The unavoidable power of compromise

Anyone who makes progress in this world makes compromises.

In the case of the U.S. Government, every gear and cog in the system is based on negotiation. Power is divided into three rings, each ring given a degree of power over the others. Why? To force compromise. Inside Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, each has the power to reject new laws. Why? To force compromise. Even the executive branch has its power muted by many other forces the population likes to pretend aren’t there. It’s much simpler to point to a singular parental figure, than admit that despite the president’s power, he or she is merely an important cog in a huge, complex system of debates, partnerships, rivalries, and deals (or bribes), with many influential players involved in anything that happens, or does not happen.

One foundation of the entire system is that longevity comes from continual compromise, based on what the population supports. No one ever gets their way without a bargain. Nothing ever happens without some price or consequence. It is not a system designed for innovation, instead it’s designed to slow change  until enough support exists to motivate people to overcome their self-interests. This is part of the design of democracies and republics of all kinds. It was true in the Golden Age of Greece and during the American Revolutionary war. It was in the air at the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and has been true on every day since. The chaos you see in the crisis of the day has more to do with the fact you are paying unusually close attention, rather than a shift in the longstanding nature of representative government itself.

John F. Kennedy wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, about senators who stood on principle against their peers. They achieved important legislation, but were not reelected despite how right they were (retrospectively) in their stands. This is not a failure of government, it’s another form of compromise. Arguably one that has been lost in the dominance of career politicians who put their longevity in office above all things.

These brave people were willing to sacrifice their political careers for an ideal, something any politician is free to do at any time. Most of us make the opposite kind of choice every day. We compromise our principles to keep a fancy job, or stay in a marriage, or stay in our parents-in-laws’ good graces. And since so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices to retain perfect ideals in our own lives, why do we expect more from politicians? They say what they need to to get elected, but to be effective in any way in office demands compromise.

The only people who take true hard lines in this world are the spectators. Fundamentalism of most kinds is the mark of someone on the sidelines. People unwilling to compromise can never take the first step towards power, since they fail to see that all things, including the traditions they see as immovable, were themselves products of compromises made long before they were born. And it’s their own ignorance they are fighting against, not anything of meaning in this world.

9 Responses to “The unavoidable power of compromise”

  1. Kristofer Layon

    Well said. Compromise is never pretty, but it’s at the core of why the U.S. has been the longest-surviving democracy in history.

    Democracy via compromise; democracy by design.

  2. Rick Valerga

    Great line, Scott: “The only people who take true hard lines in this world are the spectators.”

  3. sdimeglio

    Excellent commentary in light of recent affairs in DC. Our Constitution would not have been possible had not the founders been able to find compromise on many major points of contention between delegates.

  4. Tisha White

    Excellent take on compromise. Unfortunately, it seemed like the debt ceiling situation turned into a pissing contest between Republicans and Democrats these last few weeks, and that is sad. I would love to see politics as more compromise and less “How do I win?” or “What will I get out of it?”

  5. Don C

    How does one actually judge if an agreement is a compromise? Is it only up to the participants, or pundits, or is there an objective standard?

    It strike me that some involved in or observing the current budget goings-on in Washington don’t see it as compromise.

    I wonder if current level of practice of negotiating strategies and tactics is such that it makes objective (in the journalistic, perhaps rather than scientific sense) determination of whether it was a compromise.

    Product design is a compromise, and I find that easier to see because it is generally on impersonal and immediate factors.

    I suspect most people have not really thought through (and systematically observed) what their espoused and enacted principles are.

    I think there was someone who wrote about about trying to be hardline. Actually I think there were several. One was something like “A Year of Living Biblically” and there was another one that started out as trying to not use any plastic but quickly had to be transformed.

    I don’t think it’s useful frame compromise as yes/no category. I can certainly think of people who have (had) a great impact who I don’t think of as compromising (e.g. Gandhi). I suspect we can be more careful in our use of the word.


    1. Scott Berkun

      Good thoughts. One critique of my post is that yes, there is compromise everywhere, but there are some immovable ideals that must persist in order for progress to happen (what they are is another debate, but the question of are there some immovable ideals? is my question).

      I read a Year of Living Biblically – I mentioned it briefly in this article about change at the Vatican. It does make the point you suggest, among others.

  6. Mike Nitabach

    Compromise per se is pragmatically and morally neutral. What matters is the outcome of any given compromise. When one of the parties to a negotiation is completely off the moral and pragmatic deep end, and the other party takes a barely moderate position between the center and the off-the-deep-end party, then compromise between those positions leads to a pernicious outcome.

  7. Dhimsy

    Hi! Scott, it’s been along time. Was held up in social chaos. Compromise is one of the big key of success, if taken POSITIVELY. To gain something you have to let go something & I tell u it is one hell of a job. In all walks of life u hv to compromise so might as well to use it to ur advantage. And u realize that u end up winning allBattles. Hi! To u guys out there. Take care. Live life Kingsize.

  8. Franklin Chen

    Provocative post, but possibly attacking a straw man. I think most of us realize that politics is the art of compromise. The question at hand is what kind of compromise and how much and what kind of power play is involved.

    When someone says, “I want all the cake,” and someone else says, “I want half the cake”, then a compromise in which the first person takes three-quarters of the cake may be problematic. There are real game-theoretic dilemmas in choosing how to compromise.


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