Going Past “Compromise” In Bipartisanship

It’s a common call: politicians need to put aside their differences and come to “compromise.”

Such a demand is attractive, and given that Americans largely claim to want Congress to compromise, one might be quick to simply blame tone-deaf politicians for not doing so. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Not only do Americans tend to not want to compromise on their core issues, but frequently, partisan Americans tend to define compromise as getting everything they want. Wanting "compromise" probably has more to do with just being frustrated that nothing is getting done, rather than being willing to actually sacrifice a desired political outcome.

Compromise, ultimately, is elusive. 

This isn’t actually surprising. If we believe that an issue is important, or that the stakes are high, compromise seems wrong. People are lauded by others for not compromising their values or ethics in the face of pressure or gain. Political heroes of the past like Lincoln, Gandhi, and Kennedy have been famously steadfast in their convictions. Compromises like the 3/5ths compromise or the appeasement of Germany are infamous.

Calling on politicians to compromise hasn’t worked. More calls will be no more effective.

Compromise Is Lousy

If an executive team, project team, etc, get into a room to discuss a path forward for their organization, they will have different ideas about what to do. Nobody goes in planning to compromise on what they believe is the right path forward for the organization. They’ll disagree, often fiercely. But compromise never comes into the discussion as the path forward.

Instead, what effective organizations do is they take advantage of disagreement. Each person coming to the table has unique ideas, experiences, expertise, knowledge, etc. Via the right dialogue, these disagreements become incredibly powerful at forging a stronger, more informed, less risky, and ultimately more effective path forward for the organization.

These teams don’t say, “you want X and I want Y, so let’s just meet in the middle.” That’s compromise. What effective organizations do is use disagreement to learn and forge solutions and reach broad consensus.

Instead, Forge

If we’re going to be “calling on” Congress to do anything, it should not be to compromise. It should be to use disagreement to forge solutions. That verb is potent: forging requires lots of heat, some force, some violence. It doesn’t happen gently. But good forging creates a mighty sharp blade.

Bipartisanship is ultimately about this forging -- this solution building. This requires recognizing two things about ourselves and our representatives:

  1. We don’t know everything and our opposition likely has something to teach us

  2. The majority of Americans ultimately share the same core values

The state of polarization in the United States makes this notion seem possibly far-fetched. But we contend that this polarization is manufactured, rather than rooted in core values. In our upcoming book Wedged, we’ll speak to the second of these points in more detail.