Two little questions to revive the lost art of compromise
December 16, 2012By Chris Satullo
Two weeks from the fiscal cliff, the art of getting to yes seems to be dead on Capitol Hill.
How did compromise get to be such a dirty word in D.C.? So many reasons.
To be honest, one is that many Americans actually don't support compromise. They just want the people they elect to stand up for their values and interests – however narrowly they construe them.
To them, compromise equals betrayal. And these hard-liners, because they are so motivated, usually are over-represented in primary elections, giving them power far out of proportion to their actual numbers.
Political journalists accentuate the problem. They often portray any official who reconsiders a position in response to new facts or arguments to be nothing more than a flip-flopper, a waffler, an expedient coward.
In this framing, courage is assumed to reside only among the true believers. Seeking some common ground with "the other side" gets portrayed as weakness.
Thus we insult those who actually make governing possible, while we exalt those whose specialty is bringing things to nasty, grinding impasse.
It's often said that a good compromise is when everyone walks away from the table a little unhappy. This is true, but only part of the story.
Compromise also is aided when people summon the courage to ask themselves two hard questions. These are questions that Harris Sokoloff, my colleague at the Penn Center for Civic Engagement, has been pushing people to consider for years:
1) What is it about the other side's position that you can understand, respect or appreciate?
2) What is it about your own position that makes you uncomfortable?
In our polarized culture, neither question gets asked, let alone answered, very often.
But each question, if honestly considered opens up new avenues.
In some ways, the second query - "Where does your own position have some cracks in it?" - might be the tougher one. It's human nature to be to build the highest walls precisely at the point where you have the most doubt.
That's why you so often see partisans hectoring candidates to take blood oaths - never to raise taxes, for example, or never to touch any aspect of Medicare. You don't need to force oaths if your position is logical.
This change, asking these two questions of ourselves, won't start in Washington. Big change rarely does.
But we could start asking them closer to home – in the neighborhood, the workplace, the town council. Unless you're thrilled with our political status quo, it's worth a try.