Michael Dowling: The lost art of compromise

In nearly every facet of our lives, all of us are routinely put in the position of trying to settle disputes or disagreements, whether it be with our spouses or significant others, our children, our siblings, co-workers, neighbors, contractors — you name it. It's part of everyday life. Conflicts arise and we figure out how to resolve them.

Unfortunately, in the politically toxic environment in which we now live, compromise is now perceived as a sign of weakness. Elected leaders are routinely criticized and attacked by fellow party members and their constituents for trying to find middle ground on any issue, particularly those rooted in ideology. The bipartisan agreement reached in Congress last week on gun safety was a rare and welcome exception. 

While they hold starkly different positions and come from states that are thousands of miles apart geographically and politically, Senators Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an outspoken proponent of stronger gun safety laws, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, a staunch Second Amendment advocate, found a way to set aside their differences and reach compromise on the so-called Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that was approved by the Senate 65-33 and the House by a margin of 234-193. President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law June 25. 

While the new law does not go nearly as far as Senator Murphy and most of his fellow Democrats wanted by, for instance, banning the sale of assault rifles or at least increasing the age to buy them, the willingness to finally get something done after 30 years of Congressional gridlock was a long-overdue victory for common sense. 

Bipartisanship has also been evident in Congressional support for military funding for Ukraine and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but little else.

Despite the glimmer of progress in our nation's legislative branch of government, it appears that polarization now has a firm grip on our nation's top court. In trying to find middle ground in deliberations on Roe v. Wade, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sought this compromise with his five fellow conservatives and three liberals on the bench: support Mississippi's prohibition against abortion after 15 weeks, but preserve some semblance of reproductive rights for women by not overturning Roe v. Wade or the court's 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey

"The Court's decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system — regardless of how you view those cases," Roberts wrote. His incremental approach found no takers among his entrenched colleagues on either the right or the left. Hence, constitutional protections for abortions that had stood for nearly 50 years — and are supported by the vast majority of Americans — were stripped away in a 5-4 vote, leaving the power to individual states.

Unfortunately, bipartisanship can be equally elusive in state capitals around the country, which does not bode well for reproductive rights advocates in 21 states where abortion is now illegal or have "trigger bans" that will take effect within 30 days of the Supreme Court's June 24 ruling.

Regardless of whether the issue is abortion or other divisive topics such as immigration, gun safety, voting rights, bail reform or LGBTQ rights, governors and state legislators of one controlling party or another routinely dig in and take intractable positions, leaving little or no room for negotiation. 

We would all be well served to reintroduce ourselves to the art of compromise, for the good of our family relationships, for the good of our respective professions, for the good of our country and society in general, and even for the good of our own personal health as we consider whether to consume that extra helping of food or another cocktail.

Moderation is key in our lifestyle choices and it could also go a long way in trying to find middle ground with those who have differing opinions. If adversaries are truly motivated to do the right thing, not political gamesmanship, they should always choose their words carefully, listen with an open mind and always be open to making concessions. In short, we should all start by embracing civility.

Michael Dowling is president & CEO of Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider and private employer in New York State.

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