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The US elections to congress: A need for compromise?

To reflect on the US political system, looking at the cost of compromise, and the gains that compromising may bring.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To show how one person’s actions can inspire others and really make a difference.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America in 2008 has been seen by many as an event of global significance. American power and influence is so great that many who were not American citizens celebrated Obama’s victory. Despite his global popularity, Obama is losing support at home, where it really matters. In November the electorate of the USA will go to the polls to elect the 112th Congress.
  2. The USA has a dual political system, with the presidency sharing power with Congress. The last congressional elections were held in 2006. Owing to dissatisfaction with George W. Bush’s presidency, the electorate gave the opposition centrist Democratic party a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. (These are the two legislative arms of government concerned with drafting law. The presidency is the executive arm, concerned with making law binding. In reality, however, the two roles often overlap.)

    In the 2008 presidential election that swept Obama (a Democrat) to the presidency, Democrats made even more gains. There are 435 seats in total, with the Democrats currently holding 59 per cent, and the Republicans, 41 per cent.

  3. Having an allied presidency and Congress is rare, and Obama used the opportunity to fight for, and eventually pass, healthcare reform. Even under these optimal conditions, he could only do so after months of negotiation, alteration and offering deals to get votes. This is one outcome of locally-representative democracy: some regions become more politically valuable and become liable to receive government money for special projects that could have been used for national-interest projects such as defence or electoral reform. The healthcare reform, combined with the enormous $787-billion bail-out for failing banks at the tail-end of the Bush presidency, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and expensive tax cuts have left an enormously indebted government. This has provoked an anti-government reaction.

  4. The Republican party, the current opposition party, which supports low taxes, economic libertarianism and largely conservative Christian values, is expected to gain about 20 seats at this election, possibly many more. It is a sign of a healthy democracy that different parties occupy the seats of power. Whether the Republican gains will be enough to upset the Democratic majority remains to be seen.
  5. If the Republicans do seize the House, they will have to work with a Democratic presidency. In recent years, US politics has become more polarized, particularly in the Republican party. The Democrats form a largely centrist block, in favour of moderate taxation and some wealth redistribution. The lack of a truly left-wing party means that socialists join the Democrats. Many Republicans are now far more right-wing than the British Conservatives. Groups such as evangelical Christians and the Tea Party (a radical anti-tax movement) are overthrowing established and experienced pragmatic congressmen and women, and replacing them with fringe members as candidates.
  6. It is not the place of Europeans to judge US views, since the European political paradigm is to the left of the American, but this polarization will make things difficult if there is a divided government. The US would be a stronger and more cohesive nation if its politicians were more willing to compromise and work together.

Time for reflection

No matter what we think, the US government affects the health of the whole world. The seeming inability to compromise affects the working of US democracy in a way that contrasts strongly with what we have recently experienced in the UK, with the collaboration of the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties to form a coalition.

In our own lives, we often find it hard to compromise our beliefs or our wishes.

Think about the things that you hold dear, and over which you may have had to compromise during the last year. For example:

  • Which courses you study, as the subjects ‘clashed’ on the timetable.
  • Or your hobbies, owing to time constraints.
  • Your career choice, as you found a particular subject requirement too taxing.
  • Relationships that proved to be costly.

As we grow older, being able to compromise and come to what is called a ‘win–win’ situation is a life-skill that it is helpful to acquire.

How could you work towards such ‘win–win’ compromises in your life at the moment?

And, how do you tell when you cannot compromise, as the belief you hold is too important to you?


‘For the healing of the nations’ (Hymns Old and New, 139)

Publication date: August 2010   (Vol.12 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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