Once one of the framers of the U.S. constitution was asked, “What are the three principles upon which this new government is founded?” Legend has it that he wryly quipped, “Well, the first is compromise, the second is compromise and the third is compromise.”
Although you would not know it today, America was founded on the principle of compromise. Think states vs. federal government on rights, North vs. South on slavery or the separation of powers, to name just a few. With this in mind, popular claims by pundits that suggest our system is now broken, as evident by the debt-ceiling impasse, entirely miss the point. Equally, if not far more momentous compromises were reached in the past under the same constitution (albeit, with a few more amendments now).
But while Washington is not broken per se, the previous culture of compromise certainly is. America’s current political parties have become so ideologically and culturally divided that the bases of both cringe at the mere thought of “coming together.” Such unwillingness to meet halfway and put rigid ideological commitments aside reflects an unhealthy sense of arrogance. It suggests that one party believes it holds all the solutions, a notion that even those with a cursory understanding of American history ought to find laughable.
The mistaken assumption here is that negotiation somehow means forfeiting one’s personal convictions. Yet this rationale could not be further from the truth. Bending one’s principles is a necessary condition, or an essential step, in attending to the country’s business — the central duty of both parties. Despite popular calls for radicalism, sound governing is not about sticking to one’s principles, but rather about applying those core beliefs accordingly to fit the diverse range of difficulties we confront.
Though we often cast the blame solely on Washington, our leaders unfortunately represent the divided nature of the country as a whole. Many people watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, while others choose to read the NYT and the Washington Post. In spite of this clear divide, however, the key difference is that most of the public still manages to get along. Which reveals an important fact: Those with staunch convictions are not well suited to govern. In short, politicians that embody purism may provide ample entertainment, but they also represent a lower-caliber of leaders.
It is helpful to remember that factions existed in the past, yet they were almost always able to reach an agreement. Indeed, the last time either party was unwilling to budge an inch led to the Civil War — a tragedy we can all agree is not worth repeating.
The truism that what divides us is far less than what unites us is also inscribed in our official motto: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). We ought to start acting that way again.
While ideologues would surely disagree, the greatest principle we cherish as a country has never been either of the two that constantly divide our parties: namely, liberty and equality. Instead, it has always been our overriding belief in compromise that allows us to ultimately move forward in difficult times. As each unique situation merits, we aim to balance abstract principles — such as liberty and equality — accordingly.
Upholding one’s convictions without concession is not only overrated but also counter-productive. To overcome the challenges on our horizon, we must work together.
Brit Moller is a UC Berkeley alumnus.