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  • Defending Compromise
  • Michael Fischer

Emory University President James Wagner’s column (“As American as … Compromise”) for the Winter 2013 issue of Emory Magazine defends compromise as essential to the founding and sustaining of the American political system.1 Compromise needs defending, Wagner argues, because polarization is jeopardizing the ability of national political leaders to deal with such urgent issues as “our country’s fiscal conundrums.” As a citizen, Wagner advocates compromise as a way past legislative paralysis. As a university president, Wagner is reminding his readers—primarily alumni and parents—that compromise is alive and well at the university that he leads. What Wagner calls “the messy inefficiency of university life,” Emory University included, results from welcoming different points of view and working through them to reach decisions that benefit the institution as a whole. In a university, Wagner suggests, compromise at once facilitates the decision-making process and strengthens its outcomes. Even as Emory, like other universities, faces limited resources and competing visions of what should be done with them, Wagner concludes, “I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that help us achieve our most noble goals.”

Wagner cites as a positive historical example of compromise the agreement at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that allowed three-fifths [End Page 587] of a state’s slave population to count toward determining the number of that state’s representatives in the newly created Congress. Southern delegates, Wagner notes, had wanted to count the whole slave population, whereas Northern delegates did not want to count slaves at all. To resolve this disagreement, the two sides set aside their original positions and settled on something in between, enabling the new Constitution and country to take shape.

The president’s column in an alumni magazine is not a genre usually associated with controversy. But Wagner’s piece quickly made national news. Readers were furious that he had cited this compromise without deploring the slavery that it kept intact and inscribed in the inaugural United States Constitution. Their outcry triggered the apology from Wagner that now precedes this column on the magazine website:

A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine. Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.

Although most readers (rightly, in my opinion) accepted this apology, the damage had been done, if not to the university’s reputation or to Wagner’s presidency then at least to his defense of compromise, which got lost in the ensuring clamor.

Wagner’s article and the tumult it occasioned say much about attitudes toward compromise in contemporary American life. Like Wagner, many observers feel that unprecedented polarization is hurting the country. While legislators squabble, the climate burns, unemployment persists, and bridges and highways crumble. Pick any urgent issue, and chances are that the national legislative stalemate is exacerbating it. With ideological intransigence and political gridlock identified as the problem, compromise is frequently put forth as the remedy. But when a specific compromise is proposed, even the most ardent proponents of compromise recoil and the original logjam reestablishes itself, the failure to arrive at an agreement creating additional opportunities for mutual recrimination and resentment. Even when an often last-minute compromise is achieved, it occasions disappointment, not celebration. A compromise has thus come to suggest not every faction benefiting, but [End Page 588] all sides feeling shortchanged, dissatisfied, and more determined than ever that next time they will vanquish, not appease, their adversaries.

I want here to explore why compromise functions as what Avishai Margalit calls a “boo-hurrah” concept: something that we cheer in theory as evidence of cooperation and generosity but often disparage in practice as selling out and spinelessness.2 Margalit’s On Compromise and Rotten Compromises is one of the best recent philosophical treatments of compromise, especially its role in resolving or prolonging international disputes. In The...


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pp. 587-601
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