COVID Relief, Yes. But Compromise, No.

From the Editors | Issue 2 | March 16, 2021

In light of a long and painful year’s inaction since the first COVID relief package was passed by a huge consensus, The Purple Principle (TPP) can’t help but applaud the passage of the recent $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill passed last week. That said, we wish it had passed along less partisan lines.

Early on, ten Republican Senators came forward with a more modest package in mind, but much more modest, at roughly $6 versus $19 trillion. A White House meeting ensued. Maybe there was good faith on both sides to meet in the middle, but that middle didn’t happen. And Democrats knew they held the cards on this one, using budget reconciliation to pass the bill without a single Republican vote in the Senate or House.

Might there have been collateral benefits if both Houses agreed to a more modest package? Could that have strengthened the hand of Republican moderates within their current caucus and the 2022 primaries? And would that have created momentum for a more bipartisan approach on infrastructure, immigration, climate, and other big issues?

We don’t know, and realize the questions may seem naive in our polarized time. But the majority of Americans, and especially independent-minded Americans (see, for example, the recent LA Times/Reality Check poll), want tangible answers to these questions, preferably in the form of compromise. 

Historically, major legislation has tended to pass on a bipartisan basis – we’ve included historical highlights in legislative consensus below. By comparison, our current ping-pong-based government (where Democratic majorities giveth; Republican ones taketh away) may be rattling our democratic foundations. 

Still, a much needed and delayed relief bill has passed – not a trivial event in our polarized polity. Was it a perfect piece of legislation? No such bill is possible. Was it overstuffed with benefits favored by Democrats, such as federal dollars for state and local governments? You bet. Did it further balloon the gargantuan federal deficit? Absolutely. But the original intent of Keynesian deficit spending was not for ongoing programs, but for crises just like COVID.  

The problem remains, however, that without compromise in an essentially 51-50 Senate and a closely divided House, the prospects for other major legislation remains cloudy. And the myth of full Democratic control of all three branches of government continues to circulate, unclarified even in major media publications who should know better. For most matters, it remains a 60 vote majority, not the current 50 + 1 Vice President vote, that establishes full control.  

Unless, of course, Democrats remove the filibuster rules which do necessitate those 60 votes.  In the view of many, however, the end of the filibuster might only accelerate the ping-ponging of our governance and further widen polarization. 

We’ll be looking at this important filibuster issue in an upcoming podcast and newsletter. For now, we’ll leave you with an illuminating exchange reported from the great and purple state of Maine: 

“If Mitch McConnell and his caucus are going to be no, no, no, to everything… then we’ve got to get things done for the country.”

— Senator Angus King (Maine Independent)

“I would remind my dear friend Angus that the Democrats could be in the minority two years from now. And they will wish that they had not done away with the filibuster if that happens, that I can assure you.”

— Senator Susan Collins (Maine Republican)

Legislative Hall of Fame

Civil Rights Act (1964)

The final version was a compromise offered by previous civil rights opponent Everett Dirksen (R-IL) which prohibited discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, public facilities, and agencies receiving federal funds, and strengthened prohibitions on school segregation and discrimination in voter registration.

Immigration Control and Reform (1986)

his was the last major piece of U.S. immigration legislation and prohibited the hiring of undocumented immigrants while granting legal status to immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 1982. “Accepted as a once-only great compromise,” wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning scholar Jack Miles for the June 1994 issue of The Atlantic

McCain-Feingold Act (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) (2002)

This bill passed the Senate (60-40) despite a filibuster by some Republicans. It banned “soft money” financial contributions to political parties that are then funneled into electoral campaigns but was defanged by a series of Supreme Court cases.

The FIRST STEP Act (2018)

The most successful recent example of bipartisanship prior to the first COVID relief bill of 2020 that passed nearly unanimously. FIRST STEP required concessions from Democrats to win over mainline Republicans and moderates. The bill aimed to reduce the prison population by limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for non-violent drug offenses.

Highlights & Insights from the Purple Principle

“Even within cities…you’ll see that Democrats and Republicans separate from each other and live in distinct places. And what surprised us even more is if you go down to even smaller levels in those cities, if you go down to neighborhoods…you’ll see that Democrats and Republicans tend to separate from each other a little bit. When people live separately from each other but close, it really increases these feelings of animosity. And it seems like we have that going on between partisans even in neighborhoods.”

-Dr. Ryan Enos

purple principle episode artwork with headshot of podcast guests dr. ryan enos and dr. ryan strickler

What We’re Reading

In Purple News

How to renew America’s democracy

The Economist

Does the filibuster inhibit democracy? Besides the first COVID relief bill in 2020, no bill has passed with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in over a decade. Rather than handing power to moderates and brokering deals through compromise, the filibuster tends to polarize members more and stymie meaningful legislation.

Why progressives need to give Joe Manchin a break


It’s no secret why Sen. Joe Manchin votes the way he does. A Democrat representing one of the most Republican states in the country, Manchin has to walk a fine line between his party’s interests and those of his constituents.

Independent Redistricting Commission bill clears Senate unanimously

New Mexico Political Report

The New Mexico Senate recently voted, 39-0, to approve an independent redistricting commission plan. If enacted into law, the commission would play a major role in setting boundaries for Congress, the state Senate and House of Representatives, and the Public Education Commission later this year.

Hypothetically, Americans want compromise. But not in real life


The majorities in both parties say that compromise is good and important. But when asked about their willingness to compromise on major issues, only a small minority is willing to pass legislation that contains something they don’t agree with.

Cooper, legislative leaders announce deal on K-12 schools

Associated Press

NC Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders announced compromise legislation last week to return more students to the classroom. The agreement was announced in a bipartisan news conference only a few weeks after Cooper vetoed a GOP vill mandating partial in-person instruction.

“While this book is about politics, it is not political or partisan. As co-authors, we’ve got the political spectrum covered. Katherine was a Democrat who now calls herself a ‘politically homeless centrist independent.’ Michael is a lifelong Massachusetts Republican. Additionally, it would be neither correct nor helpful to assign blame to one side or another, if for no other reason than that the root problems do not revolve around political parties or politicians. We repeat: the root cause that endures across all election cycles and administrations, is the system – the politics industry – not specific people, parties, or policy.”

— Katherine Gehl & Michael E. Porter

polls worth pondering

Political Polarization, Gridlock, and COVID

Los Angeles Times/Reality Check Insights

The majorities of all groups believe that political compromise is possible, with the exception of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 . While only 47% of Trump voters adhere to this belief, 82% of Biden voters are optimistic about the possibility of political compromise. Among participants, 69% of Independent voters believe that it’s possible to find common ground on issues with people they disagree with.

Partisans say respect and compromise are important in politics – particularly from their opponents

Pew Research Center

This 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center notes that 68% of U.S. adults believe it’s very important that elected officials treat their political opponents with respect. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (72%) are somewhat more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners (63%) to place high importance on this quality in politicians generally.

Obviously, a lot has changed since 2019, so the percentages may have changed slightly. It seems likely, though, that partisans still believe that compromise is much more important for the opposition than their own parties.

studies worth studying

Exploring political compromise in the new media environment: the interaction effects of social media use and the Big Five personality traits

High social media use generally decreases the desire for political compromise, except among people high in two of the so-called “Big Five” personality traits, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, for whom it has the opposite effect.

We obviously need a new social media platform, possibly a monopoly: Agreeably Conscientious.

The Mindsets of Political Compromise

“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 so-called ‘principle’ and mistrusting opponents.”

There’s also that not-small matter of surviving primaries in highly gerrymandered districts of primarily extreme voters in competition against more extreme candidates…

Partner In Purple

More in Common is a multi-national research and advocacy organization that explores the contours of polarization and political division through rigorous research and civic engagement. More in Common reaches thousands of participants each year through surveys, interviews, and focus groups to develop a deeper understanding of both the roots of division and the bridges of unity across communities. To learn more about More in Common and their unearthing of America’s “Hidden Tribes,” check out Season 1, Episode 20, “Polarization at the Tipping Point,” featuring Stephen Hawkins, Director of Research at More in Common.

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