaced by growing enmity,” Tannen said. “That Clay lauded both compromise and civil discourse in the same speech reveals the link between the word ‘compromise’ falling into disrepute and the glorification of aggression”.

Margaret Mead on Democracy
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that America’s system of two-party government is the byproduct of its unique history.

“We didn’t kill a king or execute a large number of our people, so we came into our own without the stained hands that have been associated with most revolutions,” Mead said. “With this noble heritage comes the obligation to keep the kind of government we set up – where members of each party may ‘disagree mightily’ but still ‘trust in each other and trust in our political opponents.’”

Losing that trust undermines the foundation of our democracy, Mead concluded. That trust is threatened when the very notion of compromise is rejected.