Alinsky on Compromise

Politics is really the art of compromise.  One of the reasons we have a Bill of Rights to begin with is because the founders meant to put certain rights outside of the political process so they would not, ideally, be subject to the vagaries and horse trading that’s inherent in the political process.  At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Over time pretty much everything is subject to the political process.  But the point is that you can’t succeed in politics with absolutes.  Here’s what the great leftist organizer had to say about it:

Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vascillation, betrayal of ideas, surrender of moral principles.  In the old culture, when virginity was a virtue, one referred to a woman’s being “compromised.”  The word is generally regarded as ethically unsavory and ugly.

But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word.  It is always present in the pragmatics of operation.  It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory.  If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.

A free and open society is an on-going conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of coflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum.  Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian.  If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise.”

That’s why it’s hard for me to take groups that claim “no compromise” seriously, because the system just doesn’t work that way.  The objective is to keep moving in the right direction.  There will, of course, be setbacks and obstacles along the way — it’ll take a long time to reach the eventual goal.  But if activists stay focused on the ends, there’s no reason we shouldn’t get there.  It certainly worked well for Alinsky’s cause, and for the gun controllers.  How much of their agenda was asking for 100% and getting 30% again, and again, and again?   Even GCA ’68 was a compromise.  They wanted total central registration in anticipation of eventual confiscation.  They got distributed and incomplete registration in the form of 4473.  But GCA ’68 motivated gun owners, and despite a major setback in the early 90s, we’ve generally been moving in the right direction after most of a century of moving in the wrong direction.  Whether we get to our eventual goals or not remains to be seen.  Alinsky certainly never did.  But the struggle continues, and probably will for my lifetime.

24 thoughts on “Alinsky on Compromise”

  1. Compromise is great when you’re trying to figure out where to build the new road.

    Compromise is defeat if you’re trying to protect your rights because after each compromise comes another round of negotiating the next compromise. Give away 30% ten times and you have virtually nothing left.

    No compromise on the bill of rights or it becomes merely a bunch of old greeting card sentiments that sounded good to our forefathers but are meaningless today.

  2. I suggest that Alinsky’s idea of compromise is close to that of the Islamic hudna – a tactic to be used to further one’s goal of total domination, not a method of finding that solution with best serves both sides in a dispute.

    Alinsky, like all revolutionaries, likely would not like the world he wanted to create, unless of course he was at the top of the dungheap he wanted to create.

  3. I currently have 50% of what I want and I ask for 100%. The person/political party/… says “I can’t give you all that you want, but I’ll give you an additional 20% so that now rather than having 50% of what you want, you have 70%” I’ve given up 30% of what I want, but I’m still further ahead then if I hadn’t compromised.

    We are trying to regain ground that was lost in the past. To say that compromising doesn’t further our goal is short sighted. You just need to make sure that the people on our side doing the haggling haven’t gone to the Frank Burns’ School of Negotiations. Which would of course be umb-day. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

  4. Death by a thousand cuts. There has to be a point beyond which we will not give or we end up with nothing.

  5. Kathy, you are right. As long as the compromise is towards your goal it’s fine. But compromising with the enemy and saying, “gee, it coulda been worse” is a losing tactic.

  6. Compromise for us is BAD since it means we give up something we already had. For example, the FOPA give up machine guns for interstate transport and other matters.

    In Georgia, the Republicans want to make training a requirement to get a license. In exchange, we get a couple of off-limits locations repealed. That would be compromise and is unacceptable.

    Aiming high and not getting everything is not compromise. Its part of the deal. Knowing the difference means knowing the difference between moving the ball forward versus rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic.

  7. “Compromise” is to politics what “armistice” is to war; an open admission that one or both sides lack either the will or the resources to continue to do real battle. When our enemies offer us a fraction of a loaf rather than the whole thing, it is only because they fear the repercussions of failing to do so, and they calculate that we cannot or will not want to use the remainder that we failed to achieve to mount a successful attack on them. They usually calculate, correctly, that for the sake of public or membership face-saving we will go back and make excuses to our constituency why the rest of the loaf wasn’t all that important; in effect lobbying our own people to ignore or even support gun control.

    Usually the points we are willing to give away in compromise help lay a road map for the enemy, telling them pretty clearly what we are willing to fight for and what we are not. I well remember the “debates” around the Fumo (D) and Godshall (R) versions of gun control bills that passed as Act 17 of 1995 in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania gun owners were told “You’re going to get some new legislation passed; participate in the debate over the features of these bills, and get the best you can. Remember politics is the art of compromise!” So, helped by our major “gun rights” organizations, gun owners spent from October 1994 to June 1995 telling legislators exactly what they would accept in a gun control bill. And come June 1995, they got it. I remain convinced that had gun owners taken a united position of “No additional firearms legislation is required in Pennsylvania,” and stood by it, our grassroots activists wouldn’t have needed to spend several years trying to correct the worst features.

    I personally see no reason for engaging with legislators at all. If you believe you have clout, tell them in 100 words or less what you expect them to deliver. If they fail to deliver any part of it, use all of your clout against them. Something
    left unsaid about compromise is that it is often the face-saving device used by constituencies with little clout, but a strong desire to keep alive the illusion/delusion that they have it.

  8. The problem – as I point time and time again – is double.

    1. Some people use “compromise” as an excuse to proceed slower and slower, like a Zeno’s Paradox’ Achilles, and eventually do nothing.

    2. Tactical compromise is part and parcel of the political process. Strategic compromise – “accepting” we will not get something, ever, like “accepting the NFA will never get repealed – is unacceptable.

  9. I agree in theory with what you’re saying …… and it’s firearms owners who have been compromising.

    When are we going to get to support a bill repealing the ’68 GCA?

  10. Packetman:

    That’s the thing. There isn’t going to be one bill to repeal GCA ’68. We had FOPA, which repealed parts of it. The various ATF reform bills in Congress take bits off GCA ’68. Some parts would be difficult to get, like retail licensing. But it’s hard to say for now, because we’ve yet to see exactly how having confiscation off the table is going to affect the anti-gun groups. Pre-Heller their fund raising efforts were looking pretty anemic, and I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better. Dave Hardy, who’s worked in this issue since before I was born, has pointed out on more than a few occasions that the big anti-gun donors were usually willing to settle for half measures as long as they could keep the eye focused on the eventual goal of total prohibition. With that off the table, it may open doors that have previously been closed to us.

  11. The Packetman,
    The answer to your question is when the voting public and their elected officials support the repeal of the Gun Control Act of 1968.

    Representative Ron Paul has two bills that begin to repeal unneeded gun laws (e.g. increase the freedom the keep and bear arms), H.R.3021 – Citizens Protection Act of 2009 and H.R.3022 – Second Amendment Protection Act of 2009. They both have zero cosponsors.

    America is 1/435th of the way to repealing federal gun control, the rest is up to those who care enough about the issue to either contact their local representative or run against him.

  12. Some people use “compromise” as an excuse to proceed slower and slower, like a Zeno’s Paradox’ Achilles, and eventually do nothing.

    You proceed at the pace of the political process, which is not fast. The gun control movement spent decades between victories building up support for this or that, and in each case did not get everything it wanted. NFA’s original language applied a 5 dollar tax to handguns. The whole AOW nonsense was cause my drafting problems after handguns were removed from the classification. GCA ’68 was supposed to be the registration that lead to eventual confiscation. They got close, but no cigar. The Brady Act originally had permanent waiting periods, which was supposed to be the crown jewel. They got instant background checks and waiting periods only for a short time. The assault weapons ban was never meant to have an expiration date attached to it.

    Given an opportunity between greater damage and less, only a fool would stand outside the process and take greater damage, when involvement could mean less.

  13. In Georgia, the Republicans want to make training a requirement to get a license. In exchange, we get a couple of off-limits locations repealed. That would be compromise and is unacceptable.

    I wouldn’t take that deal either. We’ve shown we can get off limits places repealed without having to make that kind of bargain.

  14. Kathy, you are right. As long as the compromise is towards your goal it’s fine. But compromising with the enemy and saying, “gee, it coulda been worse” is a losing tactic.

    If you’re going to lose, and you can prevent it from being worse, you prevent it from being worse. It’s foolish to do otherwise. The converse is just as true. If your enemy asks for 100%, you know he can probably get 50%, but you think that you can get him down to 30% with a deal, you go for the deal. It doesn’t mean you have to support the eventual bill that gives the 30%, but it would be foolish to stand aside the process and allow the enemy to get 50%, or maybe more.

  15. Jessup:

    How are you supposed to influence legislators without engaging them? That basically means they get to do what the hell they want for two to six years, and then you’re stuck having to try to vote them out of office if they displeased you, which if you’re a minority like gun owners who vote like gun owners are, that may or may not happen. And really, it’s more complicated than that, because to be able to get everything you want, and to 100% avoid anything you don’t want, you have to be able to do that for a majority of the legislature, and the Governor’s office. That’s a tall order, and I don’t know if any interest group who wields that kind of power today.

    You almost always want to avoid a electoral battle if you can possibly do so. It’s a bit like sitting across an opponent at a poker table. Neither side really knows what hand the other has, and it might be possible to bluff your way through a lot. What you definitely don’t want is for the politician to call your bluff, and you’re stuck having to try to defeat him electorally. It’s great if you do, because the next guy will know what got rid of his predecessor, and other politicians will take note. But if you fail, you’re stuck with an incumbent that you have no influence over whatsoever, whereas you might have had influence before.

    Unless you can virtually guarantee a negative election outcome for a politician, you’re in no position to dictate to him or her, so you’re stuck having to use influence. In order to influence, you have to have a relationship. Either directly or through an interest group that represents the interest.

  16. Sebastian:

    You can seldom guarantee defeat to a politician, but you can guarantee a level of pain and discomfort they would rather not have. You can cost them campaign funds and resources they would prefer not to have to expend. I’m sure you’ve seen the analysis, using Venn diagrams, and whatnot, demonstrating that in any given election only about six or seven percent of the vote is really being contended for. The remainder are givens. So, if you can swing three percent of the vote or so, you are a force to be reckoned with. If you can swing one percent, you could get lucky and hit him or her at just the moment when other one-percent constituencies decide to hit him. They know that. The trick is to be in contention for those small but vital percentages.

    If you aren’t able to swing many votes, believe me, the politicians know it. You are not going to fake them out for very long. So in that case, why do they want to deal with you at all. except on the odd chance they can win you over to be a useful idiot, doing their bidding, after they stroke you and tell you what a bright boy you are?

    By not engaging them, I don’t mean sit on your hands for two, four, or six years. I mean tell them what you want all along, while you are building your mailing lists and other campaigning resources, and use those lists to keep pounding on them the whole time and every time they fail to deliver. But never fall for the self-delusion that you can “negotiate” with them based only on your intellect and manufactured, illusory clout. Illusion can sometimes work, once but it will never work for you a second time.

  17. Sebastian and Thane,

    I understand your point, I really do ….. my question was more rhetorical than anything.

    But with regards to the 2 bills sponsored by Rep Paul, that seems to me an effort to reach upward for the compromise, and wind up with nothing.

    If NRA believes that the Gun-Free Zones are a bad idea, why aren’t they mobilizing their not-inconsiderable clout (not to mention their members) to see that bill become law, hmmm?

    Has the NRA asked the A-rated reps who haven’t co-sponsored the Second Amendment Protection Act why?

    Maybe Rep Paul needs to try to repeal the GCA in it’s entirety ……. then maybe we could see some action. Oh wait, the NRA won’t help on that one. They’d think they would lose.

    Didn’t mean to NRA-bash ….. they’re just handy!

  18. If NRA believes that the Gun-Free Zones are a bad idea, why aren’t they mobilizing their not-inconsiderable clout (not to mention their members) to see that bill become law, hmmm?

    They have, in several states. Namely in Tennessee this year with repealing the ban in restaurants and parks. Plus in National Parks federally (effective in Feb of 2010). You’ve had several attempts to repeal gun free zones in Virginia, which have been met with vetoes by Governor Kaine. Georgia recently also improved its laws in that regard. Arizona too. So it’s happening, even if it’s not happening where you are right now. There could be lots of reasons why that’s not the case.

    Has the NRA asked the A-rated reps who haven’t co-sponsored the Second Amendment Protection Act why?

    Because the bill doesn’t have the votes to go anywhere, and you’re typically not going to draw co-sponsors unless the bill has a chance. No politician is going to take a chance on a bill that has no hope of passing. Most bills introduced in Congress every year, both pro-gun and anti-gun, never go anywhere, and never attract any sponsors, or perhaps a small handful at most. Once a bill is going somewhere, the cosponsors will pile on as everyone lines up to be able to claim credit for something that was successful, and pleases whatever constituency the bill is aimed to please. It might be self-serving, but it’s how the process works.

  19. Sebastian,
    I disagree. If the bill is a good idea and a representative agrees with the result, why should he care whether it leaves committee? I certainly understand the point of wanting to bet on a sure thing but there should be a difference between a horse race and a bill. Perhaps there isn’t?

  20. Thane:

    Because the nature of the process is such that it discourages risk taking. No politician is going to take a position on a bill unless it benefits them in some way to do so. If you twisted arms, you might be able to get some cosponsors, but not enough to make it go anywhere. So what’s the purpose? That would be fighting tomorrow’s fight right now. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re losing friends for fights you could win because you’re busy with fights you can’t win. Tomorrow might be different, though.

  21. The idea of compromise is GETTING SOMETHING for giving something up.

    The “compromise” I’m seeing is gaining nothing at all, in return for being bent over.

  22. While I can appreciate Alinsky from a tactical standpoint (and I’ve been known to use dirtier political tactics ;p), his methods aren’t always applicable. For one thing, he was a looter and thus had nothing of his own to lose from a compromise. A loss for him and his type is only a setback in taking things from others.

    Obviously, any incremental gain for us reached via compromise is still a gain. Any net loss, however, is giving them something they don’t have.

    As such, it’s much safer for them to gamble on an incremental approach.

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