Compromise for the sake of agreeing is misguided

Another poll came out recently and confirmed the American people would like to see Democrats and Republicans compromise in order to “get things done” in Washington. While I sympathize with the majority who are frustrated with the lack of comity between the parties, I differ with those who cite “compromise” as the highest political virtue of the age.

The call for compromise among well-meaning folks across the political spectrum comes as the result of two trends in American history. First, after decades of assaults upon the notion of objective truth we have entered a time in our nation’s history when many Americans see truth as personal or relative rather than impersonal, existing above space and time. Without a standard of objective truth to which we can repair, then all ideas have equal value. In such a chaotic world, compromise makes perfect sense.

Second, America has embraced what is known as the Hegelian dialectic. Put forward by the 19th century German intellectual, Georg Hegel, the dialectic theory purports to explain the movement of history. According to Hegel’s theory, history is powered by the meeting of opposing ideas. This meeting or confrontation between a thesis and its antithesis leads to a “synthesis” or compromise between the competing ideas. As the synthesis represents the best in the competing ideas, it propels history forward to its inevitable perfection. So popular has been Hegel’s idea that despite numerous challenges, most notably from Karl Marx, it has represented the standard in American public education for well over a century.

The problem with Hegel’s dialectic is that it does not account for absolutes. In other words, it presupposes a relative moral equality between opposing ideas (thesis and antithesis). Only the true barbarian, lacking any sense of objective truth, could agree to such a stipulation. What, for example, is the synthesis to be reached between the criminal intent on committing murder and the blameless victim seeking to avoid it? What compromise was to be reached between the Nazis and their six million Jewish victims? Our nation, at great cost and sacrifice, went to war because we believed compromise on this issue was immoral.

Clearly, not all political disputes are as morally unambiguous as the example I just highlighted. Still we cannot have it both ways. We cannot demand our elected leaders must compromise in order to “get something done” and then criticize them because they have no principles. Instead, recognizing our demands for compromise often reflect our own moral nonchalance, we must be unwilling to accept simple conciliation in place of a vigorous defense of truth. Absent this understanding we may find ourselves in the place of the innocent child in Solomon’s court … in danger of dying of compromise.

Kevin Ritter