There were a lot of casualties on November 8th of this year. We said goodbye to decorum, decency and cautious deliberation having a seat in the White House. We said hello to an agenda more friendly to white nationalists and corporations than to the more progressive people of America. But Trump and Republican majorities aside, something else seemed to die on that day too. It’s the idea of incrementalism, of compromise, of civil discourse leading to mutually beneficial solutions.
By November 9, 2016, a lot of people seemed to decide everyone had an important lesson to learn: be uncompromising. It’s a fair and even advisable response in a lot of cases. Trump ran a campaign wherein he mocked the disabled, scapegoated entire people groups and defended autocrats the world over. I’d be the first to say, as much as it pains me, the left should learn a lesson or two from Mitch McConnell. Relentless obstruction is going to be one of their most important tools against Trump’s authoritarian impulses. How effective this will be with minorities in both the Senate and the House is still up to be decided. Their best hope, as of now, is to get some anti-Trump defectors from the GOP to help them out.
Regardless, it’s bittersweet to think of compromise and incremental change as being things of the past. On the one hand, incrementalism has, for generations upon generations, been used as an excuse for grievous social sins. Slavery and most racially motivated policies since stayed in place much longer than they should’ve because of the so-called promise of incremental change. Nor does anyone in dire straits economically want to hear the government will take an incremental approach to fighting the poverty they find themselves mired in everyday.
There’s no doubt we’ve been too compromising when it comes to compromise. When it comes to basic and fundamental human rights, there should be no middle ground. Despite some of the Founders’ moral failings, this is ultimately why we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Other amendments (13th-15th, 19th especially) solidify this and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts entrench it even further. Trump isn’t threatening because he wants to propel us forward into a new era of racist policy. It’s that he wants to take us back in time to when these things were acceptable and recast the roles of just who’s oppressed and how much.
There should be no hearing out the other side when that other side is calling for the disenfranchisement or mistreatment of entire groups of people or of any single person, for that matter. Taking an incrementalist approach to inalienable rights is, at best, a sin of omission. At worst, it’s getting Jim Crow after the abolition of slavery and mass incarceration after that. No American in 2016 should sign off on bigotry, nor should they plug their ears and pretend its not still happening in a big way.
With all that said, I’m still reticent to say incrementalism, as a whole, should be done away with in the Trump era. It’s particularly ironic to see my Facebook feed light up with calls to resist and obstruct posted by the same people who were begging everyone to vote for Hillary as the lesser of two evils just a couple months ago. In other words, compromise was a fine solution for America in the worst election most of us can remember until it was over. After an all-out effort to get a huge amount of Americans to compromise and vote for Clinton, we are now told that compromise is totally odious in and of itself.
It’s important to realize supporting Trump wasn’t ideological for a sizable chunk of his voters but, in their eyes, pragmatic and desperate. In voting for him, they did the same thing others did for Hillary. Clinton voters pinched their nose at her “superpredator” comments of days gone by, her overt hawkishness and her comfort in the arms of Wall Street. Was there even more to block out to make a vote for Trump? Absolutely. But there were plenty of conscionable conservatives who made a deal with the devil by voting for Trump, equating it to a roll of the dice in an awful situation. People I love and respect voted for him and they did so with regret and remorse that has only grown since they pulled the lever for him. He was, to them, the extremely marginal lesser of two evils.
Again, obstruction and resistance will be essential in the upcoming years but we also have to get real here. If there’s ever been a time to say the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it’s now. The enemy of your enemy is not your friend if said person believes we can compromise people’s rights to milk out any kind of small victory. But they certainly are if they differ from you on the legalization of marijuana, taxation plans or the overall size of government but agree with you that Trump sucks and that authoritarianism and racism are bad things. If things like these are what we’re digging our heels in about, we need to take it down a few notches and learn how to communicate again.
Let’s take a person like Evan McMullin. He’s the liberal’s conservative of the hour. People are looking past his stances on abortion, on LGBTQ+ issues, because he’s making sense in a lot of other arenas. I’m certain there are a lot of ordinary people out there like McMullin. I grew up with them; hell, I was even raised by them. Their views are cheaply whittled down to bigotry and then ignored but, when you start patiently explaining why you differ, why their views concern you, they listen. They are horrified to be thought of as hateful and would never want to make a person feel like a lesser-than. Sometimes, they even amend their own thinking and we should get to amending our thinking about them too.
There are Trump voters and even staunchly religious conservatives that aren’t like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Mike Pence. There are people who may, because of religious beliefs, not endorse the institution of gay marriage while always exhibiting kindness toward gay people, having gay friends and making it a point to always display compassion and understanding. They hate the Westboro Baptist Church’s message of judgment and cruelty, they love gay people and they disapproved of gay marriage being legalized. It’s a weird brew but it’s a real one I’ve seen time and time again. I know these people and, for what it’s worth, I know they would’ve baked that cake in Indiana too, all while believing God has sanctioned marriage to be between one man and one woman and that that same God has called to love their neighbor and judge not lest they be judged.
Let’s take it one step further. Could you compromise with a person on abortion? Most people already do. The majority viewpoint of the right is that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s life being at stake. Plenty of people on the left start to feel iffy about abortion when it gets toward the last few weeks of pregnancy or even past the first trimester. Even more on both sides say what the government should allow or prohibit and what they would do personally are different. These are thorny, difficult ethical issues and I’d suggest you can respect human rights and balk at misogyny all while holding a spectrum of views on abortion.
This is all to say I’m depressed at how much our republic has devolved into laziness in communication and empathy. Compromise and incremental change are awful when they hamper the life, liberty and pursuits of happiness of any individuals or groups. But they’re important and immensely useful in preserving these rights in the face of difficult ethical and political questions. We should not yield to Trump or anyone like him when they try to change our minds in a regressive direction. This car shouldn’t move backward and that’s where he wants to take it at a hundred miles per hour. On the flipside, Clinton would’ve kept it at a standstill. But progress doesn’t just belong to “progressives”. Moving forward is the same goal for McMullin conservatives, compassionate libertarians and Berniecrats alike and a host of all their ideas can power the engine going forward.
Caricaturization doesn’t help anyone. It gives us Trump and Clinton: cartoonishly bad candidates with the ideological consistency of Swiss cheese and the ethical fortitude of Scooby Doo villains. Their voters aren’t as easy to characterize; they are a cluster of hopes, fears, prejudices and dreams they may or may not tell you about. The five hundred and thirty eight members of Congress aren’t either. There are Wall Street sellouts, warhawks and closeted bigots on both sides but the same goes for compassionate, thoughtful and open individuals.
The rights of individuals and groups in a constitutional republic should not be up for debate. There should be no compromise here and moving backward should be obstructed and opposed at every step. But let’s not get rid of incrementalism, of compromise, as a whole. Let’s find the people all over the spectrum who agree equality and liberty and kindness and compassion are beautiful things and all learn to talk to each other again. This time, we can do it at a more reasonable volume and maybe we can all be nicer to each other too. It’s a messy process but we all need each other whether we like it or not