Thursday, March 29, 2012

Compromise vs. Caving

Most complaints about gridlock in Washington include a plea for more compromise between the two parties.  But do American voters actually want more compromise?  New research from a political psychologist at the University at Montana suggests that voters do want compromise—but only when the other side compromises. 

While voters want “compromise” in a general sense, when it comes to a negotiation on a specific issue they see compromise by their elected official as caving in.  Americans believe that consistency and firm beliefs are a key component of leadership, which results in our conflicting desire for both compromise and a leader who sticks to his beliefs.

What explains this contradiction?  According to this new research, our American culture that emphasizes a hyper-individualistic norm is partly to blame.  In their hyper-individualistic mindset, Americans see behavior as driven by the individual instead of being driven by the context.  So, for example, while we may seek compromise in our own life and view it as a good thing, when others do it (politicians) we see it as a lack of core principles, or caving in.   Other (often non-Western) countries that see behavior as contextually driven are more likely to value compromise from their elected officials.

It appears that the rigid, uncompromising politicians of today may actually have it right.  Americans may think they want compromise, but when it gets down to the dirty details, they don’t want their guy to cave.

Here is a link to the full story on National Public Radio: NPR: why-compromise-is-terrible-politics


  1. That's really interesting. Were there any partisan differences in the thoughts about politicians "compromising"? I also wonder if the politicians themselves are partly to blame (either because they reinforced these beliefs or affirmatively created them). I remember hearing a few times in the last few years different politicians referring to compromise as something dirty--as exactly the kind of caving in on principles that you describe. If politicians are the ones to blame, then maybe all we need for some movement on public opinion is for the politicians to reframe the arguments. That, of course, will probably never happen though...

  2. Do you think this applies to most Americans or just people who strongly self-identify with either party? I could easily see this happening with very partisan voters: they blame the other side for not compromising but, at the same time, see it as a weakness when one of their own is willing to negotiate. But one thing we've learned is that, while our parties and elected officials are becoming increasingly polarized and representative of political extremes, the American electorate has become more moderate for the most part. In other words, neither party has been able to capture the affiliation of a majority of Americans. According to the American National Election Study, "in 1964, 52 percent of Americans identified as either "weak" or "strong" Democrats and 25 percent as "weak" or "strong" Republicans; 23 percent were independents. In 2008, it was 34 percent, 26 percent and 40 percent, respectively."

    If so many individuals self-identify as moderates, or at least refuse to identify themselves as either Republicans or Democrats, why is there such an anti-compromise mentality? I understand that Americans have a very individualistic culture, but with strong party identification dwindling, I would still think that a lot of Americans want their politicians to compromise.