When did “compromise” become a dirty word?
Although we mere mortals are compelled to make compromises every day, Congress has perfected the art of refusing to compromise. So severe has this unwillingness to compromise become that the five least productive Congresses have occurred within the past decade.
So resolute have Republicans been to blocking just about every initiative put forth by Democrats and the Obama Administration, that the past eight years have been among the least productive in history. From 2007–16*, Congress passed 566 pieces of legislation. Of those, only 60 percent were considered substantive; the rest were ceremonial. By contrast, 637 bills were passed during George W. Bush’s years in the White House, 76 percent of them substantive. Pew Research Center provides an interesting graphic on the subject:
As the country has become more polarized, issues have become more black and white. That gray area in the middle—that place where things get done—has all but vanished.
This isn’t entirely a new trend, but it’s gotten much worse since the rise of the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus. So effective has the Freedom Caucus been in stymieing legislative efforts that they all but forced out of office Speaker John Boehner, who famously said “I reject the word” when it comes to “compromise.”
Although some praise the fact that Freedom Caucus members (and others) have refused to march in lock-step with Republican leadership, the fact remains that the obstinacy has blocked progress. The refusal to compromise has created a series of do-nothing Congresses, and that has made many Americans plenty frustrated with the goings-on (or, as it were, the not-goings-on) in Washington. Indeed, only 14.9 percent of Americans approve of Congress—and that’s an improvement from years past (!). In October 2013, approval reached a nadir of 8.3 percent.
Ironically, it could be argued that Congress’s inability and unwillingness to compromise is what led, at least in part, to the uptick in the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion, which “Congress views as dictatorial.”
So many cliches work here:
You made your bed. Now go lie in it.
What goes around comes around.
That’s the pot calling the kettle black.
Part of the problem seems to be that “compromise” is now taken to mean “you will do exactly what I want you to do, without question” instead of “let’s meet in the middle.” In recent years, many of those on the right have blamed this view on those on the left. Indeed, Stephen Hayes, James Ceaser, and Michael Needham write in a report published by the right-leaning Heritage Foundation that compromise “has recently been praised in Washington, mostly by the Left, not only as a good, but almost as a supreme good. No wonder, too, because in this context, it meant mostly acceding to President Obama. Thus, pages of commentary have been dedicated to pious encomiums to compromise …”
Apparently, we can’t even compromise on the meaning of compromise.
Merriam-Webster defines “compromise” as the following:
a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute
something that combines the qualities of two different things
a change that makes something worse and that is not done for a good reason
Unfortunately, all the focus today seems to be on the third of these concepts. The first two—the more important of the three—seem to have been lost on most people. As a result, people have come to think of compromise as something nefarious, something shifty, something wicked and evil, a sign of weakness.
So, we end up voting for elected officials who decry the concept of compromise, even if it’s the best route to achieving something virtuous. We elect as our representatives in government absolutists who see things only in diametric opposition: black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.
And then we wonder why nothing gets done.
We’re electing these absolutists to government. We are electing them. They represent us, and they reflect us. Why are politicians so opposed to compromise? Because, at least in part, we have been demanding that they be so. We have sent moderates to the guillotines of politics. We have chastised centrists as not progressive enough or not conservative enough. We have turned the middle ground into an expansive field of white-hot coals over which few politicians will dare to tread.
We can’t blame this wholly on politicians. We ourselves, the so-called little people, are fueling the flames of absolutism. We troll each other in digital and social media, lambasting those whose views differ even in the slightest from our own. We happily, blissfully live in echo chambers of our own making. We call-out everyone but ourselves for being hypocrites. We refuse to even consider other points of view, much less compromise with those whose views don’t match ours.
It seems like it is well past time to not only consider differing points of view but to find ways of reaching agreement and to combine the best qualities of opposing approaches in order to find solutions. We need to be willing to find common ground with our neighbors, our fellow citizens. If we want anything to get done in Washington or Springfield or Albany or Sacramento or Carson City, we have to send to government elected officials who are willing to get things done by compromising, finding middle ground, working together, considering other points of view, and combining approaches.
Let’s bring back compromise. And let’s agree that compromise begins at home: We compromise on what to feed the entire family for dinner. We compromise on where to take family vacations. We compromise on how to pursue initiatives and meet performance measures at work. We compromise on whether to bake cookies or muffins for the church fundraiser. We compromise on whether to volunteer for the Friends of the Library this weekend or for People’s Resource Center. Compromise is part of life—and somehow we all keep living while still making compromises every day. As Geoff Nunberg wrote in an NPR piece, “[w]ith the possible exception of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, nobody gets through a week without realizing they’ve compromised their principles.”
Without compromise, little gets done. Without compromise, progress is stilted. Without compromise, absolutism prevails and further divides us.
I choose to look for ways to bring us together. We need not give up who we are to get what we want. Without necessarily compromising my values, I will look for ways to compromise on ways to get results. I might not get everything I want, but I’m willing to give up everything to get something.
Will you join me?
* Congressional terms overlap Presidential terms, so the years don’t quite align.