Perspectives on Politics


The Mindsets of Political Compromise

Amy Gutmanna1 and Dennis Thompsona2

a1 University of Pennsylvania. E-mail:

a2 Harvard University. E-mail:


Political compromise is difficult in American democracy even though no one doubts it is necessary. It is difficult for many reasons, including the recent increase in political polarization that has been widely criticized. We argue that the resistance to compromise cannot be fully appreciated without understanding its source in the democratic process itself, especially as conducted in the U.S. The incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy—the so called “permanent campaign”—encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult. These constitute what we call the uncompromising mindset, characterized by politicians' standing on principle and mistrusting opponents. 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 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. We explore the dynamics of these mindsets by examining the processes that led to the compromises on tax reform in 1986 and health care reform in 2010.

Amy Gutmann ( is President and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dennis Thompson ( is Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University.


The authors are grateful for research assistance provided by Erica Jaffe Redner and Sigal Ben-Porath.