In today’s hyperpartisan, turbo-tribal and deadly divisive rhetorical battles within American political discourse, the word compromise has taken a direct hit. Intolerant extremists on the left and party purists on the right often deride the term as code for someone who is about to become a traitor, a squish, a person without principle or a sellout for political expediency.
Compromise comes from the Latin compromissum, which means "mutual promise." I am not a linguist and won’t attempt to split all the hairs of word origin, meaning and intent. But I do think considering compromise in the context of a mutual promise is worth exploring and even applying.
I recently had the opportunity to interview former Sen. Joseph Lieberman for my “Therefore, What?” podcast. We talked about statesmanship and the need for elevated dialogue to solve local, national and global challenges. Lieberman shared something he learned as a young intern from one of his early mentors, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut. Ribicoff was a model of a true statesman who once gave a speech, titled the “Integrity of Compromise,” which became seared into the soul of the young Lieberman.
Lieberman described the integrity of compromise, saying, “In other words, to compromise in a democracy is not dishonest. It's a way to get something done. It's not to compromise your principles but to just not expect to get 100 percent of what you want every time you have a piece of legislation.”
Lieberman provided some modern examples of strong personalities, committed to their principles, who simply made a mutual promise, a promise to listen, debate, consider, learn and strive to understand where the other side was coming from. He noted, “President Reagan and 'Tip' O'Neill — one a liberal, one a conservative. They worked together to solve a lot of problems, notably Social Security. Even in the '90s, not so long ago, President Clinton, a center left Democrat and Newt Gingrich, probably right Republican, really an unlikely couple. But they worked together and got a lot done — welfare reform, criminal justice reform, and then the big achievement, a balanced budget act which actually balanced the budget and produced a surplus in our government for a couple of years. So it can be done. … We've got to get back there somehow, to being willing to take the time to think and negotiate.”
It is important to consider that it is conceivable, and actually possible, to not compromise principles while coming to an agreement on a piece of legislation, a business strategy, a community issue or a family problem. The key is focusing on the mutual promise to the common cause of making things better.
For years as a business consultant I would have to remind executives in overheated boardrooms that compromise and consensus don’t necessarily equate to 100 percent agreement, rather it is about 100 percent support once a decision is made. That mutual promise led to better discussion, more rigorous and honest debate and ultimately to better solutions.
Looking for the practical approach to the integrity of compromise and the mutual promises it contains, I turned to Arthur Brooks whose latest book is titled, “Love Your Enemies.” In our interview, Brooks reiterated his belief that the way to cure the culture of contempt in America will happen when, “we disagree better, not less.” He believes progress depends on a vibrant competition of ideas in debate that is kind and respectful. I believe Arthur is inviting Americans, especially those involved in political debate, to make a mutual promise to each other to first be respectful and kind in order to create space for the integrity of compromise to flourish.
In observing a wide array of politicians in Washington, I found that those who knew and deeply believed their principles were actually better at getting to bipartisan compromise than those who floated on the congressional sea, with no set sail, to be blown about by every puff of political wind. It is actually easier for people of principle to establish the kind of mutual promises with their colleagues that leads to meaningful collaboration and compromise.
What are some mutual promises that lead to compromise?
We will remind each other of our common cause.
We will not assign or question the motives of others.
We will listen.
We will speak the truth.
We will value our differences.
We will pursue every possible solution.
We will defend the right of either side to their position.16 comments on this story
We will avoid instant certainty and never race to react.
We will be willing to walk away without disparaging, demonizing or demeaning each other.
True compromise enables both sides to stand with integrity, because each party makes a mutual promise to get to the best solution, or to no solution, without requiring the other side to abandon their beliefs. That mutual promise is what inspires diverse individuals to pursue innovative ideas while galvanizing their commitment to a common cause. Integrity of compromise is in truth the strength of the nation.