Liberals love compromise (as long as they get what they want)

Among the details in Pew Research's comprehensive look at the political divide in American politics is a result that might suggest why, despite years of real overtures and superficial grandstanding, the two political parties in Congress haven't been able to reach compromises on significant issues.


House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left, speaking with Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Pew asked respondents to evaluate, on a scale from zero to 100, how much either President Obama or the Republican leadership should get out of a compromise. A zero means Obama gets everything he wants, 100 means the Republicans can claim total victory, and 50 means, well, a fifty-fifty split.

The good news is this. Overall, just shy of 50 percent of Americans thought that a 50/50 split was the best outcome. Political moderates thought that was the best outcome more than half the time, as did people who were identified as mostly liberal. The problem, though, lies at the extremes.


People who were identified as consistently liberal or consistently conservative, however, were less likely to think that a mixed outcome was the best outcome. Instead, they preferred to see their side have a lopsided victory. About a third of consistently liberal respondents wanted to see a 50/50 division, but 62 percent — almost two-thirds — wanted more of Obama's priorities to be implemented. On the other side, the numbers were similar. A third of consistent conservatives supported an even division, 57 percent wanted the Republicans to get more.


At least those conservatives were being consistent. Pew also asked the groups what qualities they looked for in leaders. Overall, more than half of the people responding thought that elected officials should make compromises versus rigorously sticking with their positions. For conservatives, that wasn't the case. Two-thirds of those who were identified as consistently conservative would rather that elected officials stick to their positions, generally consistent with the idea that Republicans should get more out of negotiations.

For consistent liberals, the opposite was true, and by a wide margin. They were nearly six times more likely to support the idea of elected officials making compromises — despite the fact that 62 percent of them thought the result of the compromise should favor their political side.

There's gray area here, of course. For example: "Compromise" doesn't necessarily mean an even, fifty-fifty split, so it's not entirely inconsistent for liberals to endorse compromise while hoping they get the better end of the deal.

But the growth of partisanship on Capitol Hill likely means more elected officials who see the best outcome in negotiation being that the other side gives up more. And that may be why negotiations on Capitol Hill, again and again, end up with no one getting anything.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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