Another election has come and gone. With the return to divided government—more the norm than the exception in recent decades—we hear predictable calls for bipartisanship and working across the aisle. How might that work? These three terms are often confused:
Compromise is agreement reached through concessions on both sides. The word has negative connotations, not always deserved, depending on what’s conceded. Refusal to consider even minor concessions shifts a divided government from checks and balances toward gridlock.
Meeting halfway can be foolish. The midpoint between poisoning all the nation’s schoolchildren and none is to poison half the children. Less dramatically, if my friend wants to meet for dinner and I’d rather meet for lunch, eating midway at three in the afternoon may irritate us both.
Common ground involves human needs and concerns shared across party lines. In northern Israel, Jewish and Muslim women with a shared desire for healthy families and the means to support them cater meals for underprivileged children. While compromise is iffy and midpoints often fail, collaboration across difference can work when decision-makers value common ground more than making their rivals lose.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.