Compromise is “a rather complex issue that deserves serious thought.” So I wrote in an Aug. 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, 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.
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 last 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, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) 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 the only ones affected by that resolute stance. It is different for politicians or others acting in the public arena.
One of Bachmann’s core principles seems to be not raising taxes on anybody and not raising the debt ceiling, which was necessary for the United States to make its payments on money already borrowed.
So she voted “no” on the compromise debt-ceiling bill.
But a number of liberals also voted “no” on the same compromise bill. They, for good reason, did not want to pass a bill that provided no additional revenue.
For 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.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. This column appeared previously on his blog.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.