Of all America’s institutions, none is more despised than Congress. The legislative body came in dead last in a recent Gallup poll measuring Americans’ confidence in 17 national institutions—well behind banks, big business, and the media. A separate Gallup poll pinpointed the top reason for Congress’ rock-bottom approval rating: party gridlock. Yet incumbents keep getting re-elected, at a rate of 90%.
So do Americans really want their legislators to compromise as much as they say they do? New research by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Neil Malhotra and two colleagues finds that, in practice, Americans do not favor bipartisan lawmaking nearly as much as they claim to.
Drawing on prior research, Malhotra’s team argues that the public is far more interested in outcome than in process. Americans are turned off by the “dogmatic, divisive, and uncivil style of ‘debate’” in which members of Congress routinely engage, according to previous research by Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams. But ironically, observing such conflict tends to make individuals cling fast to their partisan identities. “In their roles as spectators of policymaking, citizens may be inclined to root for their team,” Malhotra and his colleagues write. And like the most devoted sports fans, they not only derive a strong sense of themselves and their community from cheering on the home team, but they also rejoice in seeing their rivals lose.
In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship. The authors cite other examples of principled stands crumbling in the face of concrete challenges; for instance, while Americans generally believe in civil liberties, they are not always willing to extend those liberties to groups they dislike, whether atheists, communists, or racists. By the same token, Americans overwhelmingly support cutting government spending on the whole but remain reluctant to target specific programs for reductions.
Malhotra and his colleagues hypothesized that the same dynamic would hold true in evaluating congressional policymaking: that when an individual’s desire for bipartisanship conflicted with his or her partisan agenda, the latter would take precedence. To investigate this hypothesis, they conducted two experiments evaluating how different legislative processes affected people’s views of the policy outcomes. They deliberately chose relatively obscure, nonpartisan issues—as opposed to hot-button ones like abortion or gun control, which break down pretty clearly on party lines—to allow more opportunity for negotiation and compromise.
In the first study, the researchers presented competing proposals to cut NASA spending—one Democratic and one Republican—and then randomly assigned an outcome. One was closer to the Democratic proposal, another was closer to the Republican, and the third case was exactly in the middle—a perfect bipartisan compromise. The respondents had to reveal whether they strongly favored, somewhat favored, somewhat opposed, or strongly opposed the new NASA budget. They were also asked to evaluate how “bipartisan” they thought the negotiated NASA budget was. The researchers characterized the outcomes as the respondent’s “own party wins,” the “opposing party wins,” or it was a “bipartisan split.”
Not surprisingly, the compromise budget was deemed by all respondents to be significantly more “bipartisan” than the other two. Yet almost no one favored that outcome over a “win” by his or her own party. Interestingly, respondents rated their own party’s budget victory as more “bipartisan” than if the other party’s budget prevailed. Furthermore, respondents viewed the bipartisan outcome as no better than the rival party’s budget passing:both were considered a “loss,” whereas minimal compromising by one’s own side was considered a “win.” “Because people treat bipartisan legislation similarly to legislation passed when their party loses, leaders might have fewer incentives to compromise,” the study’s authors write.
The second experiment focused not on policy compromises per se but on the makeup of the body assembled to achieve them. Respondents evaluated a piece of legislation that would grant tax cuts for small businesses and make it easier for them to get loans. They were told that of the 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans in the Senate, 46 members of each party voted on the bill. Then they were randomly assigned one of six different breakdowns for the vote.
Like the first experiment, the second showed that respondents did not favor bipartisan-supported legislation over that passed by a coalition dominated by their own party—even though they correctly identified which legislation was more bipartisan. And they considered any legislation passed by a coalition led by their own party, no matter how narrow the victory, considerably more palatable than a bill passed by any opposition-led coalition. However, unlike in the first experiment, they did consider the bipartisan legislation almost as much of a “win” as their own party-led victory.
“By examining how respondents react to coalitions as cues, we can make inferences about how rational lawmakers, anticipating a constituent response, would aim to construct a winning coalition,” the researchers write. “We often wonder how members of Congress can behave the way they do in the face of so much media—and, apparently, public—pressure,” says Malhotra. “Our research demonstrates that even though citizens dislike the institution of Congress and profess abstract desires for bipartisanship, when it comes to the details, they prefer partisan fighting. Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”
The results of the two experiments underscore the daunting challenge Congress faces in crafting legislation with broad popular support, and raise intriguing questions about whether politicians should really forgo partisan politics. No matter what they say, people do not actually favor bipartisan policies over those that align with their personal political views—even though “compromise is perceived as a virtuous quality,” the study’s authors write. In fact, when people become aware of the compromises made during the policy process—as in the first experiment—they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party. If this is true for the relatively uncontroversial issues discussed in the study, it does not bode well for the more complex and divisive issues our country faces. However, gaining a better understanding of how citizens really view political compromise can help to inform the political process going forward.