On American Political Compromise

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well, you just might find
You get what you need

The Rolling Stones

The headlines proclaim it: compromise in public policy, especially legislative compromise, is now passé.  

Are these reports true? If so, how did we get here? Have political compromise and bipartisanship really become little more than relics? The answers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are more complicated than the headlines would have us believe.

Bipartisanship undercover

Compromise involves sacrifice: each opposing side gives up something in order to achieve a common good. And regardless whether it’s out of style, compromise is still very much in political practice. Bipartisanship is not a synonym of compromise, but it is difficult to have much of the former without the latter. Data show that bipartisanship in American legislative bodies is far from finished—and this is true even of the U.S. Congress, which, anti-cooperative bluster aside, continues to pass significant (and a significant number of) bipartisan bills

That’s because bipartisanship works. As political scientists James M. Curry and Frances E. Lee write, describing their research in the New York Times, “The hard truth about the U.S. political system is that very little legislation gets enacted without bipartisan support.” While voting in Congress has become more generally polarized, Curry and Lee continue, “there has been no increase in the share of legislation enacted on party-line votes.” It is simply the case that bills rarely pass without substantial support from the minority party. 

Political scientists Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Craig Volden, and Alan Wiseman agree. In a 2021 working paper published by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research they report that “Bipartisanship is linked to increases in [U.S. Congress] members’ overall legislative effectiveness, and especially to moving legislation through committee and on the floor.” The patterns are robust, and they apply to both majority-party and minority-party lawmakers.

There is also research indicating that laws passed with bipartisan support are more likely to be durable—i.e., less likely to be repealed down the road. The political scientists Jordan M. Ragusa and Nathaniel A. Birkhead analyzed notable repeals that occurred betwen 1877 and 2012. As the Washington Monthly reports, Ragusa and Birkhead found that while a number of factors are involved “rollbacks are ultimately motivated by partisanship.” The article continues: “A law that passes narrowly but with a mix of Democratic and Republican backing is more likely to stick than one that passes with the same number of votes all from one party.”

Compromise helps to get things done and keep them done. Why then do we, the voters, hear so little about the political compromises that are still happening? Perhaps because a great many lawmakers would rather we not know about the deals they’re cutting—because, today, legislators have good reason to believe that voters will punish them for their compromises.

Voters’ views on compromise

We read that Americans are tired of the political rancor and desire compromise. The truth is knottier. When voters say they want more compromise what they seem to mean is that they want more compromise from lawmakers with whom they disagree. From a 2019 Pew Research study:

When it comes to political compromise, majorities in both parties say it is very important that elected officials be willing to make compromises with their opponents to solve important problems.

But fewer than half of Republicans (41%)—including just a third of conservative Republicans—say it is very important for GOP elected officials to make compromises with Democrats.

Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to value political compromise in principle. Still, only 48% of Democrats say it is very important for officials in their party to be willing to compromise with Republicans, including 42% of liberal Democrats.

This conclusion tracks with a line of studies from Pew, including one from 2013 finding that voters favor hypothetical compromise—that is, they like compromise when it’s presented to them as a general concept with no real tradeoffs—but are fiercely opposed to it when presented in terms of specific policy issues. (Pew rather cheekily titled a writeup about that study, “Public wants compromise, but not on issues they care about.”)

At the same time that politicians are getting the message from their party’s more-extreme voters that compromise is at best unnecessary and at worst despicable, those same more-extreme voters are becoming increasingly electorally powerful. 

Today, voting districts are more one-sided than ever. Congressional crossover districts—districts where a presidential and legislative candidate from different parties won majorities—are all but disappearing. CNN cites the Cook Political Report, which found that in 1996, 108 of the 435 congressional districts were crossovers, but that by 2016 only 36 were. In 2022, there were just 16 crossover districts—meaning that fewer than 4% of House members come from districts where there is much real pressure from voters of a different political party.

The same is true of the Senate. Between 1960 and 1990, roughly half of all sitting senators came from states that voted for a president of the other party. Indeed, as recently as the 2006 midterm elections nearly a third of Senate winners were of a different party than their state’s presidential-election winner. But in the 2022 midterm elections, only one of the 35 winners did not match parties with the presidential-election winner in his or her state. 

The fact that politics has become less regional and more national is both a product and instigator of the abovementioned trends. In 1971–72, representatives from former Confederate states made up nearly a third of all Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives; these Southern Democrats were also notably more conservative than their Democratic colleagues from other regions. By 2022, however, Southern Democrats were just 22 percent of the House Democratic caucus, and their voting records made them almost ideologically indistiguishable from other Democrats in the House. Meanwhile, Southern Republicans, who made up less than 15% of House Republicans half a century ago, were 42% of the 2022 House GOP caucus. 

Candidates today have little incentive to appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Winning elections means winning party primaries, and winning primaries means appealing to the base and publicly eschewing compromise. So most candidates loudly denounce the other side during campaigns, then quietly work with the other side once in office.

Why do voters fear compromise?

The motivations of politicians seem clear. Less clear are the motivations of voters. Why are they—why are we—so fearful of political compromise on issues we care about, especially when we routinely compromise in so many other facets of our personal lives?

Luke Conway, a psychologist at the University of Montana, told NPR that the resistance to political compromise can stem from a view of others’ behavior as more dispositional than situational—which is to say, a view that “John” behaves as he does because of his core personal disposition and not because of the situation or context in which John finds himself at a given moment. Crucially, this dispositional view of action does not prohibit people from switching to a contextual view to rationalize their own behaviors or the behaviors of those with whom they’re close or to whom they’re sympathetic. Consider “Jane,” who believes herself a dispositionally good driver but just happens to be speeding this morning situationally, because she’s late for work; when John speeds, however, Jane believes it’s because John is always and forever a reckless driver. 

A review of studies published in 2020 in the journal Science shows how pronounced this dispositional view has become in American politics, and how it negatively affects our capacity for compromise. Voters today tend to believe that people who disagree with them do so not because of differences in, say, upbringing or lifestyle but because of differences in core identity. Moreover, and more frightening, voters also tend to believe that these differing identities are incompatible—that one’s own preferences are moral and others’ are not. In an interview, Eli J. Finkel, the Science paper’s lead author, said, “In the highly sectarian political ecosystem, politicians lose the incentive to be responsive to the entire populace. And they also lose the incentive to compromise, because you’re much more likely to get accused of apostasy and lack of sufficient purity by your side.”

Purity tests and moral condemnation are enemies of compromise. As Martin Golding, a professor of philosopy and law, writes: “The compromise process is a conscious process in which there is a degree of moral acknowledgement of the other party. The other party is accorded some degree of moral legitimacy, and so are some of his interests.” (emphasis Golding’s) 

There is also the notion that to compromise politically is necessarily and wrongly to sacrifice one’s principles. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a 2010 CBS interview of John Boehner, who was then about to become speaker of the U.S. House:

Boehner: We have to govern. That’s what we were elected to do.

CBS: But governing means compromising.

Boehner: It means working together.

CBS: It also means compromising.

Boehner: It means finding common ground.

CBS: Okay, is that compromising?

Boehner: I made it clear I am not gonna compromise on my principles, nor am I gonna compromise …

CBS: What are you saying?

Boehner: … the will of the American people.

CBS: You’re saying, “I want common ground, but I’m not gonna compromise.” I don’t understand that. I really don’t.

Boehner: When you say the word “compromise”… a lot of Americans look up and go, “Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out.” And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.

CBS noted some bipartisan bills that Boehner had helped to pass.

CBS: So you did compromise.

Boehner: I’ve . . . we found common ground.

CBS: Why won’t you say you’re afraid of the word.

Boehner: I reject the word.  

Boehner is a Republican, but the aversion to compromise is certainly not limited to conservatives. The liberal politician Harvey Milk once said, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights . . . It takes no political deal to give people freedom.” (His quote notwithsanding, Milk, like Boehner, was a canny negotiator.) Of course politicians can and do compromise without integrity—or “sell out,” in Boehner’s formulation. Compromise is not prima facie good. Voters have reason to be suspicious that a politician who campaigned on and was elected on certain professed principles may, once arrived in Washington, hypocritically give them all away. Even voters predisposed to assume good intentions must occasionally wonder whether their representatives are confused (or lying) about their principles or simply lack the courage to defend them. Amy Guttman, formerly president of the University of Pennsylvania and now U.S. ambassador to Germany, noted this double dubiousness about compromise, writing that “The philosopher George Santayana, a friend of compromise, captured the dual nature of the aversion to it: it is ‘odious to passionate natures because it seems a surrender, and to intellectual natures because it seems a confusion.’”

Why should American voters desire or have trust in political compromise? And how can they?

Political compromise: why and how

Let us start with the why. As mentioned above, political compromise tends to get things done and keep them done. In a democracy, it is simply how much of governing happens.

But beyond that, to compromise politically in a pluralist society is to demonstrate appreciation for the common good. And given that political polarization in America has increased, pursuing the common good in a bipartisan manner increasingly means looking beyond “common ground” and being willling to sacrifice in order to achieve compromise. To compromise is also to demonstrate and/or engage in mutual respect, good-faith negotiation, and reciprocity; these are actions and concepts at the heart of modern democracy.  

That is a bit of the why. So, then: how?

First, we the voters must truly desire compromise—from the other side and our own.

The second step—a difficult but crucial one—is for us, the voters, to ditch an identity-based conception of politics and acknowlege the legitimate political opinions of people with whom we disagree but with whom we will coexist and of whom we will be tolerant. 

Third, we must understand that context matters. As Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a former professor of law, writes, “Different contexts clearly produce different assessments of the ethics of compromise.” (emphasis Menkel-Meadow’s)

Fourth, we must stop elevating so many opinions, preferences, and biases to the level of principle. Principles are philosophically preeminent. In their highest form they are fundamental truths, beliefs that define a person or community. It is more difficult to reach a political compromise when one side feels it is sacrificing principles—though Machiavelli did suggest that leaders must be ready to modify their principles on behalf of those they govern, who may not share the same principles; and though many compromises certainly have required and do require sides to bend on their principles—so it is important to be clear and truthful about what does and does not rise to the exalted level of principle. 

Fifth, we must want our elected representatives to persuade their opponents to compromise, not overpower them. Forced compromise is not compromise—it is capitulation. This will require voters to distinguish between political campaigns, in which compromise is an ineffective tactic, and governing; too often today these distinct realms blur together. 

Sixth, we voters must elect people who exhibit moral conduct, and we must hold our elected representatives to high moral standards. If we expect politicians of different parties to compromise then those politicians must respect and trust one another. You simply cannot compromise with someone who you do not trust. 

Compromise is in our DNA
The United States was founded through compromise. The Connecticut Compromise—so named to honor its architects, Connecticut delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth—not only gave us our current legislative structure but also quite possibly prevented the convention from breaking up entirely. 

Other compromises from that convention are less worthy of celebration. The Three-fifths Compromise, for example, which determined that enslaved persons would count as 3/5 of a free person for purposes of legislative representation, had the effect not only of giving Southern states more representation than they deserved but also enshrining in our country’s defining document that slaves were “three fifths of all other Persons.” But it also, arguably, helped ensure the formation of our union; whether the United States could have come to be without the Three-fifths Compromise is a topic of debate even today. 

In American political history, compromise has meant seeking the possible over the perfect. This is inevitable; compromises are never perfect. They are frequently messy, incoherent, and unpleasant. Gabriel Chin, a law professor, notes that “Even the greatest and most honored laws have loopholes.” Chin points out that the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, still allowed slavery as punishment as part of a criminal conviction, a clause that was frequently used in the Reconstruction South. “Nevertheless,” Chin writes of that and other American political compromises, “I’ll take them; I do not criticize the Reconstruction Amendments or their makers for being merely as good as was possible at the time.”

Indeed, here is former president Barack Obama, speaking to a group of college students—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—about the context for American political compromise:

I mean, you think about our greatest presidents. I mean Abraham Lincoln, here’s a guy 

who didn’t believe in slavery but his first priority was keeping the union . . . and I’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation hanging up in my office and if you read through it it turns out that most of the document is those states and areas where the Emancipation doesn’t apply, because those folks were allied with the union so they can keep their slaves . . . So here you’ve got a wartime president who’s making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that right now my job is to keep, to maintain the union.

We would do well, when evaluating historical political compromises, to attempt to understand the contexts in which they were made. And we would do well to keep context front in center as we consider possible compromises today. If we desire a functioning American government, one that seeks to pursue the common good when the status quo is insufficient, then we must understand both the limitations but also the benefits—indeed, the necessity—of political compromise.