We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, February 3, 2012

Failing to Compromise about Compromise

Wiktionary provides the following definition for "compromise": "Noun compromise (plural compromises) 1. The settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions. 2. A committal to something derogatory or objectionable; a prejudicial concession; a surrender; as, a compromise of character or right."

There is a huge gap between the first and second definitions.  The first one suggests working out differences through a process of give and take.  In the world of politics, politicians generally can only get things done if they compromise, and we speak of "principled compromise" as being a good thing.  The second definition takes the opposite view of compromise: to compromise is to "sell out" one's values.  It is thus immoral and ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the body politic.

In times past, Democrats and Republicans largely operated in the political sphere on the basis of definition one.  They practiced the art of compromise.  Not always, of course, and not always wisely or well.  But, messy as it is, politics by compromise allowed the two parties to work together.  Today, however, an important segment of the American public assigns exclusively the second definition to the word "compromise."  The video clip below captures the spirit of our politics beautifully.  In it, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner refuses to label as "compromise," the necessary political process of reaching agreements through a process of given and take.  He calls is the process, "finding common ground."  That is definition one.  When pushed to admit that finding common ground is compromising, he becomes a bit angry.  The video goes on to an exchange between a Republican pundit  and Democratic pundit regarding the meaning of the word "compromise," in which they become dismissive of each other.  They can't compromise over the meaning of the word "compromise."  It's one of those things that would seem silly if it weren't so sad.

What has happened is that the tea party wing of the Republican Party rejects definition one out of hand even to the point of rejecting compromises that weigh heavily in their favor.  That's why Speaker Boehner has to reject the word "compromise."  To their credit, the tea party representatives genuinely want to change the give and take gamesmanship of politics, which sometimes really does not work in the best interests of the nation.  But, they are learning that they can't change the culture of Washington alone.  They need "establishment" Republicans, independents, and Democrats to do so, all with their own concerns and agendas.  Even if they don't call it compromise, eventually they will have to learn to "find common ground" with the rest of the country if they want to accomplish anything at all.