With every government shutdown, immigration crisis,and partisan bill that goes through the United States’ legislative branch, there seems to be a slew of articles that follow suit attacking one party or the other. In only the most recent news, we can cite President Obama on immigration and on Cuba. And the word that everyone seems to invoke, as if quoting the constitution, is compromise. Specifically, a “lack of compromise” always allegedly stalemates our Congress and Senate.
Compromise is weakness (e.g. “he compromised his values”). Compromise is controversial (e.g. “compromising evidence against him”). Yet compromise is also a key tenet of our constitution, many critics will argue. But perhaps as importantly as any of these is that compromise is ecological.
Forest ecosystems, like American politics, are at their essence, interacting compromises. Whether it is the fact that many forest systems have two tree species that dominate (as we have two political parties), or the vines that grow up those trees, using the massive wooded weight to support themselves (as more radical politicians select a party to advance their interests), it is all political. And when a large tree falls (a key individual, or a party faction), new species jump at the opportunity to fill the void; in politics and forests alike, experts coin this “succession.”
It’s a pretty metaphor, but it neglects one key aspect of a healthy forest: fires. Historically, ecologists thought these fires were bad and did anything in their power to prevent them. However, scientists soon discovered that stopping all fires for extended periods of time builds up massive amounts of debris. Then one small spark and a dry year and a crown fire erupts, burning not just the shrubs, but the tops of trees as well.
Crown fires can happen in politics too. Think only of the (many) French governments that have risen and fallen in revolutions. Their systems became antiquated, massive amounts of useless debris built up and the government did not solve citizens’ issues. The crown fires toppled various governments, and now France is on its fifth republic.
In the United States, we have not overthrown any governments per se, but this principle is in play still. The American Civil War, the bloodiest war ever fought (or the biggest crown fire ever burned), was a time when compromise simply no longer worked. Historians cite death of “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay as well as those of Webster and Calhoun as destabilizing events on the path to war. But Henry Clay’s death is not what brought the Civil War by any means. It was the building up of debris over decades that led to the fire.
What was necessary then was the doing away with an idea entirely. Compromising on slavery had been a practice since the three-fifths compromise written into our constitution. And the only way to prevent a civil war would have been with little brushfires along the way, something our compromising fathers (who compromised their values) feared.
In the present tense, social conservatism holds a similar place as an issue on which one simply cannot compromise. Compromising on women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, immigrant and minority rights, etc. has no place in any society. Moreover, conservatives and liberals both do not want to compromise on this issue, and the result has been a slow transition to human rights that has dragged its way onward for more than 50 years.
The people who fight for rights every day have struggled and led this movement, but there is another unlikely player: the Tea Party. The Tea Party wants to burn some of that Republican debris that lies in antiquated social stances. And by refusing to compromise with their own party, they outright reject social issues as issues of discussion at all, pushing in a socially liberal direction.
A lack of compromise means inaction. Thus, when Republics force stalemate on economic issues, perhaps it is because they realize stalemate means they keep everything they like about our taxation policy. It means we oughtn’t fix a system that isn’t broken (at least, in their perspective). But national stalemate also means states (or the Supreme Court) decide social issues through local government, a Tea Party objective. Of course, when inaction means losing seats and creating super majorities, it means failure for that party. But this failure actually forces compromise. The party must reassess its values or fall out of existence.
Many fear the downfall of parties and the resulting “singularity” of opinion they bring, but we have seen it frequently in America’s history: Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs and Progressives were all parties that died off. And with each death came a brief period of single-party control and rapid change. But as the points everyone agrees on have all been met, flaws elsewhere in the system become apparent (as with any monoculture), and disagreement leads to party schism and fusion. It is a kind of rapid evolutionary expansion to fill the open niche left by a giant char in the woods.
What the Tea Party is doing in the present is actually this kind of compromise. They will weaken Republicans until the issues that the public wants become the issues the party embraces. This means becoming increasingly conservative, but not socially so. This is unfolding in states like Kansas already. They will have to throw away much of their social conservatism to be in line with the increasingly “minority” face of the United States. If they do not do so, they will collapse and in their wake a future conservative party will rise from the ashes that emphasizes economics but disregards social issues, and many Democrats will split with their party in favor of this new one.
It is still a system with compromise, but with a different equilibrium. It is a sweeping burn of all the political debris without a crown fire.
Contact Joe Troderman at jtrod93 ‘at’ stanford.edu.