This article is one in a series of arguments on elections and coalitions in our summer issue.
Progressives face a democracy on a knife’s edge. In a system of popular choice disfigured by the Electoral College, fewer than 80,000 votes, .06 of the total, swung the 2016 presidential election. The 2020 election that Joe Biden won was even closer. Fewer than 45,000 votes, or .02 percent, in three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin) decided the result.
Many have celebrated Biden’s ambitious early bills, and understandably so. But hopes that big spending alone, along with Biden’s competent management of the COVID-19 pandemic, will forge a new supermajority seem premature. Shockingly, four years of delegitimating Donald Trump in the strongest terms (whether as charlatan or fascist) failed to do the trick. Only arguing and organizing for policies that bridge current gaps between the Democrats and the disaffected could do so. This includes a variety of different kinds of voters and nonvoters. Some of Biden’s emergency and infrastructural generosity seems designed to reach them. But no one knows whether it will suffice. The meme that Biden is Franklin Roosevelt reincarnate anticipates a coalition that does not yet exist. (Roosevelt won in 1932 by nearly eighteen points in the national popular vote, with a whopping 472 Electoral College votes to 59.)
What are the ethics of coalition-building and outreach, which could someday evolve into national partisan realignment that might break the American impasse? Few have asked the question, though it is perhaps the most important one of the medium term for the United States in its Second Gilded Age. Political thinker Avishai Margalit’s neat distinction between compromises and “rotten compromises” furnishes some help.
Margalit argued that compromises are worthwhile if, on balance, they advance our goals. Rotten compromises, which entrench an indecent regime, are unjustifiable. The excellence of Margalit’s distinction is its acknowledgment of impurity, while trying to draw some kind of line between acceptable and unacceptable forms. We should therefore rule out compromises in two situations: when they give away too much, or they negotiate away the non-negotiable. Bad deals aren’t worthwhile—but good ones can be noxious, too, like agreeing to kill or enslave someone even for massive collective benefit, or bargaining with the devil, even when he offers a good price. (In Margalit’s framework, devised to think about peace processes, the line marking the intolerable is a concession to cruel and humiliating arrangements, but Margalit asks far too much, given the ubiquity of such arrangements.)
American political parties remain un-realigned, but we are witnessing some left-right coalition building. In areas like making war and dealing with tech giants, some of the most prominent voices for new policies have come from the right, not merely from the left. No one can claim these are natural coalitions. For all that it might make sense to put militarists and neoliberals in one party and a transracial working-class majority in the other, there are too many issues to make that realignment implausible for the moment. Agreement will have to be built in an exploratory, piecemeal, and slower way, working from case to case, in the details of what compromises make sense.
Take war. There is increasing awareness of the need to curb the excesses and learn from the mistakes of neoconservatism on the American right, and liberal internationalism in the center, which together defined the foreign policy of America for the decades straddling the Cold War’s end. The founding of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, led by conservative Andrew Bacevich but including many progressive voices (including mine), has made visible that fatigue with American wars and allowed the mainstreaming of once marginal perspectives. In this case, the left and right agree more than they disagree on the short term—both calling for restraint or withdrawal—even if the one aspires in the longer term to a new progressive internationalism and the other to something between a more prudent and more self-interested American foreign policy.
This is not even a compromise for either side for the moment. There is something to gain, and nothing to lose. Together, there is strength in numbers. Nor does the willingness to travel early steps on the same road, putting pressure on the United States to do less harm, entrench relationships or commit the parties to alliances they cannot undo. Joining forces in the early part of a journey does not forbid diverging when a crossroads approaches.
Murkier territory but one with room for compromise—at least to the point of taking Amazon and its ilk down a peg—exists between those leftists who support the antitrust politics of the old Progressives and conservatives complaining today of “woke capital.” There is some risk of strange bedfellows here, and no one on the left wants Senator Josh Hawley as an ally anymore, even for a good cause. (Bernie Sanders did briefly team up with him in the weeks before the January 6 storming of the Capitol, when they argued together for greater pandemic relief.) But there are many others on the right who aren’t as toxic, though they may not share the same reasons or short-term programs for breaking up the concentrated power of corporate actors. The Progressive movement itself, which led to the first antitrust era a century ago, united diverse constituencies.
Margalit’s framework suggests that progressives should not seek a coalition that could put the non-negotiable at risk—by returning to a white supremacist version of class unity, for example, or messing with precious gains made over recent decades in free speech or gay or women’s rights. But the most challenging questions about the limits of compromise are most likely to be posed indirectly. A case in point is an alliance with conservatives who denounced the juristocracy of the Supreme Court now that more and more progressives see the need to rein in the judiciary—for those conservatives not pivoting away from their old views when Senator Mitch McConnell has given them an enduring majority on the bench. Progressives would have to decide if the non-negotiable values they might have to protect in other ways (such as abortion rights, already undermined by the judiciary itself) forbid working on court reform with conservatives whose aim is to extinguish them entirely.
Compromise is the lifeblood of politics, and that will only become clearer in the next few years. Anticipation of needed realignment may require the impurity of compromise. Those who adopt entirely principled but unrealizable stances are recommending a purity only the privileged can afford. But rotten compromise sullies the bet that new coalitions could hasten realignment. It might bring a supermajority of Americans closer, but only at the price of making it a supermajority not worth having.
Samuel Moyn’s new book is Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.