Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Compromise a Dirty Word?

Compromise is “a rather complex issue that deserves serious thought.” So I wrote in an August 5 comment following that day’s blog posting in which I cited Max Weber’s oft-quoted statement, “politics is the art of compromise.”
In March of this year, speaking to a small group of college students, President Obama candidly and openly emphasized the importance of compromise. Part of that conversation is included in an article by David Plouffe, a Senior Advisor to the President (available for viewing/reading here.)
Plouffe’s brief article closes with these words: “Compromise isn’t a dirty word—in fact, it’s the only way our democracy can get big things done.”
The President made similar statements about compromise several times in July. And earlier this week, speaking in Iowa, President Obama reiterated, “Congress has to get the message that compromise isn’t a dirty word.”
But last Sunday, on a CNN interview, Rep. Michele Bachmann declared, “On big issues, I don’t compromise my core sets of principles.”
In some ways that is a commendable attitude. I think people ought to stand up for their principles—but only when they are they are the only ones affected by that resolute stance. It is different for politicians or others acting in the public arena.
One of Rep. Bachmann’s core principles seems to be not raising taxes on anybody and not raising the debt ceiling, which was necessary in order for the U.S. to make its payments on money already borrowed. So she voted No on the compromise debt ceiling bill.
But there were a number of liberals who also voted No on the same compromise bill. They, for good reason, did not want to pass the bill that provided no additional revenue.
For Rep. Bachmann and those on the political far right, compromise is evidently thought to be a dirty word. The same is true for those on the political far left.
“Emphasis on Not Compromising” is one subsection of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (pp. 68-72). Unwillingness to compromise is one of the most common characteristics of fundamentalists. That is true for “fundamentalist liberals” also.
Often the choice is not between good and bad. Sometimes the choice is between the good (not the best) and something worse. Or often it is a choice between options, neither of which is “good.” But if our only choice, as sometimes is the case, is between two “evils,” is not choosing the lesser of two evils good?
If we are making choices only for ourselves and the course of action we will take, a course that does not directly affect others, we can be idealistic and stay true to our principles and refuse to compromise. Such action is, I believe, virtuous.
But when we are in a group setting, and especially if we are in a position of leadership or responsibility, the matter is different. We have to consider the good of the whole group, not just our personal commitments.
In a group setting, it is a bit arrogant to say, by word or by deed (vote), My way or no way.
The “purists” are loath to compromise, but in the public arena they sometimes cause the good to fail because it wasn’t what they considered to be the best.
Individually, we should always beware of the good becoming an enemy of the best. But sometimes, especially in the public arena, stubbornly seeking the best can become an enemy of the good.


  1. Leroy,

    On this issue, I've come to empathize a lot with the decision-making system of the Quakers. I do not believe in compromise—in the democratic process or in the Church—as it leads to a "nobody wins" situation.

    However, the Quakers practice the art of consensus, even at their highest levels of organization. When an issue is on the table, no one leaves the room until everyone is satisfied with the decision (imagine if the debt talks had been handled like an 18th century American courtroom, where those involved were locked in a hot room with one another and were not allowed to leave until a decision was reached).

    Consensus is tedious, and probably unrealistic on a federal government level, but to me is still the best form of decision making. The difference is that, with compromise, everyone is giving up something, but with consensus, everyone has something to add to the conversation.

  2. Joshua's emphasis on the Quaker practice of the art of consensus is good. But it is also not possible for large groups.

    The smaller the group the more consensus is possible and desirable. The larger the group the more consensus is not practicable.

    Decision by consensus is a characteristic of decision making in Japan. I have sat through hundreds and hundreds of hours through the years, at church and at the university where I taught (and served as an administrator), deciding things by consensus that could have quickly been decided by majority vote.

    It was often people who were not willing to compromise that made the meetings so long.

    (Perhaps it was the same sort of consensus mentality that caused the Japanese government to take so long to decide to surrender after the atomic bombs were dropped.)

    There is no way most American groups are going to be willing to make decisions by consensus.

    And there is no way that could possibly be done in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

  3. This just received from a Thinking Friend who is also a faithful commenter:

    "That's good thinking, Leroy. Absolutism leads to disaster in the social and political sphere. Look at the consequences of it in the SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] and now in the U.S. House of Representatives.}

  4. I'm going to compromise here and say, I think you're most correct in stressing the disaster of absolutism. :) However, the problem with all such discussions is that it is impossible to identify compromise or faithfulness to one's core convictions as virtues abstracted from the social and historical context. Compromise can be a good thing, as you note, when it's the only way to move towards something better. It can be a bad thing if it involves accepting an intolerable alternative. For example, I would resign as pastor of a white church if it were to pass a rule that blacks were not to be permitted, although I'd be willing to take the pastorate of a church not racially integrated if it were that way unintentionally.

    I would also want to hone some of your perspective a bit more--especially with regard to left and right, fundamentalist and liberal. You're quite correct that the political far right and far left are loathe to compromise. That's related to the absolutism of their ideologies. (It's true of religious fundamentalism as well, as you note.) Political liberalism, though, as a middle ground is not so absolutistic. Liberalism was born in a historical-philosophical context of give-and-take, suspicion of absolute power, support for division of powers, and with a commitment to very abstract principles. When liberals are uncompromising, it's more a matter of personality than ideology.

    Also, I suspect that political ideology and religious ideology don't mirror each other's continuum well. I would further suggest there is almost no politically far left in the U.S. anymore. And I'm not sure our far right (which is a phrase I use regularly) is actually far right in the classical or modern sense; i.e., neither monarchists or fascists.

  5. Typically the right wing and left wing have very legitimate concerns. Compromise allows the organization to move on, but at a cost which will have to be paid (frequently with high interest down the road) both figuratively and literally; socially and monetarily. This adversarial dichotomy effects social systems, economic systems, religious systems, and political systems. Compromise frequently tends to be a lose-lose, with each side thinking they lost more which further pushes polarity. Then at some point the system collapses, there can be no more compromise and a war of some form prevails to readjust the foundation. This is not always bad, but there are casualties - frequently innocents - an ugly compromise in itself.

    (Lincoln and Luther are good examples of the price tags. There certainly was need of reform, but outside forces may have brought about a good much less costly resolution anyway - there are indications, but who knows.)

    Our political system sets this competition in place. Both sides are quite wrong, and fundamentally right. A third and independent party is needed to allow the polar best of each side.

  6. I recently had the opportunity of serving on a church committee that wrote a draft replacement constitution for our church. We did it by consensus, without once taking a formal vote. We did not even elect a chair. We still worked long and hard, and had some head-banging moments. Yet, at the end, we felt we had jointly prepared a better document than any one of us could have done alone.

    Yet, even a close community can go astray practicing consensus. One of the most chilling accounts I ever read was a story from World War II of a man who escaped from a Nazi death camp, and amazingly managed to find his way back to his home village. There, he told everyone of his great ordeal. The community did not accept his report, and eventually, even he stopped talking about it. Then one day the Nazis came and rounded up everyone in town.

    When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean, they held an election. The issue was serious, Where should they winter over? A mistake could cost them their lives. Everyone, even the black slave and the female native American guide Sacagawea, was given an opportunity to state and explain his or her opinion.

    Our representatives in Washington lack the cohesion of a church, or even the common experience of an expedition. They must contend with the pressures of lobbyists, campaign donations, and an explosion of complexity. To make the concept of compromise make sense, we need to better define when it is appropriate. Compromise may be obvious for a vacationing family deciding whether to stop for pizza or burgers. When it gets to raising taxes versus cutting Medicaid, things get very complicated.

    We live in a world where informed people do not agree on the science of climatology, or the laws of economics. We may look at a problem and not agree on what is the cause, and what is the effect. We may well seek diametrically opposed solutions. Our disagreements may be at such deep levels of understanding, that we totally miss the disagreement, and assume that the other side is lying. And sometimes the other side may indeed be caught lying. Sometimes our side may be caught lying, too.

    So, Lewis and Clark had it easy. Everyone knew winter was coming, and everyone wanted to live through it. The question was narrow enough they had a chance to figure it out. Today we are not quite sure where we are, or where we want to end up. Is it amazing that we have incredible fights over how to get there? We have escalated from voting against that with which we do not agree, to regularly filibustering against what the majority wants to do. As we remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we know where this has lead before.

    President Obama is famous for saying, "Elections have consequences." Republicans did not like that after the 2008 election. Democrats did not like it after the 2010 election. So let us look clearly at the 2012 election. Elections have consequences. Consequence is the word for today's Washington, not compromise. Just remember that power politics is still better than civil war.

  7. Craig's comments about civil war caused me to think about how Lincoln was criticized by some for compromising at times for not taking a stronger stand against slavery.

    Back in July, President Obama urged legislators to follow Lincoln’s example of compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation. “This notion that somehow if you're responsible and you compromise, that somehow you're giving up your convictions--that's absolutely not true.”

    “Now think about that,” Obama said. “The Great Emancipator was making a compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought it was necessary in terms of advancing the goals of preserving the Union and winning the war.”

    Civil War historian James McPherson commented on the President's use of Lincoln's example: “The Emancipation Proclamation was indeed a partial measure, but a crucial step toward an ultimate complete success of ending slavery… Lincoln made a lot of compromises on other issues too. In fact, he was famous for knowing the art of the possible.”

  8. A Thinking Friend raised this issue (in an e-mail message): "I'm curious what a pacifist senator should do when it comes to compromise in declaring war in a matter that affected the public good."

    I sent this e-mail response to him:

    "The issue you raised relates to the central reason the old Anabaptists taught that Christians should not be magistrates. That was mainly because of the compromises public office would entail. They had a point. An elected official, I believe, is not justified in maintaining his/her personal commitment/belief, such as pacifism, if that is contrary to the public good. (Of course, it is often difficult to know what the public good will be in the long run.) That is the main reason why Christian politicians tend, for good reason, to follow Niebuhr's realism rather than, for example, Yoder's idealism. It is always easier to be idealistic when one does not have the responsibility of decisions that gravely affect other people."

  9. I am currently reading John W. Dean's "Conservatives Without Conscience" (2006). He quotes Barry Goldwater as saying this about compromise: "Politics and governing demand compromise. The government won't work without it. But these Christians [influencing the Republican Party] believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise" (pp. xxxiv-xxxv).

    That was in 1994; if Goldwater were still alive, what would he say about the unwillingness of social/fiscal conservatives to compromise now?!

  10. As you state above, it's not all fundamental right-wing Christians refusing to compromise. Their polar opposites are certainly making the news regularly with their malicious, no-compromise rhetoric. So much for Christian love leading the way.