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There is a line in the song “The Gambler” that states, “You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Good advice for a poker player. And slightly modified to “got to know when to criticize, got to know when to compromise,” I think it’s also pertinent to politics. Following the election of Donald Trump and Republican majorities in both congressional houses, we progressives must give more thought to the criticize/compromise choice.

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Can Progressives Compromise with President Trump and His Followers?—Walter Moss

In an interview with GQ, Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose presidential bid many progressives supported, stated:

Clearly there is no working with a president who believes in, or will bring forth, programs or policies based on bigotry, whether it is racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, and there can be no compromise on that. There can be no compromise on the issue of climate change, which is a threat to the entire planet.

But if Trump is prepared to work with me and others on rebuilding our infrastructure and creating millions of jobs, on raising the minimum wage, on passing Glass-Steagall, on changing our trade policies—yes, I think it would be counterproductive on issues that working-class Americans supported and depend upon if we did not go forward.

Thus, Sanders recognizes there is a time to criticize—when Trump policies reflect bigotry, harm to our planet, or other evils—and a time to compromise—when Trump and/or Republicans are willing to work for the common good.

What is especially appealing about Sanders’ phrasing is his clear recognition that on some issues there can be no compromise, and global warming is one of them.

What is especially appealing about Sanders’ phrasing is his clear recognition that on some issues there can be no compromise, and global warming is one of them. After the announcement that Scott Pruitt, a notorious “climate change denialist,” was to be Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Sanders responded, “At a time when climate change is the great environmental threat to the entire planet, it is sad and dangerous that Mr. Trump has nominated”. . . [him] to lead the E.P.A. . . . . I will vigorously oppose this nomination.”

Although I have written before on the necessity of political compromise—and will reiterate it again below, Sanders is correct that “there can be no compromise” on some issues, and fighting global warming is one of them. That does not mean that progressives cannot compromise on various methods to do so, only that the principle cannot be sacrificed. To sacrifice it would be like accepting discrimination against Jews in Hitlerite Germany.

Besides issues, personalities also matter when it comes to deciding if compromise is possible. Hitler and Stalin, for example, were not two people with whom one could usually work out fair deals. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain discovered that in 1938 only after he made the mistake of thinking he could negotiate with Hitler regarding Czechoslovakia. In the autumn 1945, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, asked former Soviet foreign commissar Maxim Litvinov what the United States could do to improve U.S.-Soviet relations. Litvinov replied, “Nothing,” for he believed U.S. concessions to Stalin would accomplish nothing except the demand for more concessions.

Conversely, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was someone willing to compromise. After meeting with him in London shortly before he came to power in 1985, British Prime Minister Thatcher announced: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” U.S. President Ronald Reagan also soon discovered this, and he and Gorbachev subsequently signed several arms agreements.

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The record of Republicans in Congress under President Obama has been abysmal when it comes to compromise. In December 2010 the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, stated that he rejected the word “compromise.” Increasingly, the Republicans became the party of ideologues, hindering them from working with Democrats in order to further the common good.

There was a time, however, when at least some conservatives and Republicans looked upon compromise and bipartisanship favorably. Russell Kirk, who died in 1994 and was sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” emphasized the importance of compromise in his essay “Errors of Ideology.” There he wrote that “ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises.”

Utah’s conservative Senator Orrin Hatch used to work well with his friend the liberal and progressive Senator Ted Kennedy. After the latter’s death in August 2009, he described their relationship:

“We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted. We did manage to forge partnerships on key legislation, such as the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and most recently, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important.”

Whether President Trump will be someone that progressive members of Congress like Sanders can compromise with on some issues is yet to be determined. After a recent meeting with Trump, President Obama stated “I don't think he is ideological . . . . he is pragmatic.” Nevertheless, although he may not be an ideologue, his past activities, including his recent cabinet and other choices, do not reflect a mentality primarily interested in furthering the common good or in seeking truth. The main problem is his colossal narcissism, which severely hinders any open-mindedness.

Although the main job of politicians and lawmakers should be promoting the common good and that necessitates compromise, most of us do not hold such positions. Therefore, what choices we make regarding the balance between criticizing and compromising may be different. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), for example, criticized more than he compromised, and that was appropriate for him and for our country because he was the leader of the civil-rights struggle.

Nevertheless, we should all seek to balance a passionate commitment to our ideals (which sometimes necessitates criticism) with truth-seeking, compassion, empathy, and humility (which implies tolerance and a willingness to compromise). In support of seeking tolerance and common ground I have frequently cited President Obama’s 2010 University of Michigan Commencement Address and Dorothy Day’s words that “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences,” and that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

Although Day’s words about “seeking concordances” are good advice for dealing with our fellow citizens, including those who voted for Trump, her example and that of MLK of criticizing, protesting, and being willing to go to jail for their beliefs and principles may be even more significant during the upcoming Trump presidency.

Walter G. Moss