A negotiation is the formalized give-and-take side of a conversation. The blending of the two, a negotiation with the less formal tone of a family discussion, is aptly termed in the dictionary of the way we speak as “to conversate.”
A debate is merely an argument dressed up in its Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. So whether we should call our current national dialog a debate or an argument depends upon the sensibilities of the writer and the reader. For the purposes of fairness and inclusiveness I will therefore coin a new term, “Argubate.”
Has there ever been a time in American History when everyone at least seemed to agree on everything?
In the overwhelmingly nationalistic years after the War of 1812 there was a brief period which saw a dramatic lowering of the heat in our perpetual political strife. In the Election of 1816, James Monroe a Democratic Republican defeated the last of the Federalist candidates. Monroe and his policies were so popular and so well received that he won reelection in the Election of 1820 facing no opposition whatsoever. This brief calm in the political storm is the popularly forgotten Era of Good Feelings.
Ever since that one brief lull in the ideological conflagration the battle has flared. First one side and then the other are in the driver’s seat while the other side plots its eventual return to power. It has only been by compromise that we have avoided a series of fratricidal wars.
Compromise today has a negative connotation for those on the limited government side of the aisle. 100 years of compromise with those who wish to progress past the limitations enshrined in our founding document have brought us to the strangulation of regulations and the oppression of an overwhelming central government. However, compromise is still the only way to avoid the abyss which lies beyond our current position on the precipice of mutually exclusive partisanship.
Compromise is the only thing that will preserve our country from either splintering into pieces all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put together again, a-la the USSR or sinking into the type of gulag from which the Russians are still struggling to escape.
Beyond the eloquent explanations and focus-grouped sound bites compromise is essentially everyone doing what no one wanted. Compromise can also be the tactic of any group that seeks to move ahead one step at a time. Gain a little here and a little there until one inch at a time you have moved across the street. And therein lays the problem. The Progressives have used this tactic so often and for so long that the silent majority finally woke up to find their elected representatives had sold the cow for some magic beans. It is hard to trust compromise when it has bargained away our heritage one new interpretation at a time. However, the looming breakdown in civil discourse prompts me to urge a renewed effort to find some way to preserve the peace while preserving our freedom.
Compromise has a long history in America for we were born in compromise.
It was only due to the Great Compromise reached in Independence Hall that we have a Constitution. The New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan were wedded to produce a compromise satisfying the desires of both the small states and the large states by creating a House of Representatives based upon population and a Senate with equal representation.
The Union was preserved twice by compromise.
By 1820 the division between the slave-holding South and the emancipated North was growing bitter. The debate hinged upon the even division of the senate. For every state admitted on one side the other side demanded a counterbalance. When it came time to begin carving states out of the Louisiana Territory the Southern side was the first to advance to that stage, but the North could not abide admitting Missouri as a slave state since there was no free state ready for admission. So the Missouri Compromise solved the problem and kept the peace.
Missouri was admitted as a slave state. Maine was separated from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state. A line was drawn along the southern boundary of Missouri. Everything North of that would be free, and everything South of that slave. Thirty years later a new compromise held off war for another ten years.
The Compromise of 1850 was designed to address the sectional rivalry over slavery which was tearing our young nation apart. It was in reality a series of five bills. The compromise brought in California as a free state. It allowed New Mexico and Utah to decide the slavery issue through a popular vote and gave Texas ten million dollars to pay its debt to Mexico for which it gave up lands claimed in present day New Mexico. It abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia and the Fugitive Slave Act which made it a federal crime for any federal official not to arrest a runaway slave.
This compromise only lasted four years when it was effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act which once again opened the northern territories to the possibility of slavery and leaving the decision in the hands of the voters. This led to increasing hostilities between the two sides culminating in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the Civil War: the ultimate break down of America’s process of compromise.
The Civil War did not end America’s use of compromise to avoid permanent division. Reconstruction, the occupation of the South by Northern armies after the Civil war, eventually led to an impasse with the threat of renewed conflict. War was averted when the Compromise of 1877 gave a disputed election to a Republican president, an end of Reconstruction, and various offices and political gains to the Democrats.
Except for the fleeting Era of Good Feelings and those unusual and brief times when the same side controlled all three branches of government, America has moved forward by compromise. For compromise, true compromise, not surrender dressed up in a palatable name, is the sweet spot where any group that is in reality two groups must dwell if there is to be peace, progress, and harmony. Make no mistake, since the beginning America has ever been the home of two sides: the Patriots and the Loyalists, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the Democratic Republicans and the Whigs, and those two rabid beasts we all love to hate the Democrats and the Republicans.
Instead of just shouting our mutually exclusive slogans at each other what we need is a dialogue across the no-man’s-land which separates our entrenched positions. This article is an attempt to urge both sides to realize neither side has the support to dominate the other long enough to legislate let alone legitimize total victory. If we can get beyond shouting slogans at each other perhaps we can find our way to a compromise that will allow us to continue as the last best hope of humanity. If not, we may well slide into the shabby collectivism which shackles the rest of the globe.
Is there anything we can agree on?? Is there any way forward?? Can we at least conversate about the argubate?? I say this realizing that in our current atmosphere of hyper-partisanship this call for compromise will probably make neither side happy. However, I am willing to be damned if I do and damned if I don’t in an attempt to preserve the peace if we can do so while preserving our freedom. Keep the Faith. Keep the Peace. We shall overcome.
Dr. Robert R. Owens teaches history, political science, religion, and leadership for Southside Virginia Community College. Dr. Owens is the author of “America Won the Vietnam War,” “The Asuza Street Revival,” and called “The Constitution Failed.” He is available for speaking engagements.