When Did “Compromise” Become a Bad Word?

I can’t begin to count the number of times sine the election I’ve heard someone  (both Democrats and Republicans alike) announce that “what’s important now is that the [insert name of my party here] dig their heels in and do not compromise!”

Maybe this is naive, but that just sounds silly to me. How could you possibly, as a blanked policy, be prepared to say that “no compromise” is always preferable to “compromise”?

I understand, of course, that there are plenty of times when compromise seems undesirable. Of course the phrase “compromise one’s principles” has almost exclusively negative connotations, because it’s come to mean “surrender the conviction behind your beliefs so that they are no longer anything more than a facade. That’s fair enough. We probably shouldn’t let our politicians all turn out like Joe Lieberman or Charlie Crist.

Still, isn’t it possible that “compromises” can exist in a different sense? I suspect so, because people do it all the time in real life, and it’s only when they go to Washington that they get excoriated for it. The best example is probably one I admittedly have little authority  on which to speak: marriage. But I’ve heard rumors from, I don’t know exactly, but I think pretty much everyone, that compromise (along with communication, perhaps?) seems to be the key to successfully running a family and a household even though the interests of the people involved may occasionally be split right down the middle. So it sure seems to me that successfully running a country with a similarly equatorial split in ideologies might also require a touch of this particular tactic. Heck– it might just be one of those “old-fashioned family values” I always hear so much about.

Now I’ll acknowledge that a lot of the compromises made by families probably probably seem “safer” because they don’t seem to entail a compromise of principle. There’s a sort of a popular kind of compromise that occurs when people need to resolve an issue on which there is no reason to believe there’s an empirically correct answer: for example, If a man wants to use Sunday afternoons to go see musical theater matinees and his wife wants to stay home and watch football (take that, sexism!) then maybe they should just alternate weekends. That’s not a hard one. Opponents of political compromise might charge that governmental decisions aren’t like this one: we can’t just agree to have gay marriages allowed on odd-numbered years, and not during even-numbered ones. But is it really fair to say that families don’t ever have to make “hard compromises”? I rather doubt it.

Imagine a family shopping for a new car, for example. Suppose (still fighting sexist stereotypes!) that the husband wants to buy a fancy new car with all the latest safety features to protect themselves and their kids, but his wife simply thinks they can’t afford it. Here’s how that scenario would probably play out in a little American family: the wife would look to see if there was a way they could scrape together more cash than they expected to pay for the car, maybe by cutting spending elsewhere. The husband would shop around and see if he could find a car that had almost as many attractive safety features, or find a used version of the car he really wanted, so that they could bring the cost down. Of course, there might still be some fights over the dinner table. And hopefully neither one of them would compromise so much that they were throwing away their principles by buying a vehicle they couldn’t afford or one that was just a car crash waiting to happen. Instead they’d work out a way to make sure that both of their concerns were at least partially addressed, to within the limits of what the reality of their situation would allow.

But see, I don’t think there’s a large difference between this scenario and, say, the need to enact climate change legislation: some folks are fixated on making sure we avoid a worst-case scenario where our cities flood and our farmland withers, and others are consumed by the here-and-now fact that we don’t have a ton of money to throw around. But there are a lot of reasonable Republicans (in America, if not in Washington) who would like to do something about climate change if it could be done in a fiscally responsible way, and there are lots of Democrats who don’t want to see the country destroyed by a mountain of debt any more than they want to see it destroyed by a massive tsunami. So wouldn’t you think that some version of the tried-and-true compromise model (lab tested in America’s heartland!) would be called for here?

You might. I certainly do. And yet, that’s not how the political leaders of the country tend to think the issue should be addressed. They take a slightly different approach of digging in their heels and gradually escalating the rhetoric so they can use it to win elections. It would be like if the family above decided to handle their car problem this way: First, the wife starts to claim that maybe safety features, which would cause the husband to scoff and ask her why she’s always such a tightwad but was willing to spend money on Broncos tickets all the time. Not to be outdone, the wife accuses the husband of just getting a rush out of the “earn and spend” lifestyle, as though he somehow actively wanted to see their budget stretched to the max for some kind of sick personal pleasured. He’d counter by crying that she was willing to put their children in harm’s way and thus obviously didn’t care about them at all, overlooking the fact that the children could also be harmed in the long run if the family went deeply into debt. And then, because all things must escalate or the news networks will stop paying attention, she’d hire some pseudoscientists to try to prove that there was no such thing as car crashes anyway, so he’d start yelling that she had a functional IQ of 5 and was probably receiving millions of dollars from Big Pinto that she hadn’t told anyone about, so she’d hack his email account, take some sentences out of context and start telling the world that car crashes were a hoax perpetuated by the guys who work the traffic choppers for the news channels, which would make him hire a fat ex-politician to make a movie showing the dangers of car crashes, which at first would be well-received but eventually would start to exaggerate severely towards the end, with the fat guy starting to suggest that “no wives ever care at all if their children die in car crashes,” and then inexplicably driving his country around the country in a Geo Metro to promote the film. And then the wife would threaten to shut down the household and not make ANY more decisions until they dropped the idea of even discussing the question of which car to buy, and so the husband would tear his shirt in frustration and declare that this was an affront to the founding fathers who never intended for debate to be brought to a halt like this, conveniently forgetting that he’d pulled the same trick last week when he just HAD to stop that one girl with the goth tattoos from being appointed babysitter. And then somewhere along the way Rush Limbaugh would say that motorcycling without a helmet was less dangerous than driving in a car, and Michael Moore would call him a racist for using a picture of a black guy on a motor bike to make his point.

I guess I just don’t see how that’s better.



About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to When Did “Compromise” Become a Bad Word?

  1. Moominmamma says:

    When Did “Compromise” Become A Bad Word?

    Is this a rhetorical question?

  2. S says:

    Few people are qualified to speak intelligently on public policy over a large range of issues. Compromise is a political buzz word which I would argue has nothing to do with rational discussion. It’s not specific enough even as a notion to prevent the abuse of its use. That having been said, I seriously doubt that what is publicized as compromise is in any way connected to any sane interpretation of the attempts to reconcile disparate views between two or more parties that happens in the legislation process. In short it’s theatre.

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