The Terms of Agreement

Conflict and negotiation is not new to this nation. What the Fiscal Cliff teaches us about getting along. 

Do We Really Want Political Compromise?

Americans are divided over whether we should come together.

With the fiscal cliff debate looming large in Washington and on the national news agenda, there is increasing talk of the importance of political compromise. This call for putting aside differences and getting past polarization is, of course, nothing new. But is compromise what we really want?

A report from the Gallup Poll this week offered the headline that “Sixty-two percent want leaders to compromise." Gallup asked a random sample of Americans the following question:

What would you like to see government leaders in Washington do in the fiscal cliff negotiations -- stick to their principles and beliefs on tax increases and spending cuts, even if no agreement is reached by the Jan 1. deadline, or compromise on their principles and beliefs on tax increases and spending cuts in order to reach an agreement by the Jan. 1 deadline?

As the report’s headline suggests, a large majority of Americans reported preferring compromise over “sticking to principles.” Breaking the results by party identification, 71 percent of Democrats preferred compromise and so did 55 percent of Republicans. Gallup argues that these results suggest that Americans strongly prefer compromise. But is that really the case?

Research (gatedungated) by political scientists Laurel Harbridge (Northwestern) and Neil Malhotra (Stanford) suggests that despite Americans' claimed affinity for compromise, we are often disinclined to support politicians that engage in compromise. In one experiment, they told one group of participants that Congress was a bipartisan place where members are inclined toward across-the-aisle collaboration and told a second group that that Congress was relatively partisan. In line with common sense, the characterization of Congress as partisan decreased public trust in Congress.

In a second experiment, however, Harbridge and Malhotra exposed participants to a message characterizing a single member of Congress as acting in either a partisan or bipartisan fashion. This time, political independents offered much higher approvals of the member portrayed as bipartisan than the member portrayed as a partisan. Yet respondents who identified with a political party actually became much less favorable toward the candidate engaged in bipartisan legislative activity.

Considering that about one-third of the American public strongly identifies with either the Democratic or Republican parties and less than one-third (probably closer to 10 percent) of the public is genuinely politically independent, these results suggest that a substantial segment of the voting public actually prefers candidates that do not compromise.

Strong partisans tend to be the most active in politics and the most able to influence politicians’ behavior. As a result, while about two-thirds of the public might prefer compromise to partisanship and favor politicians that compromise, a substantial segment of the public that is deeply embedded in politics strongly prefers the opposite. As the fiscal cliff debates continue, it is a question of whether the relatively moderate preferences of the majority will prevail or whether the strong and opposite preferences of committed partisans will bolster congressional stubbornness.