I don’t know what you think – and I would not blame you if you no longer give it much thought – but I am astonished that seemingly normal people (i.e. members of Congress) are no longer capable of the art of compromise.
Both major political parties constantly remind us that we are all Americans and each party wants what is best for all Americans. But, neither party is willing to compromise. While I respect that the compromise of certain values may be a betrayal of one’s personal principles, the larger question is whether a diverse and complicated society can be governed without the art of compromise. Perhaps, like me, you recall stories about our forefathers and what it took to draft The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, two nearly perfect documents that have survived for over 200 years. The Constitution, the very document that all elected officials swear to defend, was itself a product of great compromise by highly principled men.
If these honorable men always stood on unwavering principles and refused to listen to debates of those assembled, the effort would have surely failed. Benjamin Franklin believed that compromise was not only a practical approach, but also a moral one. He held that “tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it.” Of course, another of Franklin’s favorite lines was “if you ladies have any questions, the answer is ‘yes.’” From what I gather, he was often in the company of young, attractive women thus suggesting that his words bear some serious consideration. Not only did he have a way with the ladies, he effectively brokered the convention that declared the United State’s independence from Great Britain and later the adoption of the Constitution. Sounds as if Mr. Franklin was onto something.
This by no means suggests that every issue lends itself easily to compromise. But there is something troubling about the notion that any compromise with someone of an opposing viewpoint is a sell-out. Frankly, I think politicians should be required to spend leisure time with colleagues from across the aisle. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal did just that, sharing a drink while discussing politics to better understand one another. Perhaps a present-day Friday afternoon cocktail hour would go a long way toward moving legislation. Can you picture Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell after that fourth martini trying to save social security? Nothing else has worked; so, I say, let’s give it a try. To quote Ben Franklin yet again, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Perhaps the cocktail hour is unorthodox, but something has to give. People once were able to articulate clearly the points of disagreement, prioritize beliefs and then explore an area of common ground. It was and remains a challenge, but the ability to argue and disagree allows us to live together with people who do not necessarily share our vision, but seek a common ground. Why is this no longer the case? Are our political parties so haunted by the possibility of offending their so-called core constituencies that paralysis has set in? When the very thought of compromising is abhorrent to someone charged with governing, how can we hope to succeed?
There are perhaps a few issues that could divide us as a nation, but by and large, most policy and governing issues are far more practical, even mundane… take budgets, for instance. I think we have forgotten how to disagree well, how to listen as well as how to speak, how to understand what other people are saying and why they are saying it. Compromise is not the answer to all of our political problems, but it is a step in the right direction to working together toward an answer.
I will close with yet another Franklin observation coupled with one of my own. Franklin said, “Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it.” I would add that the truly wise never stop seeking advice.
By Ronald S. Bergamini