On compromise

Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 1:14pm

I imagine that for the political aspirant, there’s a great deal to learn from this election regarding campaign strategy, polling accuracy, voting patterns and a myriad of other facets of electoral politics. As ever with an eye for history, I ignored this and went back to watch Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., concession speech from 2008. It demonstrated with startling clarity and eloquence the aspect of today’s politics I find most despairing: The bygone virtues of mutual respect and agreement. While a concession speech may seem entirely antithetical to compromise, insofar as only one candidate wins the race, McCain’s speech conveys the fundamental essence of compromise. 

The very notion of compromise necessitates concession, as coincidental as that wording may be. But to reach an agreement in which both parties believe they’ve gained or lost does not demand a weak will or loosely held convictions. In fact, it’s the opposite. Compromise is never easy, and surely not for those so stubborn to the point of absolute immobility. Change is incremental and cooperative; such is the nature of our county, of our government and of people. 

Thankfully, we live in a system that doesn’t enforce a universal belief set. We are free to pursue, maintain and change our own convictions however we see fit. This invites discord and the idea of opposition, but disagreement should not premise a refusal to compromise. In his concession, Sen. McCain said just that: “Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed.” 

He also said, “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity.” As foreign as his words may sound today, they serve only as conclusions, not solutions, to the question of compromise. So, what then is this fundamental essence of compromise? 

It’s mutual respect for the person on the other end of the table, and it’s an appreciation for a collective association greater than any political party. Critically, such respect does not exist without integrity and decency. 

Reading and listening to Sen. McCain’s speech, it is remarkable the degree to which his character shines. In commenting on his life as a public servant, McCain said, “I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century.” Suchis reverence for his work makes clear that his words on compromise were said wholeheartedly.

In congratulating his opponent, he said, “A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.” When the crowd in Arizona began to boo after hearing Obama’s name, McCain held out his hands, imploring his supporters to refrain. Later, he said, “I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.” 

All of this brings me to where we stand today. In the 12 years since McCain’s speech, we seem to have forgotten how to compromise. Divided government has become a byword for stagnation when, instead, it should foster compromise. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi refused to move on stimulus negotiations this past October, leaving talks at a complete impasse. In 2016, regarding Judge Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.’” McConnell’s statement is far beyond a refusal to compromise, and calling it indecent is a dramatic understatement. 

President Trump has yet to formally concede and give a concession speech. He instead took to Twitter, commenting, “this election is far from over.” When –– or if –– he gives a concession speech, I can only imagine how it might differ from any such congratulatory speech we’ve seen before. Joe Biden has run a campaign centered on unity and spoke further about those ideals in his victory speech this past Saturday evening. I hope his drive to unify and heal American divisiveness is genuine, such that we may rekindle the respect, integrity and decency for one another I fear we’ve lost. 

Compromise, as it exists in the legislative process and in the structure of our government, serves as a check on the majority and ensures the beliefs of the minority are heard. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin spoke truths equally of woodworking as of compromise: “When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint.” 

As a nation and as individuals, we are the sum of innumerable influences. In the same way, two halves of an arch cannot stand without its keystone. A citizenry of split ideas cannot stand without embracing compromise and the respect, civility and decency it so commands. 

David Lisbonne can be reached at lisbonne@umich.edu


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