Hillary Clinton has consistently cited compromise as a cornerstone of democracy and a key to American’s history and progress. Recently she advised that “It is also a responsibility of citizenship. It’s important not to vote for people who proudly say that they will never compromise.” (*)
I think that’s important because she’s reminding us that it is the citizenry’s strident partisanship that leads to an intolerance of opposing views, which makes compromise nearly impossible.
Looking around it’s easy to see why she feels the need to remind us. Perhaps our educational system and popular culture are partly to blame. I get the sense that much history is taught in heroic, absolutist terms with little nuance or complexity. It’s probably easier to hold kids’ attention with the good guys, bad guys thing. At the same time I see the word “hero” thrown around so much I’m wondering if that’s not the new 15 minutes. Indeed I see much encouragement for people to be uncompromising about whatever they feel or believe. Competence and contemplation not required. It’s become some sort of badge of honor, a flailing attempt to avoid the pox of conformity. The strength to compromise is seen as a personal and moral weakness. Yet compromise is such a core part of our history and so practically necessary when working with very diverse groups.
I’ve even heard the U.S. Civil War cited as an example of bold, uncompromising action. I see it as the tragic outcome of an inability to compromise. After the nation’s founding many people sought ways eliminate slavery, but none succeeded even as many go-slow compromise solutions were discussed and offered. The South refused to compromise at all. And so the circumstances of slavery’s end were tragic. Several decades of fear-mongering, recrimination and zero compromise led up to the U.S. Civil War. The ultimate abolition of slavery is no testament against compromise.
Martin Luther King was a compromiser. Nelson Mandela was a compromiser. The abolitionists who held their noses and signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence were compromisers. Do you think Franklin D. Roosevelt liked sitting down with Joseph Stalin? They all compromised to advance their dearest principles and interests and sometimes that meant sacrificing, at least for a time, some other deeply felt principles.
Perhaps some of the problem is that many people equate pragmatic compromise with abandonment of principle.
Maybe I was indoctrinated. I had a great high school U.S. History teacher (with a PhD) and he convincingly described so much of the nation’s history in terms of compromise. We didn’t skip the inspiration of the brave leaders, radical reformers, and entrenched interests, but we did seek to understand the reasons for and values of compromises. I think he was trying to make us good citizens instead of good advocates. Well, at least he tried.
Also, in one’s mind a single aspect of a principled cause may assume a position out of proportion to its actual bearing. Armed with unlimited rhetorical ammunition from like minded people, we might dramatically think ourselves as saving civilization from Nazi domination. Nobody can deny the tactical advantage gained by whipping up one’s allies (or minions) into a frenzy, even a frenzy of blind rage, if it motivates them to redouble their efforts and sacrifice for the cause. Yet there is collateral damage and it is the foot soldiers who bear the wounds and live in the communities battered by such sieges.
OK, enough of that overblown language. The point is simple. Compromise matters and an uncompromising populace, though short-term useful to some interests, is a detriment to democracy and progress.
Compromise is a principle.
* To stress this even more Hillary Clinton recently put this firmly in the context of America’s international standing and influence saying “we have to get back to good old fashioned compromise”. If you listen to that segment you’ll see that our ability to compromise is not just an internal matter, it impacts the U.S.’s role in the world.