I. The Myth: Compromise Is King

Compromise is a byword for political virtue. Public opinion polling suggests the ability of politicians to bridge partisan divides and find policy solutions that benefit the nation as a whole is strongly desired by Americans. A recently conducted NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll asked 1,023 respondents living across the country whether they preferred politicians who compromise with their opponents or whether they preferred elected officials who stick to their positions. 63% of respondents expressed a preference for compromise.

With the veneration of compromise comes the veneration of centrism: political good must, by definition, be found in the middle, as this is where the majority of the people are. And democratic theory not only names the people as sovereign but says the majority should rule.

The argument for compromise runs something like this:

Governing involves choice. When elected officials enact law or cabinet officials implement regulation, they are attempting to bring about a specific, predetermined end: raise tax revenue to replenish government coffers, elongate the period down-on-their-luck citizens can claim employment benefits or introduce new emissions standards to bring about a greener future. But the ends which the relevant political actors have deemed virtuous enough to become the foundation of public policy are surely not looked upon as favorably by every soul affected by them.

Faction, James Madison prophetically warns in Federalist 10, is something of a necessary evil in all matters political. Factions—by which Madison means a group of citizens united by a common interest, which in some way stands in opposition to the interest of another group—arise from the natural diversities that bring individuation to humankind: disparities in natural talents and in the distribution of material goods. According to Madison, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

Respect for the individual’s right of conscience—for the ability to think freely is implicit in government’s duty to respect the divergent interests of its citizens—necessitates the creation of a body in which all competing factions have an opportunity to air their grievances and generally make their interests known. A legislature, therefore, is an integral part of representative government; its decisions punctuate a robust and boisterous debate in which all factions have the chance to present their case and attempt to convince others of its validity.

But the right to be heard is not the right to be obeyed. Government is not a producer; it has limited resources, which necessitates choice. Its limited resources come from citizens: in the forms of taxes and fees paid for civic services rendered. While this makes Congress’ role as a forum of free and public debate doubly important, it also emphasizes the need for a utilitarian ethic in all policy decisions: the policy which promises to improve the lot of the broadest swathe of the polity should be the one pursued. Democracy, after all, makes the people the locus of ultimate authority. Fairness in the democratic lexicon necessitates that the largest faction’s views win the public policy debate; their interests should be reflected in the ends law attempts to bring about. In democracy, might makes right.

The culture of democratic politics, then, is defined by pragmatism and compromise. Coalition building is an integral aspect of assembling a majority. A nation the size of America contains within its borders an incredibly diverse populace. Individuals may have unique backgrounds, priorities and ideas, but these differences need to be set aside. Unity is found in rallying around commonalities, not by focusing on divisions. Various factions need to look at the things they have in common so that public policy that advances the good of all can be enacted. Politicians, then, cannot afford to cling stubbornly to principle; in doing so they betray the most fundamental tenet of democratic governance: the idea that the will of the people is sovereign. Starry-eyed crusaders who heed the cries of their conscience and not the cries of their constituents betray their mandate. They put ego above the welfare of those they represent. Idealism has no place in democratic politics.

II. The Nature of the Ideal

To invoke the ideal as the catalyst for one’s goals in life is to give oneself over to the realm of the abstract. An ideal is a value or concept perfectly embodied; it is an absolute. It reflects the kind of perfect order usually reserved for eschatological concerns. To be an idealist is to seemingly reject the world before one in favor of a reality that can only exist in an abstract existence totally separate from the natural world: for the ideal, if it is to be absolute, cannot be subject to the all-degrading laws of time. One does so in the hope that living under the laws of the ideal will one day make it manifest in the natural world—a course of action that has been the downfall of many a utopian movement. This emphasis on an end rooted in the abstract and unattainable makes ideologues seem unrealistic, irrational and stubbornly immovable.

But this characterization is incorrect. To be an ideologue is to value. And to value is to think. An ideal cannot compel man to act in its service; one must make a choice to do so—a choice that can only be rooted in cognition.

To be an ideologue is not to be blindly intransigent but to be certain of one’s own beliefs. To be an ideologue and to be a politician is to be certain of which choices are conducive to living one’s belief. Ideals make themselves manifest in the natural world through values; ideologues simply choose actions rooted in the values associated with the ideal in which they have found the most virtue. Political ideologues pursue policies likely to advances these values in the world.

Ideology requires introspection: one must understand the nature of one’s own being and the nature of the wider world. One must also consider the way in which virtue makes it manifest in various entities. The relationship between these entities impacts the ways in which the ideal comes into being. Virtuous action is a matter of choice: of ascertaining what possible path leads to the end one desires to bring about. The ideologue must constantly assess the options available to him and determine which is best suited to serve the good. In doing so, he not only advances the ideal in the world, but makes of himself a more virtuous character. For, as Aristotle observes in The Nicomachean Ethics, “every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well.” (II.6, 1106a16-17) Ideology, then, is not stasis or immovability. It is constant assessment of the virtue of one’s desire and the wider world. It is to be the needle in a compass trying to find north in an ever-shifting landscape.


The charge that idealism is incompatible with popular sovereignty is equally invalid. Faction is protected by government precisely because each individual has a right to conscience: to make decisions for his or herself about where good is to be found, and to then take actions to pursue that good. Protecting faction—and the disparate ideas that drive the disagreements between opposing groups—is named as the fundamental goal of the American government by Madison because life is contextual: the experience of a farmer in rural New England is not the experience of the steel worker in urban Pittsburgh. The realities of day-to-day life with which the denizens of these respective environments find themselves confronted are vastly different. The thoughts and priorities of the farmer and the steel worker diverge; the tasks and relationships each is governed by diverge. And yet, both are catalyzed in their endeavors by the same basic goal. Survival is the fundamental precept of man; each individual holds his or her continued existence as the primary moral good. But this is where all commonality ceases, for survival is a matter of context: the farmer worries whether bad weather will ruin his harvest and place his welfare in jeopardy while the factory worker worries about the hazards of heavy machinery and whether the global commodity market will affect the price of steel. The political policy each prefers is an outgrowth of these concerns. No solution is more valid than another in an absolute sense: the farmer has not committed some error in judgment in choosing a vocation that relies on something so mercurial as the forecast that renders his needs less deserving of political representation. Each lifestyle and the choices taken as a part of it are valid when considered in context of the conditions that molded them.

The ideal is equally dependent upon context: the ways in which an ideal’s adherents actualize it through their actions is a product of the choices available to them. Ideals may be absolute, but their application is relative. There may even be relativity between one ideal and another because of the disparities implicit in the natural world. The ideologue’s task is to navigate the choices open to him—which may not perfectly embody the virtues he hopes to advance—and find a way to act in a manner that integrates his beliefs and his way of living; his goal is consistency: even if the disparities of the natural world offer imperfect choices that affect his mode of behavior, that behavior always is consistently chosen because it in some way embodies the ideal. Such a lifestyle requires constant analysis and introspection: the constant questioning of one’s self and one’s relationship with the wider world.

This mode of being is inherent to any government system that pays even slightest lip service to popular sovereignty.  For survival is the most exigent of political causes and makes of each individual an ideologue. Virtue, in its most basic form, is to be found in one’s continued existence. The right to life undergirds policy debates, whether they are focused on welfare programs or trade policy. Placing respect for the diverse conclusions citizens reach at the heart of government’s responsibilities enshrines individual sovereignty. By implication, it places out of bounds any ability of government officials to dictate to individuals the values by which they ought to live their lives. Each citizen has the ultimate power to be arbiter of his or her own good. Representative government makes of politicians intermediary channels: they exist to promote—not dictate—the interests of their constituents. The legislature effectively serves as an adjudicating body: it sorts out competing ideas of good and attempts to find commonalities which can form the basis of policy. The direction policy takes, however, is not an exclusive endorsement of whatever factional definition of good is implicit in the end it attempts to achieve. Law in such a system does not invalidate the beliefs of lesser factions who were unable to win converts to their way of thinking and thus become the driver behind public policy. Politicians are not only intermediaries for their constituents, they also have a duty to ensure their actions taken at the behest of one group’s interests do not infringe upon another’s.

The way in which representative government operates—in that it attempts to promote the self-defined interests of various constituency groups— promotes an ideal.  But representative government is itself only possible when those officials whose actions give life to political organs see the virtue in a system characterized by restraint and respect for the people. And the very concept of government restraint was itself borne of an idealistic crusade.

Autocracy is the legacy of the Middle Ages: where men held rights—even the right to life—at the tolerance of the king. Morality itself had no absolute meaning: the whim of the king, which could fluctuate from day to day, was the only byword for right and wrong. It was a rebel group of English barons who, fed up with the excesses of a king who saw the welfare of the people with whom he’d been entrusted as contingent upon his own wellbeing, wrested concessions from the monarch that forever limited political power. When King John signed Magna Carta in 1215, he ceded some powers of oversight to a council of 25 barons, whose judgment he promised to accept in any instance where they deemed his actions to have overstepped the bounds of his authority. John promised:

if we, or our justiciar, or our bailiffs or any one of our officers, shall in anything be at fault towards anyone, or shall have broken any one of the articles of this peace or of this security, and the offense be notified to four barons of the foresaid five and twenty, the said four barons shall repair to us (or our justiciar, if we are out of the realm) and, laying the transgression before us, petition to have that transgression redressed without delay. And if we shall not have corrected the transgression (or, in the event of our being out of the realm, if our justiciar shall not have corrected it) within forty days, reckoning from the time it has been intimated to us (or to our justiciar, if we should be out of the realm), the four barons aforesaid shall refer that matter to the rest of the five and twenty barons, and those five and twenty barons shall, together with the community of the whole realm, distrain and distress us in all possible ways, namely, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, and in any other way they can, until redress has been obtained as they deem fit, saving harmless our own person, and the persons of our queen and children; and when redress has been obtained, they shall resume their old relations towards us.

In giving over to the barons power to check the actions of the king and to extract remuneration for any injustice he was deemed to have committed, John divorced the power of moral arbitration from the monarch and rooted it in something more empiric and durable than the will of a single man. Crucially, popular sovereignty was codified for the first time: Magna Carta confirmed individuals, by dint of their being, had power to be arbiters of their own lives. It was not the king alone granted some preternatural power by the Almighty who had the ability to make moral judgments. Magna Carta was by no means perfect; ingrained within it is a hierarchical system that abrogates the rights of lower classes, women and Jewish peoples. The charter was instituted by the king in bad faith and violated almost immediately. It would take several hundred years and the creation of a new country before the principles outlined within it became the operational principles of a government. But this does not change the fact that the principles which have come to define democratic systems were forged in the crucible of an ideal.


Divorcing individual will from power is an integral aspect of limiting government. Popular sovereignty requires elected officials check their own desires and craft law oriented around the goals their constituents wish to see enacted; it does not allow politicians to use law as a cudgel and force the citizenry into complying with their own personal ideas about moral behavior. The need to separate personality from power is often used to argue for the need to exclude idealism from political decisions. Ideologically-motivated politicians are perceived as prioritizing their ego above compromises that benefit the welfare of the nation as a whole. But idealism belies such naked power grabs. The ideologue serves himself, certainly, but his conception of self is not bound up in his temporal wellbeing. Material goods are secondary to his concern with conscience and spiritual concerns. The virtues that animate the ideologue are attained only by pursuing a course of action that advances the values he has deemed most meritorious. The ideologue’s sense of self is rooted in the absolute; he seeks, by choosing actions that advance his favorite virtues, to bring his being more into line with the ideal in its perfect form. Conscience-rooted fears make the ideologue cautious of pursuing any course of action without first evaluating its moral implications.

This makes the ideological politician prudent. He does not compromise—even with the weight of public opinion against him—because he fears for the quietude of his conscience should he divert from the course of action he has determined most conducive to advancing the good he seeks. This makes him a bulwark against brash and impetuous political decisions. He says “no” to most public policy proposals, which is a boon for individual sovereignty. An ideologue spends time in contemplation and deliberation of ideas so that he might understand the implications each possible course of action has. There is a temptation in democratic systems to skip over this step. The utilitarian ethic which democratic political decisions obey creates a numerical majority: it looks only to numbers as a justification. So long as a majority faction is in support of an idea, democratic thought decrees it has a sufficient mandate to pass. In this way, democracy, not unlike autocracy, outsources moral judgments to the most powerful faction. “Good” and “bad” become relative terms, defined with no more absolute reference than the consensus opinion members of the majority faction have with regards to what is in their own interests. For lesser factions, this can lead to a dangerous erosion of rights. There is a temptation to characterize anything that stands as an impediment to the implementation of the majority’s will as illegitimate. Hence, ideologues, become undesirable. But that stands as an impediment to fast-tracked political decisions is a boon for popular sovereignty. By preventing reckless decisions from being hastily enacted, ideologues help preserves the rights innate to individuals—and particularly innate to individuals in the minority.

The ideologue effectively applies a standard of strict scrutiny to public policy matters: he needs an overwhelming abundance of compelling evidence to support the idea that an action designed to bring about a desired end will in fact do so. He needs to know that the end is necessary, virtuous and will not have any adverse effects. This incredibly high bar in most cases leads to a policy of inaction, which effectively leads to a respect for the judgment of others. The ideologue’s reticence to enact policy that diverges from his morality creates a vacuum: by refusing to move government, he creates a space that leaves others—namely private individuals—to pursue good and seek out their own solutions to their own problems. The ideologue will not act to curtail these unless he sees some overwhelmingly compelling interest. The danger to individual rights does not lie with ideal-driven politicians, but with politicians animated by an altruistic desire to do good.

Politicians who obey the utilitarian ethic—whose actions are governed by a desire to compromise on ideas so that the will of the majority might be served and the welfare of the largest faction advanced—are indiscriminate. They do not consider the impact of the policies they enact and in doing so they trample on the rights retained by minority factions in a political system that respect individual sovereignty. Factions, it must be remembered, have disparate definitions of good: one group’s rise often comes at the expense of another’s. When politicians accept the utilitarian ethic and act simply to secure the good of the largest faction—as democratic thought mandates they should—they risk creating a prosperity that robs Peter in order to pay Paul. Citizens contribute to government’s coffers and fund public initiatives regardless of whether they are in the majority or the minority on a particular issue. Forcing one group to contribute to an end that prioritizes the needs of another is perverse. The good of the whole cannot come at the expense of its constituent parts. But this is precisely what the utilitarian ethic’s mandate to compromise does. The populist interpretation of popular sovereignty denies politicians the ability to make judgments about whether constituents’ views are right or wrong, which gives absolute moral authority to the majority view. Minority views are often not considered, at least not seriously, for they are often seen as nothing but an impediment to the common good, which is found in the policy the majority has expressed a desire to see implemented.

This approach to government is antithetical to democratic egalitarianism. Individuals cannot be equal before the eyes of the law when an obsession with compromise categorically rejects as an impediment to progress anyone whose views diverge from the majority of the public’s. For the same reason, representative government and respect for individual sovereignty cannot be conflated with the abnegation of all judgment. Politicians cannot supplant their constituents’ ideas about what policies are in their best interests with their own personal beliefs. But they also cannot blindly advance the will of the majority in an attempt to serve the popular will. To do so risks plunging the nation back into the kind of autocratic tyranny monarchs once imposed upon their subjects. For government to be totally neutral in exercising judgment is impossible, for government is enervated by men who rely on judgment to survive. Divorcing will from power is integral to respect for the rights of citizens: when a politician can simply codify his ideas and morals through law—without fear of repercussion because he is the arbiter of right and wrong—then he is a tyrant. But when politicians absolve themselves of any duty to make determinations about how implementing the expressed interests of the majority through public policy will impact the nation, they are also become tyrants. They enable absolute power to be transferred from a small faction—the all-powerful king—to a large faction—the people. The nature of power does not change, merely the way it is exercised. It is the duty of politicians to consider the impact of their actions: certain legislative proposals, even if they promise to improve the lot of many, are immoral because the actions taken to secure them impede upon the rights of those in the minority. It is the duty of politicians charged with protecting the sovereignty of their constituents to consider this and stand against policy that infringes upon rights. But this requires not ceding morality to whatever parameters the majority chooses to set. It requires standing firm for the ideals on which democratic thought is based.

III. The Proper Place of the Ideal

Ideology has a place in politics. Politicians in a representative system are conduits for the interests of their constituents. If a farming community tells their representative they want an end to ethanol subsidies because it adversely affects the way they do business, then respect for sovereignty of the individuals who comprise that group compels a politician to consider that attitude when making policy decisions. Even if all other members of Congress disagree with this position, and even if public opinion as a whole disagrees with this position, it is the duty of that representative to give voice to those constituents and respect their sovereignty by accepting that the conclusions they have come to about where their own good lies are legitimate and made in good-faith. This is an ideal operative in the behavior of government.

At the same time, interest should never be allowed to run roughshod over rights. It is simultaneously the job of politicians to ensure that any action they take to promote the interests expressed by their constituents does not infringe upon the rights of any citizen. This is true regardless of whether those citizens whose rights might be in danger of being infringed are their constituents or not. This is an ideal operative in the behavior of government.

Politicians, then, should be ideologues because the framework of American government is idealistic: it recognizes the sovereignty of individuals and states any government action that infringes upon the rights that are component parts of that sovereignty are illegitimate. It is the job of politicians to ensure that government behaves in a manner respective of this ideal. It is also the job of representatives to be ideologues if that is what their constituents demand of them. This is not to say that representatives should be thoughtless barometers of the public’s interests—for this abdication of moral judgment leads to the suppression of minority interests—but that representatives do their jobs beset when they come from the communities represent and when they personally understand the problems certain factions face and are affected by the political decisions made to solve those problems. When representatives show loyalty to their constituents, when they show loyalty to the idea of individual sovereignty and do not merely bow to the will of the majority, they act in an ideological manner.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.