In Praise of Compromise?

Bettina Krause January/February 2022
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Dutch politician Marianne Thieme, who served in her country’s House of Representatives from 2006 to 2019, passionately advocates for animal welfare. In 2006 she joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, partly because of its promotion of a vegetarian lifestyle. As leader of the Party for the Animals, Thieme used a signature rhetorical flourish every time she rose to make a speech. It didn’t matter what the speech was about—it could have been infrastructure, or education policy, or health care. Regardless of the topic, Thieme ended every parliamentary speech with this sentence: “Voorts zijn wij van mening dat er een einde moet komen aan de bio-industrie.” (“Furthermore, we are of the opinion that factory farming has to be ended.”)

Her message was clear: I’m engaging in this political process of give and take, debate and compromise, on many different issues of importance. Yet remember this—there is one foundational issue on which I will never compromise. 

In this Thieme was following the oratorical example of ancient Roman statesman Cato the Elder (c. 200 B.C.), who also had a no-compromise issue. In his case it was his desire to wage war against the North African city state of Carthage, which Cato perceived as a social and political threat. Thus, he concluded all his speeches, regardless of topic, with: “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.”

The issue of compromise versus principle in politics is a fraught question. Our current Congress, with a Senate almost evenly split between the two parties, provides plenty of case studies of what happens when politicians move toward extremes and abandon attempts to negotiate workable legislative solutions. And our political discourse—whether in print, on the airwaves, or on social media—reflects this increasing movement toward uncompromising extremes. 

What values or issues should rise to the level of Thieme’s and Cato’s “furthermore” statements? What ground should we claim as inviolate and beyond compromise? And, conversely, what issues are legitimately open to good-faith debate and mutual accommodation?  

In truth, there’s an almost endless array of political and social issues on which reasonable people of good will can hold different perspectives and rationally support their opinions with evidence. And all these areas are ripe for good-faith discussion and compromise when it comes to governing a diverse society such as ours. So why doesn’t our current public discourse reflect this reality? 

The horseshoe theory of politics suggests a fascinating dynamic that could help explain today’s no-compromise approach to politics. If you haven’t already been introduced to this theory, here it is in a nutshell. Two decades ago French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye pointed out that as right-wing and left-wing political movements grow more extreme, they each begin to resemble one another in terms of their totalitarian, authoritarian approaches. Faye envisioned the political spectrum not as a straight line but as one shaped instead like a horseshoe. So as the right and left—clearly driven by very different political ideologies—become more unyielding in attitudes and rhetoric, they each move toward their respective ends of the horseshoe, reaching a point where they almost touch. In their extreme forms, both left and right become almost indistinguishable in terms of how they manifest themselves on the ground as part of the lived experience of a nation’s polity. 

The validity of horseshoe theory is, of course, much debated by political scientists. But consider two recent episodes in the Twitterverse. Late last year author J. K. Rowling was targeted by progressives for what was perceived as her conservative view on transgenderism, resulting in hundreds of ugly death threats against her and her family, and one incident in which the Rowling family home address was shared online. However, it’s social media mobs at the other end of the political spectrum that have waged violent war against Congresswomen such as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, yielding countless threats against their lives.

You don’t have to spend much time on Twitter or Facebook to know that labeling one’s opponents as “beyond the pale,” or caricaturing them in ways that discounts their humanity, is standard fare—regardless of whether one is animated by left-wing or right-wing certitude.

I was thinking about this horseshoe theory of politics when I traveled recently from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to visit one of that city’s newest museums—the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which was opened last year by the American Bible Society. (You can read more about this museum and an interview with its executive director in the next issue of Liberty.) It’s a museum that seeks to highlight an aspect of America’s civic history that has, to a large extent, been overlooked. That is, the incredible influence of the Bible in inspiring and guiding both individuals and movements during pivotal moments of our nation’s development.

I felt some trepidation as I walked through the doors of this museum, which is located just a stone’s throw from both Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. In an America still reeling from the events of January 6 last year, could a museum such as this unintentionally play into narratives of Christian nationalism? 

But the museum’s displays tell a far more nuanced and compelling story. In a section named “Struggling Toward Justice,” artifacts and commentary illustrate how biblical values and interpretations have played a significant part in key moments of our nation’s history—the Revolution, the framing of constitutional values and creation of a new system of governance, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, women’s suffrage, the civil rights era. 

At each point, proponents on different sides of issues have used Scripture to bolster their own political or social positions. Yet despite these often-competing interpretations of the sacred text, the net result over time has been clear. The influence of biblical teachings has ultimately served to greatly enlarge our ideas of what constitutes a just American society. Scripture has shone a light on the gap between our ideals and our actions. It’s fueled efforts of such individuals as William Penn, who translated the biblical notion of “brotherly love” into the “revolutionary” idea that even non-Christians should be guaranteed freedom of conscience. It framed the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was determined to “make justice a reality for all God’s children.” And it has inspired many, many others to strive toward a more inclusive America.  

The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center presents a counterintuitive perspective, and one that cuts through a common contemporary trope that all religious folk are close-minded and parochial. Throughout our nation’s history, individuals who’ve been committed to transcendent, no-compromise values of faith have helped nudge Americans toward dialogue, engagement, negotiation, and yes, compromise, regarding how we can best live together, sharing a common space. 

I realize the story is far more complex than this thumbnail sketch, and subject to plenty of anecdotes to the contrary. But the overarching trajectory is one, I believe, that’s worth considering. 

We all have our own “furthermore” statements—matters of public policy that, for us, map out an area of no compromise. Is the way we advocate for these principles driving us toward the extreme ends of the political horseshoe? Or are our foundational values leading us instead toward a posture of engagement? Are they leading us to a search for common ground in areas where we can safely compromise without betraying our principles? 

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.