President Obama came to prominence in 2004 with a speech in which he argued that there isn’t a red America and a blue America but rather a single United States of America. Looking back twelve years later, this may seem like a rather odd notion in a country riven by intense political polarization.
President Obama has a history of seeking understanding and compromise by people with different perspectives. This was particularly illustrated by his speech, A More Perfect Union, in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 campaign. In that speech, he sympathetically described frustrations of many black and white people in our country.
Yesterday, he gave the commencement address at Howard University and appealed for people to listen to those we disagree with and seek compromise. Addressing “African-American youths who have fueled a new civil rights protest movement during his presidency, Mr. Obama urged them to adopt a more disciplined form of activism that goes beyond indignant rhetoric and uncompromising demands.”
He argued that activists must develop strategies that “include listening to those with whom they disagree and compromising when necessary to achieve their goals.”
“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” the president said, adding that such an approach leads to “a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair, and that’s never been the source of our progress.”
Although the President addressed his remarks to one particular group, I think that this message generally is relevant to all.
“Compromise” is a dirty word to people who interpret it to mean sacrificing important values or merely accepting zero-sum resolutions without addressing each party’s interests.
However, sometimes it is appropriate to “bargain with the devil,” as Bob Mnookin argues. And sometimes zero-sum exchanges are better than each side’s MLATNA. But by carefully listening to others, as the President advocates, it is possible to create value and make social progress.