Compromise: An agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.
► Oxford English Dictionary
Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.
► Greg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I first heard the word “squish” used by a group of college Republicans, to refer to someone who is not an absolutist and is open to compromise. It seems to have remained much more in use on the right than on the left, though there’s no particularly good reason for that: The point it implies is applicable about the same on either side of the fence.
The point is that compromise is caving – that it amounts to giving in and giving up, and an abdication of principle.
Compromise is not that – people who engage in politics often wind up fighting fiercely because they are principled – but it does involve the mature, as opposed to childish, idea that in a society where a variety of people want different things, you can’t (to coin a phrase) always get what you want. The word comes from 14th century France (a compromis), which refers to a willingness by two or more parties to submit to a joint arbitration, as opposed to, in their case, fighting to someone’s death.
Compromise, in other words, is in the DNA of politics in non-dictatorship situations; it is absent in authoritarian states, where only one point of view is allowed ever to win out. Compromise means that two sides have to come together and try to find common ground where they can, and agree each to concede a little in return for a larger agreement – one that can be lived with, if not become beloved, by both sides. The idea of a settlement reached by an easing back of demands, a willingness to make concessions, grew from that.
Compromise may not be as unpopular as it’s sometimes made out to be. In 2017 the Pew Research Center found “In general terms, the public continues to express a preference for elected officials who seek political compromises. About six-in-ten (58%) say they like elected officials who make compromises with people with whom they disagree, while fewer (39%) say they like politicians who stick to their positions. About seven-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (69%) say they like elected officials who compromise. Liberal Democrats (76%) are more likely to hold this view than conservatives and moderates (63%). Republicans and Republican leaners have much more mixed views: 52% say they like elected officials who stick to their positions, while 46% say they like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with. By 56% to 41%, conservative Republicans prefer elected officials who stick to their positions. By contrast, a greater share of moderate and liberal Republicans say they like officials who make compromises (55%) than say they like officials who stick to their positions (43%). Those with higher levels of education are especially likely to have a positive view of officials who make compromises.”
Compromises often are messy, incomplete and unsatisfying. The congressional compromises of 1820 and 1850, two of the leading achievements of 19th century American politics, were stopgap measures, entirely pleasing almost no one; but they did keep the nation intact, for a while. (The breakup came when fire-eaters in the South decided they would compromise no more.)
But then in politics, issues are never over, completely: They’re always subject to relitigation. Compromises are temporary fixes but then, in the larger picture, there is never any other kind – even if, at a given moment, one side or another seems to have prevailed utterly.
In a 2016 column, New York Times writer David Brooks said, “Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups – best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right – want to elect people who have no political experience. They want ‘outsiders.’ They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power. Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”
What this leads to in politics – and in American politics notably – what a failure to compromise often leads to is trench warfare, a long-running series of battles between two dug-in sides, with no reasonable resolution in sight.
The only way out involves climbing up from the trenches and starting some serious, and honest, discussion.