Some days as I read the political news, state or national, I wonder when compromise went out of fashion.
Oh, I know it happens now and then. Maybe it happens more often than I realize. I’d like to think that’s true, because we sure don’t hear about it happening very often these days. Lines are drawn early in many of the political discussions that occur. Often, the lines come before an issue has been proposed. The stance on an issue, in other words, is based on who is proposing it and what political faction supports it.
To talk about compromise, I think we need to agree on the meaning of the concept. I’ve noticed over the past few years an alarming inability of disagreeing factions to mutually accept a set of facts from which to start their discussions. I consider it alarming, anyway, in terms of what it means for the chances of opposing sides engaging in rational and reasoned civic discourse.
I grew up at a time when facts trumped opinions. People could have opinions about things. They could disagree about the best courses of action, about the results of various policies. They could argue passionately for their preferred course of action. But they started from an acknowledged set of facts. Someone who didn’t accept basic, known, demonstrably provable facts was considered odd. These days, it seems to me, many people accept facts that support their already formed opinion or belief and dismiss facts that run counter to their opinion or belief.
I looked up several definitions of compromise, both online and in the hard-copy “Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition,’’ that my little brother gave me for Christmas years and years ago. Here’s a fairly representative definition of compromise from those sources: “An agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions, an ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise a compromise acceptable to both.”
Two sides sharply divided over an issue or set of policy proposals can do what we often see these days. They can refuse to consider the other side’s arguments. That approach is seen as virtuous by a number of political combatants, even if it means nothing is accomplished about a public need or policy. In this scenario, to compromise is to “sell out.’’ It isn’t enough to stick with the party line most of the time. It must be every time or a person has betrayed the party or cause.
It’s also possible for two sides to be sharply divided over important issues or policies but to talk and listen to each other. I saw happen frequently during my years of covering the South Dakota Legislature. That approach takes a willingness to consider the possibility on each side that their opinions or beliefs might be flawed. It isn’t easy to be open to an argument that might show your position is — gulp — imperfect. It’s made even more difficult these days by people and interests who deliberately attack facts so those facts have no more standing than opinions, especially if they don’t bolster that opinion. Being open to being wrong, though, is essential to compromise.
When I think of compromise, I think of the 1973 and 1974 legislative sessions. Democrats and Republics each held 35 of the 70 House seats. Democrats had a one vote advantage, 18-17, in the Senate, and each party had two or three mavericks, legislators who might stick with the party or might bolt on any given issue. Since it required 36 votes to pass any bill in the House, the parties were forced to listen to and talk with each other if they hoped to accomplish anything.
Those were among the most productive legislative sessions I witnessed. Each side had strong people, people committed to their party’s principles. Yet those people genuinely wanted to do good things for the state. They argued and disagreed, listened and talked, proposed and revised. They compromised on programs that improved the state. The four-year medical school and the Career Services Act come to mind.
I wish we could go back and remember how they did it.