Principle and Compromise

Recently there have been repeated calls for our political leaders to come together, to forget partisanship, and to work together for the good of the country.

It sounds like a good idea. Who can possibly oppose togetherness? Who would object to politicians putting aside partisanship in order to work together on projects that would be for the good of the country?

Frequently, however, the call to put aside partisanship and work for the good of the country is really a call for the other guy to put aside his partisanship, and get on my program for the good of the country.

You see, our politicians get to the county seat, the state capital, or Washington, DC with different mandates from their own districts. My own representative, for example, Congressman Jeff Miller of the 1st district of Florida, represents people who have a very different view of what is good for the country than do the people of the 15th District of New York whose representative is Congressman Charles Rangel. You can ask these men to work together and come up with good programs for our country, but what do you ask each of them to say to their constituents when they get home? Those voters are so unreasonable as to expect their congressman to come home having made laws and embraced policies that correspond to their own values.

That last sentence may sound sarcastic. But I actually do think the constituents are unreasonable to expect this. No, I don’t think they are unreasonable in expecting that their representative embrace and advocate their values. What are unreasonable are the results they expect. No results can occur without compromise, and any form of compromise will look like someone has sold some principles.

This unreasonable relationship between the politician and the voter is the result of shared lies. The politician makes promises which he or she cannot fulfill. The voters allow the politician to get by with not keeping those promises as long as he has shown enough fight, and garnered enough publicity for that fight. We value working together and we value results, while at the same time we expect firm support of principle, and particularly our principles.

Somehow, despite our wish that our leaders work together, we have gotten the idea that compromise is a bad word. We want people to get together, to work together, to put aside their partisan or personal differences for the good of the country or of the organization, but never, ever must they compromise.

I think this problem is deep seated in our culture, because I see it in business and in churches as well as in government. Churches often get together and claim to put aside “denominational” differences, and talk about all those other people who just won’t join into whatever movement for unity is involved. Yet if they’re expected to change their style of worship, or to tolerate any substantial difference of doctrine, they choke. That’s when we decide that some people are real Christians and we ought to work together with them. Some are just too far out, meaning too different from us, and we ought to oppose them and their compromised or Satan-inspired ways.

This same attitude is reflected in the patriot vs. non-patriot division in politics. We only rarely charge someone to their face with being un-American. But we definitely do divide people up with this. For example, we divide the country between the patriots who support some aspect of the war on terrorism, say the invasion of Afghanistan, and the un-American folks who don’t. The second group is the folks we just don’t need to work together with. They don’t really care about their country. Of course, we can reverse the statements. Those unpatriotic (or might we say uncaring?) folks who want young American men and women to die on foreign soil are divided from the truly caring folks who would like to avoid sending them to die at all costs.

I would like to suggest that we start to accept compromise as a necessary principle of life in society or in any group of people. In fact, we need to compromise in such a way as to bring as large a number of people into a consensus as possible. There will be principles that cannot be compromised, but we need to minimize the things that are not open to discussion as much as possible. Wherever possible we need to attribute honest, upright, good motives to as many people as possible. I often describe myself as a passionate moderate. What I’m calling for is passionate moderation.

Passionate moderation doesn’t mean always holding a view that’s a compromise, that’s kind of half way between the extremes. It means in every circumstance to seek as broad of ground as possible in order to create the greatest consensus. In all cases it means to try to keep the lines of communication open.

How do we do this? Let me suggest some steps.

  1. Carefully consider the things that you cannot compromise on in any way. This will help because you will often find that when you consider these ideas unemotionally the list is much smaller.
  2. Make a habit of attributing good motives to others. Look at their plans and suggestions and try to see how they might believe (however wrong you may believe they are) that these plans accomplish something good.
  3. Even when compromise is not possible on one issue, one may be able to compromise with the same person on another issue. Try to keep the lines of communication open.
  4. Don’t be afraid to state your views. The idea is not to give up all of your views. You can admit the result is less than you might have hoped while still believing that the compromise was the best that could be accomplished.
  5. Finally, you can have firm principles. The problem is to distinguish between desires and principles. Compromise the desires; keep the principles.

Let’s expect our politicians and religious or social leaders to be advocates for our viewpoint but to create consensus through compromise where necessary. Then let’s ask that they present the result honestly.