Eschewing Extremism and the Virtue of Compromise

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” —Barry Goldwater

“When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.” —Benjamin Franklin

Mormons scripture states that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God and written by “wise men whom [God] raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). Joseph Smith once called it “a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun.” I like Joseph’s image of a tree in this context. The tree provides shade for all, regardless of where the person is coming from. Likewise, the Constitution is a shield that protects the interests of all.

We often speak collectively of the Founders as if they all agreed on everything, but in fact, they profoundly disagreed on many issues: states’ rights versus federal power, a decentralized agriculture-based economic system versus a centralized manufacturing-based system, with which countries to form alliances and which countries to oppose. Ron Chernow even referred to them as the “feuding Fathers.” The genius of the Constitution was compromise. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am captivated by the compromise of the opposite claims of the great and little states, of the latter to equal, and the former to proportional influence.” Calling it “the result of accommodation and compromise,” John Adams described it as “admirably calculated to cement all America in affection and interest, as one great nation.”

Just as disagreements are nothing new to American’ society, the nastiness of politics is as old as the republic itself. Jefferson and Adams engaged in political mudslinging during the election of 1800 that would make us blush today. Surrogates of Adams declared that Jefferson was an ungodly deist who would create a country where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Jefferson’s surrogates declared Adams a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” (I particularly love this creative attack ad.)

Disagreement, even mean-spirited disagreement, is the American way. Containing disagreement is what the Constitution does best. Forged by compromise, the Constitution forces compromise through a bicameral congress and a separation of powers.

Ideological purity and my-way-or-the-highway public policy positions have become the norm. With the rise of the Tea Party on the Right and the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressivism on the Left, both sides seem to seek solutions to problems that ignore contrary views. I personally felt the Bern in the primaries. But I also know that the only way our government—the government that was inspired by God—works is through compromise. I also know that my own views are made better by listening to those who can respectfully articulate their opposing positions. I am concerned that we are degenerating into a scorched-earth politics where we not only no longer get anything done and where we are increasingly distrustful and angry at each other.

The Greeks eschewed extremism and spoke of the “middle way,” the midpoint between extremes where safety and progress take place. Humanity thrives in the space between absolute freedom and absolute tyranny.

To seek the middle way, it seems to me, requires that we listen to those we disagree with in order to make course corrections to our own paths. That requires that we respect them and assume nothing but good motives. Joseph Smith was most liberal in his thinking toward others, stating, “I have the most liberal sentiments, and feelings of charity towards all sects, parties, and denominations; and the rights and liberties of conscience, I hold most sacred and dear, and despise no man for differing with me in matters of opinion.”I fundamentally disagree with Barry Goldwater—there is virtue to be found in moderation.

The LDS Church’s Newsroom released a three-part series on Civil Society that I believe deserves a broader audience (part 1, part 2, part 3). It articulates a vision of civic engagement that I think we are beginning to lose sight of. In one passage, it states, “Our differences have more meaning when they enter into conversation with other differences. Otherwise, we get stuck in our own social cloisters. Creativity suffers in the classroom or town hall when new ideas are barred from discussion. But when we engage with the broader community we discover that we don’t have to resemble others to respect others.”

In today’s brash political climate, I believe, we need a softer voice, and a kinder attitude, more listening and less anger. But most of all, we need to recognize that compromise is not only inevitable, it’s inspired.

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