Having been married for 57 years, I know a few things about marriage. First, it’s a union of two very different people. Second, you don’t always get your way. Third, for it to last very long, you got to give a little—sometimes more than a little. But you do so, you make the sacrifices necessary for a good greater than yourself. You realize that living with someone you love, working things out with your spouse—in my case Nancy—is better than splitting up and going your own way. Of course, your spouse has to share this belief. He or she also has to be willing to sacrifice, at least sometimes, that thing we call ego. All of this is no secret. All of us who have been married for very long know this. This is Marriage 101.
The above thoughts sometimes occur to me when I look at our dysfunctional Congress. Sure, it’s made up two very different parties, Democrats and Republicans. And, of course, neither party is always going to get its way, and each is going to have to sacrifice sometimes in order to achieve a greater goal—bettering the common good—which should be the aim of politics.
That sacrificing is sometimes referred to as “compromise.” And partners in successful marriages, will tell you, “Of course, you sometimes have to compromise.” As Sherlock Holmes reputedly said—but actually didn’t— “that’s elementary, my dear Watson.”
A decade ago on LA Progressive, I faulted soon-to-be House of Representatives Speaker, John Boehner, for saying that he rejected the word compromise: “Rather than using his leadership position as House Speaker to help educate . . . American voters . . . about the noble history of political compromise, he succumbed to ignorance, displaying a lack of leadership.”
Four years ago on this same magazine I wrote, “Both Republicans and Democrats Used to Believe in Compromise.” In it I quoted various politicians and political thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to John McCain and Barack Obama on the necessity of political compromise, and I especially emphasized the compromising ability of the passionate liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy. A few examples. From McCain, “The most revered members of this institution [the Senate] accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems.” From John Danforth, Republican Missouri senator for two decades, “Politics is not religion. Politics is simply politics. It is a method for working [out] our differences.” And from Russell Kirk, sometimes called “the father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” on “maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.”
The main problem with our politics today is not that Democrats and Republicans disagree. They have always done that. The main problem—and it comes mainly from the Right—is rigid dogmatism and a refusal to put first the common good.
More than anything else what keeps a marriage together and makes it work is love. Although that word has many meanings, one form is fraternal love, “the kind of love that encourages compassionate actions toward others around you.” It was that type of love that Sen. Robert Kennedy urged after he heard of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr: “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be Black.”
These words of RFK came to mind recently after reading “Stop Hoping the G.O.P. Will Play Ball,” by New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Although I generally agree with him, and his column makes some good points, it fails (I think) to hammer away at the point that too many Republicans have failed to put the common good before their own ego-driven selfish political needs. Instead his main point is that “Democrats need to stop talking about reaching across the aisle, compromise and common ground.” His reason is that he does not believe Republicans really care about true compromise. “Dispense,” he says, “with the phony, wish-driven” attempts at bipartisanship. “Go down screaming and fighting. . . . This is a war. And in it, all is fair.”
My advice would be different. Instead it would be closer to what I think President Biden’s is: Obtain bipartisan compromise when possible, for example, with the infrastructure deal he made with a group of 10 senators from both parties. But also when Republicans block compromise, as it appears they will continue to do in regard to any federal voting rights bill, then call them out for what they too often are—“the Party of No.” They proved this once again, as they so often have in the recent past, after Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia offered a genuine compromise proposal—but still backed by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams—and Congressional Republicans treated it with disdain.
The label “Party of No” was earlier applied to them during the days of the 112th congress, elected in 2010, when the Republicans subverted any attempts to work with President Obama and instead became the main cause of “the least productive and most partisan congress in American history.”
The main problem with our politics today is not that Democrats and Republicans disagree. They have always done that. The main problem—and it comes mainly from the Right—is rigid dogmatism and a refusal to put first the common good. The main dogma of the Right is Trumpism. Unlike most dogmas, it does not contain many fixed ideas. Instead it’s a reflection and projection of Trump’s extreme narcissism. Many thinking conservatives—and no I don’t think the term is an oxymoron—strongly oppose Trump, partly because his egoism always trumps conservative ideas.
On the Left, we have mainly Democrats, who are split between moderates and progressives. Although not as uncompromising as Trumpian Republicans, who are still a majority of that Party, Leftists can also be too dogmatic at times, forgetting that the main role of politics is to further the common good.
For leftist dogmatists, compromise is also most often a dirty word. And they are guilty at times of what President Obama warned us against a decade ago: “We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. . . . The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning. . . . It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.”
We liberals and progressives—and I know the labels are not the same—always need to be mindful of the fact that we are not a majority in this country. If we really wish to advance the common good, we must recognize not only our own priorities, but also the wishes and desires of those who are more conservative than we are.
We should not demonize moderate Republicans like Sens. Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Portman, and Cassidy or moderate Democrats like Sens. Manchin, Shaheen, Sinema, Tester, and Warner—all who came together to strike an infrastucture deal—for being “sell-outs” or compromisers. They may not be as progressive as we are, but that does not make them demons or even bad people.
Sure, some compromises are bad ones. For example, in the pre-Civil War, many of them were made with Southern Congressmen, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—itself part of the more encompassing Compromise of 1850—that allowed the basic evil of slavery to become more insidious. And yes, we progressives need to continue to push for the priorities we think will advance the common good. Two years ago on this site, in my "A Tough Progressive Balancing Act: Passion, Tolerance, and Compromise," I acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining one’s principles, including a passion for justice, while at the same time compromising to advance the general welfare. But it can be done. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela did it. So too did Ted Kennedy.
Trump does not know it yet, but he’s like a balloon slowly deflating. The impact of his huffing and puffing are on the wane. In her essay “Truth and Politics” (1967) Hannah Arendt wrote that truth possesses a stubborn staying power that lies lack. “This is the reason that consistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand.” While continuing to insist that Trump’s hot air is nothing more than that, we progressives need to look to our future with hope. While continuing to insist on our ideals, we need to follow the example of good marriage partners and be willing to give a little, to compromise, for the greater good of something larger than our own egos.
Walter G. Moss