On Compromise Versus Being Compromised

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

A willingness to compromise is an essential component of our democracy, and such “deals” often facilitate mutual understanding and respect for the other side’s point of view.

Present day ideological politics reflects the belief that “compromise” is a sign of moral deficiency. Anyone meeting someone who is equally principled on the “other” side of an issue somewhere in the middle is viewed as a “sellout”. Words like “unforgivable” are used like political whips to chastise the supposed “weakness” of the compromisers’ commitment to the “cause” – whatever that cause may be.

Being “compromised” is another matter. Those in positions of power have the potential to make life very difficult for anyone who may decline to do a “favor” for the boss or the organization. Sometimes that “favor” can be just too much to ask.

Each of us has our personal “red line” in terms of compliance with such requests. The law can guide us at times, but we can’t always prove that an improper request has been made of us (such “requests” are rarely transmitted in writing, nor are there witnesses).

For some reason, lately, my thoughts go back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, when I was a young government worker. Each night we would watch the House or Senate Watergate hearings. A parade of young people – about my age – sat in front of the Committee members describing how their ethics had become compromised, gradually, by just being willing to go along with the next demand or instruction from above.

Watergate provided a powerful lesson in how incremental corruption occurs. I had occasion to apply that lesson when I felt compelled to refuse an order to perform political work while on a federal payroll. My supervisor in Illinois’ Governor’s Office of Human Resources tried to fire me; a more senior official intervened. For better or worse, a career (mine) was saved.

This type of thing happened again, more than once, in encounters with City of Seattle and State of Washington officials. I refused; I survived. Even so, such encounters likely had a price. Opinions of one’s “loyalty” are often embedded subtly into the thinking of higher ups by senior staff irritated by a refusal to do their bidding. But, concern about any potential consequences seemed trivial when balanced against the lessons of Watergate.

Those lessons remain relevant in our politics today. Compromise is good in the service of democracy; avoiding being compromised requires constant vigilance. As those young Watergate victims learned the hard way, the erosion of integrity is almost imperceptible at the time.

Likewise, the erosion of faith in our ability to govern ourselves can also be traced to the difficulty our nation is having distinguishing between compromise for the greater good and being compromised for less than honorable reasons. No one is absolutely right all the time. We all need to commit to meeting somewhere nearer the middle.

Back at you in 2018. Next year we all need to do better.

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