To observe our elected leaders squabble during budget season is to watch the slow, painful death of the art of compromise.
Merriam-Webster first defines compromise as the “settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions; something intermediate between or blending qualities of two different things.” However, hardliners cling to the secondary definition of compromise: “a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial; a compromise of principles.”
Those who use the first definition view compromise as a necessary means to an end — an attempt to remove barriers to progress. Those who use the second definition view compromise as an attack on ethical standards. Concessions themselves are viewed as the barriers to progress. It’s almost impossible to find common ground when starting off so diametrically opposed.
On a national level, this kind of thinking is why the government teeters on the brink of shutdown every time budget deadlines approach. When each side guards the positions it champions like the Korean demilitarized zone, it’s only a matter of time before bullets fly.
Local governments are now adopting these same entrenched positions like children imitating their parents. Political action committees and partisan politics have poisoned the well of civility, and with it any hope of finding common ground.
Government used to be a marriage of opposing political parties devoted to the care and raising of the country. Their differences made for a stronger union. As ideological lines in the sand become set in cement, Mom and Dad start talking more about divorce than ways to stay together. Before we know it, Mom gets remarried to some guy named ALEC (an organization pairing state legislators with private sector interests that crafts bills seeking to weaken unions, environmental regulations and gun laws, among others). Dad becomes embittered, more interested in punishing Mom than in finding new methods of co-parenting.
The kids, caught in the middle, suffer as their parents refuse to work together in spite of common interests.
Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, refers to it as the “fixed pie perception.” Her studies show most people enter negotiations expecting the other side’s position to be completely opposed to theirs. As a result, they settle for lesser outcomes while often ignoring mutually beneficial opportunities where both sides can “win.” Better results are achieved through careful examination of the interests of both sides early in the negotiations — in other words, before the sides have reason to dig in their heels.
This is where the parent analogy ends: We have the ability to vote for new representatives. We don’t have to settle for those who view gridlock as a victory.
Compromise is meant to be the opposite of extremism, that unyielding devotion to one point of view at the expense of all others. It should also be a quality required of all future legislators if we have any hope of solving the issues currently threatening to send us into another recession.
Mom and Dad don’t have to get remarried to fix the problems we face. However, we don’t have a chance if they’re not on speaking terms.