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OnWords

Does 'Compromise' Have A Place In Politics?

“Compromise” was the buzzword of the 2014 mid-term elections. The absolute failure of the two major parties to show any progress toward compromise should not surprise us, though.

“Compromise” is one of those words that seems general but is incredibly sensitive to context. Whether we view compromise as a higher good or as unprincipled evil depends entirely on what we want to achieve—and on who is doing the compromising.

That the right wing often opposes the word “compromise” with the word “principles” is instructive. In brokering a deal, conservatives worry about their core values remaining intact and accounted for.

As the linguist George Lakoff points out, values and principles are how we frame issues. If we consider, say, immigration reform, a workable compromise to one side just looks like simple illegality to the other.

For all the talk about compromise, this last election shows us that not compromising on anything will do you no harm at the ballot box—and, in fact, may actually help by making your party seem strong and, well, uncompromising.

Since the election, politicians have begun using the word as an attack: “compromise” now means that the other side is bullheaded and won’t just comply with what my side wants them to do.

If we’re really interested in in moving forward—and I am not convinced that we are—we need to abandon the word “compromise” as a politically useful term and focus on an open and honest accounting of the values and principles that underlie our political assumptions.