Political Unity vs. Political Respect

Mayor Bloomberg (Ralph Alswang)

Political unity is an illusion. Political respect, however, is a goal worth pursuing.

Some people would love if we could all just “get along” politically. Reporters have constantly lamented the fact that the “political unity” felt after tragedies such as 9/11 does not last long. Many efforts have been tried to “forget partisan differences” and work for the “common good”, notably the Unity08 party and the No Labels movement.

No Labels, a movement that gained significant national recognition, says as their mission,

“No Labels will create a space where ideas can be judged on the merits, not their conformity to pre-fabricated stereotypes. The point is not whether America moves left or right; it’s whether we move forward. And that’s what the majority of Americans are yearning for.”

I think most Americans could agree on the importance of open-minded debate. We all want to reduce destructive ads and promote a culture of respect in government.

That being said, there is a reason these movements have not drastically reformed the government into a united force to “move forward” as promised. That’s because everyone has a different definition of “forward”. Take ObamaCare for example. Democrats argue it was a step “forward” for our country, promising the benefits of fewer uninsured Americans. Republicans, on the other hand, view the act as a step “back”, sacrificing personal liberty while driving up the cost of health insurance for all Americans.

According to Mayor Bloomberg of New York City (a figurehead of the No Labels movement), there is an easy solution to reconciling our differing political beliefs:

“Parties have a place, but party loyalty, I don’t think, should get in the way of doing what you as an elected official believes what’s right. I think that’s what most of the public wants.”

Here’s the problem. ObamaCare was an extremely partisan issue. Why? Because Republicans and Democrats hold vastly different theories of how health insurance should be regulated.

Mayor Bloomberg is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. How would he suggest determining a “middle way” on some of these issues to “get things done”? Asking someone you disagree with to “set aside their partisan differences” is simply a subtle way of trying to get them to come to your side. It’s assuming that their opposing beliefs can’t possibly be authentic; therefore, they have to be motivated by blind following of party positions.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t get caught up in political rhetoric to the point where we ignore those who disagree with us. Debate is crucial to our political system, as it allows us to see strong cases made for both sides. Who better to point out the flaws in President Obama’s record than the Republican Party? Who better to point out the problems with Mitt Romney’s campaign than the Democratic Party?

Although it is easy to say that we have become “too partisan”, the reality is not that we must eliminate our different opinions to join together. As beautiful as it may sound to have a completely united world, it will never happen. Our differences in political opinion serve as a valuable check against the totalitarian power of one group of people, and we would do well to respect and appreciate them.

A variation of this article was originally published in the Lariat on 9/25/12.

30 responses to “Political Unity vs. Political Respect

  1. You always get good conversations going here. Let me say regarding No Labels, I am always suspicious of anyone who says they want to “create a space.” This is fluffy jargon from those who prefer “dialog” to “debate.” We don’t have to couch our differences with soft pillows, we just have to be civil as to how we go about it.

    Reading this all, I am reminded of what I learned when studying decision making and war. Wars get started because both sides think they can win. In a similar way, compromise is abandoned because one side thinks it can decisively win. These days, compromise isn’t a luxury we can take or leave. Echo chambers on both sides have convinced themselves that just one more push will result in the total collapse of the other.

    Our only hope is that more and more people become genuinely thoughtful about the issues. And this is a cause consideragain aids with every post. God bless!

  2. There’s clearly not enough discussion on this issue, so I figured I may as well weigh in. I think maybe you’re all correct in certain circumstances.

    At some point in my life I realized I’m a compromise, middle ground type of guy. It turns out that a large portion of my employment is actually compromise – I work between business groups and technical groups, and the business groups want a new product for $500k for 6 months, while the tech group says it will take $2M and 24 months. I get to figure out a way to help these groups get to a common goal.

    If both refuse to compromise, then we don’t move forward. The users of our system fail to get any improvements that will help them. So I talk with both sides. Maybe the business is willing to give up some of their critical improvements so that the development effort is less. Maybe the tech side is willing to consider a different architecture or process that will allow the business to get the functionality sooner. Sometimes one side won’t budge and the project is abandoned — but most of the time they realize that getting part of what they want is better than getting nothing.

    Certainly some of the life issues mentioned, like abortion, are more important that some company’s system enhancement. But some of the same principles of compromise apply. In my mind, the goal is to move forward — if compromise gets you forward more, it’s useful. If standing your ground and avoiding compromise gets you there faster, then don’t compromise. Too often people don’t make the right choice here.

    I’ve always been surprised when politicians vote against a measure because “it doesn’t go far enough”. If there was a law proposed to not allow any abortions after three months of pregnancy, I’m sure some would oppose it because it does not stop all abortions. I guess they believe that opposing the proposal will somehow force a better law and proposal to come later that will stop all abortions. But given the strong opinions on both sides and the near impossibility of getting agreement on a law completely on one side or the other, I think that just hurts the cause. Instead, why not approve this law because it moves in the right direction, and then continue to work on getting another proposal that goes one step further?

    I believe that I can compromise on a bill or proposal without compromising my personal opinion of the end goal. Just because I approve a bill to stop some abortions does not mean I want any abortions to occur – it just means that I’m willing to get my way in steps.

    Of course there are times that I should not compromise at all because (like the Civil War example perhaps), maybe this is the best and fastest way to get to what I believe is right. But there’s a high risk here that not compromising means I will get nothing at all — and in most cases I believe that compromising will get to a better solution faster.

    The trick is knowing when to compromise and when not to compromise. I think that’s what we’re disagreeing about since it’s different by topic and is really subjective. How about if you all just compromise and say that I’m right?

    • The biggest problem, as I said in a previous comment, is that the sides have different definitions of “forward”. For example, Democrats might think higher taxes and more social programs make a society better, whereas Republicans would prefer more freedom and lower taxes.

      No one is trying to make society move “backward”. I see your point on the “doesn’t go far enough” laws, but there are cases in which I agree with those who say that. For example, many Republicans voted against the DISCLOSE Act for that reason- because its reporting requirements targeted corporations (typically Republican supporters), while allowing unions (typically Democrat) much more freedom in non-disclosure. Many would be happy with full disclosure for both types of organizations, but not a law that favors one group for political advantage. So, in that case, the law truly didn’t go far enough.

    • Tom’s post made my neurons fire a bit…which is always needed. I wonder if part of the reason we get so frustrated with politicians is that we expect them to act like the rest of us. People act and are motivated by their own self interest. In business, people compromise ultimately to get things done. The self interest is in achieving business success and solving the problem. But compare that with politicians, who are also motivated by self-interest. They operate in an entirely different dynamic. Their self interest is not problem-solving. If it were, they would have been fired a long time ago! One reason this is not their primary motivation is that they have no skin in the game…business men and women want to earn an income – and grow the business – and have every motivation to try to do well. Politicians just make policy – and indeed many times get in the way of business – because they neither make nor lose money. Politicians’ primary self interest is in being reelected to office. Thus, they will do things that the rest of us would consider a waste of time or at least only minimally productive…because running for office is entirely different than running a company or business! Making speeches is great – but no one would accept business failure very long from a CEO that just made good speeches. But many politicians just sway people with words. And it is easy to buy into them…because people naturally want to trust other people, and also to feel they made a good choice electing X person (regardless of party.) One thing I learned a while back is to ignore what people say, and look at what they do. That gem has helped me cut through a lot of clutter in business, as well as politics. Also, politicians worry about the next vote or sound bite that will be used against them in the next election. I am so glad the private sector can generally just act, and not be affected in word and deed by such pressure. So, in summary, government officials operate and are motivated by a different set of pressures than people in the private sector. I think it is one more reason we should in most cases (not all) be proponents of free market systems – instead of government ones.

        • Agreed. No one is saying we shouldn’t compromise on things that can be solved in mutually agreeable terms. My post is simply saying that there are certain issues that will never be “compromised” upon. Political scientists and researchers have proved it theoretically, and history has supported it. If compromise means everyone agrees and drops the issue, it will never happen. Obviously we can achieve some “compromises” on abortion laws. My point is that we will never reach a point where both sides agree to stop disagreeing and “be happy” with the current outcome. It doesn’t mean we should “despair” or “abandon hope” – but it does mean that we shouldn’t despair when we do the best we can do and it’s still not perfect. Compromise is not a bad thing, and I’m not saying that. But the sort of political unity we may yearn for is completely and utterly impossible.

          If compromise means working together to achieve solutions, it happens all the time. And I completely support it. But if compromise means finding some way to drop the issue permanently, it’s wishful thinking.

          I think we have been differing on definitions.

  3. There is a tendency for most people to seek compromise. “Middle ground” usually sounds good, because it implies flexibility. People do not like being perceived (rightly or wrongly) as inflexible and rigid. This is the reason that in polling, for instance, many people have to be asked follow-up questions to determine their party or candidate of choice. They will say they are independent, but they are not really. But they do not want to be pegged as ideological or fixed in opinion. So…politicians do talk in the vernacular about compromise and middle ground and the like. In many areas, that is possible, such as economically. Programs can be cut or expanded, etc. Even abortion can be an area of compromise politically, in terms of its legal availability (which term of pregnancy, etc.)

    However, the seminal point of the post is that unity and middle ground is an abstraction. It is also many times a distraction. Politicians love eloquent speech-making. Hard decisions have to be made, and compromise, as seductive as it is, many times is just a way to water down solutions. We are running a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit – the government is annually spending literally almost 50% more than it takes in. No country can do that very long – the laws of economics are catching up fast with the United States. Compromise – saying we will trim it by $100 billion dollars – is silly. It is still bankruptcy for the nation, and thus it citizens. “Hope and Change” and “Forward” goes out the window when the bills become due. What we need is fewer calls for unity, and instead some real leadership and hard choices made…now. It is not fun. But bankruptcy and a valueless currency are a far, far worse thing. No one will remember “Forward” when we cannot have a dollar that pays for things.

    In terms of everyone winning – we all win if we avoid bankruptcy as a nation. Will there be economic pain? Yes. There is always is in adjustments. But as a society we can still fix this. But not with a lot of compromise (unfortunately). Final point – free speech in the form of political dialogue and debate is incredibly valuable. Neither side of the political spectrum should call for a ban on any element of free speech.

    • “compromise…. In many areas, that is possible, such as economically. Programs can be cut or expanded, etc. Even abortion can be an area of compromise politically,… but the point is…. “middle ground is an abstraction” I’m confused. Looks like finding middle ground is possible in reality.

      • No one is saying compromise isn’t possible.. For some things. But for others, I view “middle ground” as the illusion of some political position that resonates with everyone and makes all parties happy. While it may work for a time, it’s not a permanent solution.

        I think it’s important to recognize that real compromise is a “give-take”, and both sides are still very present in debate, not giving up their positions to move the compromise in their direction. I’m arguing that talking of a compromise that brings both sides to drop their arguments is a distraction – because it won’t work.

        • …One of the reasons I ended my last post with a remark about free speech is that many people try to shut down debate by calling for a “truce”…but what they really want to do is squelch the other side’s arguments. Similarly, opposing oppositional speech by labeling it unpatriotic or extreme or improper or criticizing “tone” is a way to try to squelch freedom of expression. All of this distracts from the real message and/or issue. Labeling something improper, such as asking Romney to support the Administration on their Middle East policies out of ‘respect’ is an example. It is a way to try to surreptitiously distract by focusing on tone or timing instead of debate and policy, which are what matters. Iron sharpens iron…and debate makes persons think through their policies and actually see if they are well-reasoned.

  4. “Because you have two sides of the spectrum that have no “middle area.”
    Then it’s not a spectrum. That’s two entrenched ideologies.
    Gridlock it is. Each side lives in different universes. No compromise is possible.
    I thought what Obamacare did with abortion coverage was an example of a type of compromise.
    Some legislatures have managed to find compromises; to agree on policies that attempt to limit abortions. No partial-birth abortions. Ultrasound first, etc.
    Some legislatures have managed to find compromises on gay marriage as well; to agree on some type of legal partnership, for example, while saying no to using the term, marriage, for such partnerships.
    Mock trials and real trials are win or lose. Policy-making, politics in a democracy is about compromise. Find the spectrum, find the middle ground. That approach is at least the beginning of a strategy with hope. A ‘No middle ground’ approach feels like it can only lead to despair for both sides.

    • I think people always approach it with hope. It’s a “take what we can get, but don’t give up” approach. So yes, those small compromises are victories for the pro-lifers. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to say “Okay, we’re done now. That’s enough. Everyone’s happy.” They’re going to keep fighting because they believe all abortions are murder.

      You’re acting like I’m anti-compromise. I’m not. But I am realistic in realizing that even these small “compromises” will never make everyone happy, and they’ll never end the issue. Gridlock and debate will continue no matter what. The idea that we’ll all be united and agreeing on politics by finding a middle ground is not only fantasy, it’s completely unproven by history. You’re right, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to see the other side and compromise. But I believe that is done every day.

  5. Don Huizinga should start a blog! I agree 100% Don. Well said. All of it. Also, I wouldn’t say political unity is an illusion. I’d say it’s more an idealist abstract. Something to strive for but realistically knowing it won’t be achieved because that would be to achieve perfection. However, I think we can all agree, that the United States has a beautiful government that is amazing and much closer to ideals than many other forms of government. I’m not sure if the end made sense, but yeah.

    • Thanks, Sara. I agree. idealism must be tempered by a practical realism. The American form of democracy is an attempt to make that work well.

      • Glad you stopped by Sara!

        Guys, no one’s saying we should never compromise. But like you said, unity is an “idealist abstract”. I’m annoyed when people complain how “nothing gets done” without realizing that sometimes, the things that aren’t getting done aren’t getting done because Americans don’t want them or believe they would make us worse.

        Everyone loves compromise, but when it comes to specific issues, there are some things that should be compromised on and some that shouldn’t. I think it’s naive of us to complain about our legislators facing gridlock because they can’t “get along” when the American public, which elects these legislators, still believes our opinions our valid.

  6. “Mayor Bloomberg is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. How would he suggest determining a “middle way” on some of these issues to “get things done”? Asking someone you disagree with to “set aside their partisan differences” is simply a subtle way of trying to get them to come to your side. It’s assuming that their opposing beliefs can’t possibly be authentic; therefore, they have to be motivated by blind following of party positions.”

    Politics is (or should be) the art of compromise. If neither side is willing to give up the whole for a part, the result too often is gridlock. To say that someone of one position who is willing to seek middle ground is assuming the opposing position is not authentic is unfair. It IS assuming that the opposing side is not represented by idealogues whose only position is mine or nothing. I believe compromises on abortion policies and gay marriage are quite possible. If not, it’s time for despair and to give up on what could be politics as it’s designed to be.

    • Two things. One, obviously there are cases where compromise is important. I think our political system allows that through debate, and legislators reach compromises all the time. Sometimes gridlock can prompt more research or debate.
      However, it is important to note that there are at least several significant issues that have no “middle ground”. Sometimes, there is an absolute truth, a side that truly is right. Take slavery for example. In 1820, there was the “Missouri Compromise”. In 1850, there was the “Great Compromise”, yet the issue wasn’t solved. The abolitionists were dismissed as “extremist” and ideologoues, yet they didn’t give in. Why? Because they were completely right – slavery was wrong. It was only their endurance that allowed the rest of the country to realize it. Had they sought a “middle ground” and abandoned their fervent opposition, we could be living in a much different country today.

      Second, what compromises would you suggest for abortion and gay marriage? And why are they different than the slavery issue?

      • Short version abortion:
        1. Recognize that in this democracy, real differences on its rightness or wrongness will persist. Honor those differences as authentic. Seek common ground. Can each side agree that abortions should not be casually used as birth control? Can each side agree that a fetus, at the very least is on its way to becoming human? Does that change what legal protections a fetus should have?
        2. short version gay marriage:
        Recognize that in this democracy, real differences on its rightness or wrongness will persist. Honor those differences as authentic. Seek common ground. Perhaps, the state could allow without preventing churches from not allowing within their faith community? Permit churches to allow, disallow, speak for, speak against as their conscience before God dictates?
        3. Slavery is a tough one, as was apartheid, and as is racism, etc.
        “Sometimes, there is an absolute truth, a side that truly is right.” I agree, but in a democracy, the reality is not everyone agrees on what that absolute truth is. What to do in a democracy, go to war? Had abolitionists continued to seek a “middle ground” while persisting in their fervent opposition by persuasive speech, trusting and hoping that in the end truth prevails, maybe we could have eventually arrived at no slavery without warfare (as happened with apartheid, voting rights issues, etc.) Wasn’t the civil war one of the costliest wars, if not the costliest war, in human lives in our history?
        4. “It was only their (abolitionists) endurance that allowed the rest of the country to realize it.” I disagree with that analysis. It MIGHT HAVE been endurance of the abolitionists that COULD HAVE MADE the rest of the country realize that slavery was wrong had they been given more time, and had we settled for compromises in the meantime. Instead war FORCED no slavery on the south WHETHER THEY REALIZED IT WAS WRONG OR NOT.

        • Abortion-
          You talk about this “recognizing” and “seeking common ground” – but policy-wise, do we allow abortions or don’t we? Because both sides CAN’T agree that abortions shouldn’t be used as “birth control”.
          2. Exactly – isn’t that what is happening now? Churches are speaking out of their conscience. How is legalizing gay marriage but allowing churches to prevent their members from participating a “middle ground” between those who favor legalizing it and those who oppose it? Sounds like it’s on the side of the proponents, with a “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to” attitude to the rest of people.
          3. It was one of the costliest wars in history. But, if I recall, the war began not over slavery but over the South leaving the Union.
          4. The compromises of 1820 and 1850 bought some time, but eventually the South was fed up and ready to leave. We could have “compromised”, but it would have kept the issue on the table. Unfortunately it was one of those things I believe we could not have avoided. Similarly with World War II, which was caused because of the “compromise” and “appeasement” strategies of European countries. Had they taken a stand at the very beginning of Hitler’s attacks, the war would never have happened, and millions of Jews would not have been killed.

          You are correct, the Civil War forced no slavery on the South, even though they thought it was right at the time. I honestly think most Americans would be glad about that.

          • I’ll take compromise. If I can’t have no abortions for now, or possibly ever, I’ll settle for fewer ones. If I can’t have no gay marriages, I’ll settle for the right of my church to forbid them. I prefer discussion with compromise, honoring honest differences that are likely to persist, to debate with gridlock. I gave you mine; let’s here your strategy suggestions.

          • I’m not sure we’re connecting on this (I like in-person discussions much better). For example, any law that would limit abortions would be well-supported by pro-lifers. But the pro-choicers are unlikely to agree to any law that limits their “freedom” in any way. Because you have two sides of the spectrum that have no “middle area”. You’ve proposed “recognizing common ground”, but what is that common ground? Some would say abortion only in cases of death to the mother is a “compromise”, but even that is widely opposed by pro-choicers. Many Republicans and Democrats tried to add an amendment to Obamacare that it could not be used to fund abortions; however, that attempt at a compromise was shot down as well.

            As for gay marriages, I still don’t understand what you’re proposing as an actual law that would be agreeable to both parties.

            You said you gave me “strategy suggestions”, but you haven’t proposed an actual compromise that people would agree to. I can’t give you any because I don’t believe there are any. There is no way for everyone to “win”.

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