2021 will feature closely divided Congress and a new president. Will Congress compromise to get anything done? 

Frances Lee finds that majority parties in Congress still achieve about half their agenda—no more or less than usual. When they fail, it’s just as likely due to intra-party conflict than to the opposition party. And when they succeed, it’s almost always from backing down on the most controversial elements or pursuing uncontroversial compromises. Jennifer Wolak finds that voters still like compromise and reward politicians who compromise, both in principle and in practice.

By clarifying our differences, the campaign actually alerts voters that we don’t all agree and need to compromise. A lot of policymaking voters like is still happening, but it gets less media attention because it’s not a partisan war.

Guests: Frances Lee, Princeton University; Jennifer Wolak, University of Colorado 

Studies: The Limits of Party” and “Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization


Matt Grossmann: Compromise it still works in Congress and with voters this week on the science of politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. We’re headed for a closely divided House and Senate next year with the new president. And some veer we won’t get anything done, but Congress still passes most legislation with wide bipartisan support, and majority parties still get their way mostly through compromise. And as it turns out, that’s just how voters like it. This week I talked to Francis Lee of Princeton University about her new Chicago book with James Curry, The Limits of Party. She finds that majority parties in Congress still achieve about half their agenda, no more or less than usual. When they fail it’s just as likely due to inter party conflict than the opposition party. And when they succeed, it’s almost always from backing down on the most controversial elements or pursuing uncontroversial items.

I also talked to Jennifer Wolak of the University of Colorado about her new Oxford book Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization. She finds that voters still like compromise and reward politicians who compromise both in principle and even in practice. And clarifying our differences actually underscores the need for compromise as it alerts us that we don’t all agree. They both say our expectations for world changing ideological shifts are just too high. There’s still a lot of policy-making happening that just gets less attention because it’s not a partisan war. Lee expected to see that polarization brought big change to Congress, but saw a lot of stability.

Frances Lee: Our book, The Limits of Party, looks at the question of whether majority parties in the contemporary Congress are better able to enact their policy goals than parties of lift party polarized eras. When Jim and I launched this project, we expected to find significant change that polarization had had significant consequences for lawmaking. The parties we know today are more ideologically coherent, they’re better sorted. They are more unified in roll call voting, the parties have empowered their leadership to take the lead in negotiating legislative packages. The whole operation of Congress is more centralized than it used to be.

We thought that this should make parties more efficacious in lawmaking, better able to accomplish their legislative goals. But in fact, we don’t find significant evidence of that at all. We find that lawmaking has become no more partisan than it had been in the past. That the partisan divisions on final passage roll call votes exhibit no change in the overall levels of partisan support or opposition, that the bills that become law today almost always earn broad bipartisan support. And this is as true today as it was in the 1970s.

We also found that majority parties have not become more efficacious in enacting their agenda priorities. Majority party succeeded on about half of their agenda items on average per Congress and failed on the other half. And those rates of success and failure haven’t changed substantially over time. We find that the causes of majority party failure have also not changed that even though the parties are much more ideologically coherent, internal party division still remains a persistent obstacle to majority party success.

In fact, over the years in our study, which date back to the 1980s, we find that internal party divisions account for about half of the majority party failures. And there’s been no significant change in the frequency of that, that caused a failure over time. To put it simply the book suggests that effects of polarization have been much greater on congressional processes and internal congressional operations than they have been on lawmaking outcomes.

Matt Grossmann: And Wolak started with the lack of productivity in Congress, but found it’s not voters expectations that are responsible.

Jennifer Wolak: The story starts with trying to figure out what’s going on in Congress. Right now the 116th Congress is poised to be the least productive Congress in history, or at least recent history, at least in terms of the number of bills that are going to be passed. The other three lowest productivity congresses fall within the last decade, we’ve got government shutdowns that have seem increasingly frequent and longer than they used to be. And the public looks at that and they’re dissatisfied. Congressional approval is currently below 20%. So maybe one out of five people approves of the job that Congress is doing right now. In our attemptation at first to say that this is a problem of Congress, of elected officials, of the political parties, but it’s possible that it’s really a problem about voters themselves. We know that as the rise of party polarization has been happening in Congress, it’s being echoed in the electorate as well.

We’ve got still a predominantly moderate set of voters in the electorate, but they’re definitely more ideological than they used to be. There’s the partisan sorting where Democrats are more consistently liberal, and Republicans are more consistently conservative. And there’s also the rise of affective polarization, where partisans are more likely to just feel negative feelings toward the other side, and apply negative stereotypes to people who don’t share their party identification. And these trends may well be contributing to the gridlock we’re seeing in Congress these days.

If voters in the electorate look to their members of Congress and demand that they fight for the party, stand up for the principles of their ideological positions, defend the party line against possible violations to it. Then that changes how we think about gridlock in government. It suggests that voters themselves may well be responsible for the things they don’t want to be seeing right now in Congress. If voters want their politicians to just fight for their convictions, then there’s not really incentives for legislators to consider compromises, to try to find ways past gridlock, to work together with the opposing side.

And in my book I challenged that idea, and I say, “I don’t think this is really a problem that we should rest at the feet of the electorate.” When you look at the data about what American voters really want from Congress, they’re really pretty big fans of compromises in politics. They like elected leaders who vow to make compromises. When you ask them how policy disagreements should be settled, they think compromise is a terrific way to solve it. And there’s just really a lot of enthusiasm for compromise as a procedure for solving political differences.

And this sort of changes our thinking about gridlock in Washington and the demands of voters, because it suggests that first, there is just this clear mandate from voters in the electorate that compromises a desirable thing and that they want politicians who are willing to do it, but it also means that voters care about more than just policy. We often focus on just the ideological demands of the electorate. What issues do they care most about and what kinds of positions do they want to see? But the book highlights that people have more that they care about than just winning, just achieving partisan goals. They also want a government that works. They want Congress to do things, they want bills to pass, and they’re willing to support compromises as a way to make that happen.

Matt Grossmann: Lee says the story of an under productive Congress is oversold. Bills and words are not great indicators of productivity, but we need benchmarks so as not to be misled.

Frances Lee: I certainly don’t view the data showing that Congress passes as much legislation by word count if you will, as sort of settling the question of congressional productivity. It’s not a great measure to count the number of bills that Congress passes. That’s also problematic. So I treat it as opening the question about assessing congressional productivity rather than settling it, that we have contradictory indicators that there isn’t an objective measure that establishes the narrative that Congress today is doing less than Congress in the past. We have to benchmark it against something else, whether that be societal needs as you say, you knew that your country is larger, our economy’s more complex, the world is more interconnected and perhaps Congress needs to be doing more.

But I would say that we need to gauge Congresses effectiveness using more complex indicators that we can’t just rely on these simplistic measures like, “Well, let’s count the bills, or let’s count the number of pages.” That doesn’t settle the question. And there is not clear data that says that Congress today underperforms the Congress of the past. And so I want to resist that narrative, which I think is become very ingrained, and I think is to a great extent a product of news coverage that misleads us about what Congress does a real lack of focus on policy. I mean, there been a lot of legislating in just recent years here in the 116th Congress that I think even if you were to ask even people who follow Congress closely, they couldn’t offer any kind of a summary of what happened in 2019 and 2020. Though quite a bit legislatively occurred, because the news coverage is so inadequate in that regard.

I’m not claiming that we set up the interstate highway system or established Medicare in 2019 and 2020, but there is a lot that happened that Congress increased the age for tobacco purchases to 21. It for the first time provided funding for research on gun violence, that it repealed to Obamacare taxes, including the Cadillac tax that labor unions disliked. It stabilized pension plans for minors about to lose their benefits, increased taxes on inherited IRAs, overhaul federal criminal justice policy with the first step act, restructured trade policy with Canada and Mexico, significant change in veterans care, allowing veterans to seek more care in the private sector, major update of copyright laws to the age of digital streaming, big new protection of millions of acres of wilderness, permanently extended the September 11th victim compensation fund, descheduled some cannabis products from the controlled substances act, and mandated paid maternity leave for more than 2 million federal civilian workers.

That’s a lot, and that just happened in the past two years and it’s sort of striking that there’s just a little appreciation or understanding of that. And of course, all of that happened on a bipartisan basis given division of power.

Matt Grossmann: Lee and Curry started by looking at entrepreneurship and kept finding little change.

Frances Lee: Got started with a project that Jim and I undertook on legislative entrepreneurship that we wanted to know how legislative entrepreneurs accomplish their goals in the polarized Congress and whether that was different than in the less polarized Congress. And so we didn’t envision writing a book. We were just aiming to write a book chapter. And the first findings were really quite surprising to us when we began to look at the partisan breakdown on final passage votes. And those of us who studied Congress have been long familiar with the overtime data on polarization or on rising party cohesion. And it was so striking to track the data on final passage votes and to see effectively no change.

And so that’s how we got started. And then our next question was, well, maybe aggregate legislation hasn’t changed in terms of the extent of partisanship on lawmaking outcomes, but perhaps there has been more change in party’s ability to accomplish their legislative agendas. And so then we undertook, this was the big data collection effort in the book, undertook an effort to track the legislative agendas of congressional majority parties going back through the Reagan years.

So looking at the bills inserted into the leadership reserved bill numbers, as well as the policy issues flagged in the opening Congress speeches given by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, and then doing the legislative histories of all of those 250 initiatives. And then here we came up again with negative findings, in that your parties today are not more efficacious at achieving their legislative goals.

Matt Grossmann: The media ignores congressional successes, so we think they don’t happen.

Frances Lee: News coverage is indexed to conflict among elites. And so conflict leads, news tracks controversy in Congress, and it tends to take little interest in legislation that gets worked out without a lot of public conflict.

So news coverage doesn’t track policy as well as it tracks politics. I’ll offer one, in my view, pretty striking example, the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act of 2016, this is a significant legislation that imposed meaningful regulation to protect consumers from toxic chemicals. This was passed in divided government at the end of Obama’s term.

It set up a new division within the EPA with its own dedicated funding stream, as Lawrence Rothenberg details in a recent book, the law constituted the largest expansion of EPA authority in four decades, but it got virtually no coverage. Doing some searches of newspaper coverage, I found that it was only discussed in nine New York Times stories in 2016, and none of them on the front pages, it didn’t get any coverage on broadcast news.

So this was a significant breakthrough in environmental policy, which is obviously one of the most ideologically divisive issue areas, but it was treated as unimportant because it happened without a lot of public conflict. There was a lot of private conflict, it took about 10 years to get this legislation negotiated, but environmentalist and business interests were on board in the end. And so it’s treated as unimportant because Congress succeeded in resolving conflicts sufficiently to pass this legislation,

Matt Grossmann: Wolak agrees that voters don’t see the compromises, only the controversies, but says they don’t reward success either.

Jennifer Wolak: We went to voters and ask them to name something Congress has done in the past four years, they would struggle to do so, because when I was developing experimental vignettes for the book I drew from the compromises that were being done by Congress. And even in a time of party polarization, Democrats and Republicans are finding ways to find shared ground and find compromises, but we don’t see them.

They’re only there for the wonks who want to go read detailed reports of what’s going on in Congress. And what the average consumer is seeing are the controversies, the fights, the shutdowns, the name calling, and they don’t see the rest. And I think that it’s part of the problem for sure, the way the media covers things.

I will say though, that one of the interesting things I find in my research is that if you tell people about the bills that Congress is taking on, and in one particular experiment, I vary whether the bill passes, or whether it fails, and whether it was a compromise, or whether it wasn’t described as a compromise. And I find that people are unhappy when bills failed to pass because lawmakers weren’t willing to compromise, but they don’t necessarily reward members of Congress for the compromises they take part in.

And I think what is going on there in part is that we expect lawmakers to compromise as part of their job. And so when they do that, we don’t necessarily reward them for it; we just see it as something that they were supposed to be doing, and there’s not necessarily intrinsic rewards to it. So I think that better news coverage, more publicity around what Congress accomplishes probably will be helpful, but it might not be a complete solution.

Matt Grossmann: When compromise does pass, [Lee 00:18:09] says party leaders aren’t too happy, and don’t promote it.

Frances Lee: In a chapter of the book, [Jen 00:18:13] and I look at what do lawmakers say about legislation that successfully passes the Congress, and we wanted to see whether the majority party today seems to indicate that it’s more happy with legislative outcomes than the majority party in the past. Is there more credit claimings by majority party members today, relative to the past? Is there any evidence from the rhetoric around legislation that the minority party today is less happy than the minority party of the past?

So that’s what we were attempting to track. And we find not much change in that regard. And that’s the general message that members of Congress share when asked to comment on legislation that has passed, tends to be negative, that they tend to be unhappy with what they were able to do.

The majority party is more likely to be happy than the minority party. That’s always been the case, but even the majority party often disappointed with what they’re able to get out of the legislative process. That in that sense, the process checks the majority party, and they chafe against it. They are frustrated by what they’re able to deliver, and their rhetoric reflects that. But we didn’t find that that had changed relative to the past, that that’s a constant about how lawmaking in Congress works.

Matt Grossmann: Wallach says legislators underestimate support for compromise from their constituents.

Jennifer Wolak: I think that there’s sort of a disconnect between how lawmakers see their districts, and what they perceive the demands of their districts to be. Like, there’s just this kind of fundamental mismatch between how they’re pitching themselves and their accomplishments, versus what voters seem to want.

I think members of Congress are underestimating the degree to which their constituents are willing to accept compromises, and are enthusiastic about the possibilities of compromise in Congress. And it might also just be the pressures that come from outside the district, that they’re responding to audiences other than constituents when they think about that kind of messaging.

They’re worried about corralling donors, and worry that compromises might deter campaign donors from contributing to the campaign. They’re worried about journalists who might be highlighting the weaknesses in the compromises they took part in, or imagined challengers who might use that in an attack ad in the next campaign.

And I think that this mismatch between what voters want and what legislators want is sort of a difficult one to solve. There’s a newish book out by Anderson Butler and [Harbard 00:20:57] Young, where they look at the preferences of state legislators, and their willingness to compromise.

And they find that lawmakers are really keen to compromise, and they worry about the retribution of voters. That’s kind of their main argument, is that the fear of primary voters is what deters compromise in a lot of sense. But members of Congress and legislators want compromise, voters want compromise, there’s something else going on to this story that’s getting in the way of compromise that’s not explained by this sort of dyadic tie very well.

Matt Grossmann: She says compromise is about a process, not just an outcome, and people care about it.

Jennifer Wolak: Compromise isn’t the same thing as moderation. Compromises saying, “You guys want something, we want something, let’s both make some sacrifices so we can get something that both sides want.” Mutual concessions to achieve some sort of mutual gains.

And in that it’s really just about policy anymore. It’s about process. It’s about saying, “Okay, let’s define some rules of the game, define agreement in a place where we don’t agree. So we’re going to choose this process of trying to find a compromise as a way to settle our differences.”

And I think it’s really a practical solution in a world of ideologically divided parties, and an ideologically divided electorate, and partisan animosities, because it doesn’t ask people to set aside their strong priors, or give up the things that they necessarily value. It’s not about finding consensus, or settling for something that’s really in the middle. It’s about saying, “Okay, let’s use a process that respects that both sides care deeply about things, and try to come up with things that we can find that both sides are willing to give up, that we can both then change something we wouldn’t get otherwise.

Matt Grossmann: Voters like compromise in principle, and even in practice.

Jennifer Wolak: Public opinion surveys, which I do a lot for fun, but also just because we’ve asked so many different question wordings about how people want disagreements to be settled, and what they value in politicians, and what issue domains they’re willing to see compromises on. We have tons and tons of available surveys on this.

And it’s really striking. Once you start looking at that survey data, how much we find consistent evidence that majorities of Americans support compromise options across all sorts of different domains. The support for compromise is really the strongest in when you think about just the general principle of it, “Do you think compromise is a good thing? Do you think it’s something desirable as a way to solve our differences?”

We find easily 75% or 85% of the American public saying, “Yes, I believe in this as a principle, I think it’s a desirable thing.”

And it drops off a little bit when you bring it into specific scenarios, but not as much as you might think. Like if you ask people about what kinds of traits do they value in members of Congress, or in presidents, or elected officials generally, one of the most popular overall is a willingness to compromise.

One, a survey by the Pew Research Center puts it at about 75% of Americans say that they like elected officials who are willing to make compromises. And that’s actually even greater than the number of people who say that they want someone who votes ideologically similar ways to them. So that number is closer to 60 to 65% of Americans say that they want a member who shares their ideology.

And even on the policy issues, if you give people very specific issues to think about, immigration, minimum wage, jobs, healthcare, across those issues we’re finding majority levels of support for compromise is the best way to move forward on policymaking in those domains. At the high end, on things like jobs, and unemployment, and minimum wage, we see 70 to 70% of Americans saying that the compromise is something they want to see in that domain.

Issues like immigration are a little bit lower, but still are majority to 65% support in those domains. And even just asking people to say, “Okay, what’s the most important issue you see as facing the country today?” In that kind of question wording, we see two thirds of Americans saying that even on that domain, that they care most about, they want to see their own party compromise on that issue.

Matt Grossmann: Compromise support is due to civic education, not to non-partisanship

Jennifer Wolak: A lot of people assume that the ones who hate compromise are the ones who have the strongest priors; the partisan activists, the people who are passionate about politics, and they’re the ones who have the most to lose by seeking out compromise, or so the wisdom goes. But my argument is that people don’t think about-

Well, my argument is that people don’t think about compromise in terms of its policy implications so much as a process, as a procedure, as a way of solving political differences. In that, the support for compromise is then rooted in something other than contemporary policy debates. The reasons why people support compromise are tied to their political socialization, deep rooted differences in how people come to think about the way political differences should be solved. So from a young age, we learned about the value of compromise. Young children are taught that when they’re squabbling over a toy or fighting over something, that they should try to find a compromise to work out their differences. As you get older, you have to work out compromises as well, whether that’s in the student government or a student association, or disagreements with your friends and those compromises don’t really end in adulthood either.

Jennifer Wolak: We have compromises we make with our partners, compromises we make with our coworkers. It’s this sort of principle of politics as well, right? Not only is it a principle of our social lives to say, “Okay, I’m going to respect the needs and interests of the other person in my life that I’m dealing with right now,” but it’s also something that we see as being part of politics that we learn in school about the compromises that went into developing the constitution and getting it ratified, the compromises that go into governing. It’s seen as something virtuous in politics, something desirable, a principled way of solving our differences. So in that, its origins had a lot more to do with the things that predict political socialization. People who have more education have more exposure to the socializing messages about the virtues of compromise and people who are more trusting of the political system and have more diffused support for government, those people also are more likely to support principal thinking about compromise.

Matt Grossmann: The good news is we still get compromise. [Leigh 00:28:20] [inaudible 00:28:20] congressional agendas, finding some differences with the public agenda, but little change over time in success.

Frances Lee: The key data that Jim [inaudible 00:28:28] and I collected for the book were these lists of party agenda items for each Congress, going back to the 1980s. It’s a list of about a dozen agenda items, each Congress on average with no significant trend over time, the agendas are not getting longer or shorter. There’s also no difference in the length of the agendas put forward by Republicans and Democrats. How does it [inaudible 00:28:56] the campaign agendas? Well, they’re shorter, they’re more curated than the campaign agendas if you’re looking at third party platforms or if you were to look, say, to The Pledge to America, that Republicans put out in advance of the 2016 elections. Those are a long laundry list of priorities. So these party agendas, laid out in the leadership reserve bill numbers and in the leadership’s opening speeches, it’s a shorter list. I can just read you the items that were on the list in the 115th Congress. So this was Trump’s first two years with unified Republican control.

The agenda items for Republicans were to repeal and replace Obamacare, tax cuts and tax reform, to cut domestic spending across the board, to reauthorize to FAA, to reform agency rulemaking, to address the opioid crisis, to end taxpayer funding of abortion, to pass a water resources development bill, to roll back Dodd-Frank, to pass a farm bill, and to roll back Obama administration rules. This was the effort [inaudible 00:30:14] the Congressional Review Act to overturn some rules that had been adopted at the end of the Obama administration. So that [inaudible 00:30:20] the list. What I would say is different from the campaign list is that these lists typically will include a few reauthorizations that are due for reconsideration. So they wanted to pass a farm bill. Now, within that, they had some conservative goals like to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients, but the farm bill was due for reauthorization. So it goes on the list.

The FAA was due for reauthorization, so that goes on the list and they had a goal within the FAA reauthorization to privatize air traffic control. They wound up having to drop that, but that’s an example. So there’ll be a conservative twist on these reauthorizations when it’s a Republican majority Congress, and there’ll be more liberal twist on reauthorizations if there’s a Democratic majority, but you’ll get those added on. So I say that’s how the congressional agenda differs from the party agenda more generally is that you’ll see some prioritization of matters that are due for reauthorization, but that gives you a good sense of the character of these [inaudible 00:31:32] track the public [inaudible 00:31:36] campaign positions and the platforms, but it’s more curated, it’s shorter, and you’ll see repetition until an issue gets resolved.

Matt Grossmann: Congress still gets something done by compromising between and within the parties.

Frances Lee: It’s a simple generalization in the legislative process is that nobody gets everything they want. It’s very rare. It’s very rare that parties get a clear cut win without having to back down or water down their wishlist. So that process is a consequence of the decentralization of power in American politics, the fragmentation of power, particularly under conditions with divided control, which is the normal state of affairs in the polarized era, three [inaudible 00:32:26] at the time since 1980. Differences between the House and the Senate get in the way, enforce watering down, add in, of course, then the filibuster in the Senate, which trims the wings of any majority party. Then there’s internal diversity within the parties.

It’s often not apparent in roll call voting, but is instead hashed out behind the scenes in caucus settings, whether that be at the committee level, where members of the majority party on the committee work behind the scenes, which is normal for major legislation, or there’s controversy within the caucus meetings that doesn’t play out in public on the floor. They keep their internal divides within the family, as they put it, to the best of their ability. But it does get in the way of parties being able to move forward on controversial issues.

Matt Grossmann: Before they have power, it looks like parties are united, then they have to legislate.

Frances Lee: Legislating is much harder than messaging. It’s much easier to get everybody in a party on the same page in terms of the messages it would like to send. We would like to repeal Obamacare [inaudible 00:33:42] Republican refrain, after 2010, they demonstrated that desire to repeal Obamacare with dozens of roll call votes in Congress, where the parties maintained lockstep unity. But that didn’t mean that they had worked out the difficult legislative questions of what to do about people with pre-existing conditions who they say they want to protect and agree need protection or what to do about the… I mean, this was the most difficult issue in the Senate, what to do about the fact that so many states had expanded Medicaid and many of those were states that elected Republican senators and those states didn’t want to lose that funding stream. Then those questions come to the floor if you’re actually going to legislate.

You can be in favor of something as an ideological matter or an abstract principle, but the devil is often in the details. It’s hard to work out the real world effects, the pay force. As you make policy adjustments, it pinches on interests that you care about and they squawk and so the politics of genuine legislation, very different than the politics around messaging. It wasn’t challenging for Republicans to pass a reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare in 2015, when Obama was sure to veto it. They did a dry run of the repeal that they attempted to do in 2017. It was not difficult, but there was no big interest group mobilization against the 2015 efforts. The AARP didn’t take out a multimillion dollar ad campaign to stop it. You didn’t have Jimmy Kimmel doing tearful monologues about taking away people’s health insurance in 2015, you didn’t have town halls for Republicans jammed with protestors. All of that happened in 2017 when it was entirely possible that Republicans could have repealed Obamacare. So the politics are just very different when it’s real legislation as opposed to messaging.

Matt Grossmann: If Democrats had gotten full control, they would have faced problems within their party.

Frances Lee: If Democrats had unified control, those internal divisions within the party would be on more public display and virtually everything that’s on the progressive Democrats wishlist would create controversy within the party. So climate change divides the Democratic party on regional lines. It was impossible for Democrats to get major climate change legislation done in Obama’s first Congress, despite the fact that Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, at least briefly, during that Congress, and a much larger house majority than they will have after the 2020 elections. They couldn’t have even passed the climate bill that they did pass out of the House without the Republican votes that they received. There were too many Democratic defections that they needed.

They didn’t get very many Republican votes, but those votes were critical to passing the bill in the House and they never came close to passing a climate bill in the Senate. So even if Democrats had unified control after 2020, I think the track record of the party on that issue doesn’t suggest much by way of optimism that the Democratic party could have gotten on the same page on climate. Police reform would also be very difficult for the Democratic party if they have unified control and an opportunity to do something that would address the demands and expectations of the more progressive elements within the party, that it would still be a very hard slog to do anything in that area.

Matt Grossmann: So what’s on tap for 2021? [inaudible 00:37:46] says political competition and elections may help voters see disagreement and increase compromised support.

Jennifer Wolak: There’s been an argument floating out there that competition itself is a force of polarization because it drives people to dig in their heels and fight for their party side. I’m not really finding evidence of that in my work about competition as being a threat to people’s willingness to compromise. My argument is that for a lot of people who are not necessarily as politically engaged as the audience of your podcast, or the people who compulsively read Twitter all the time, those folks don’t necessarily always have a very accurate sense of people’s preferences. The task the average voters are asked to do when they think about compromises in politics is different than the compromises we might do in a face-to-face environment. The compromises we make with a partner or with a coworker are different because we know that person, we’re interacting with them face to face. Endorsing compromise as a solution for political problems is different because we’re doing that with an abstract other, what do other Americans want? We don’t always think about that in a very careful way.

If I were to ask people to say, what do you think most Americans think about euthanasia or climate change? I think you’d be hard pressed to know exactly what number, what percentage of Americans fall on each side of the issue. You could guess the Democrats will be on one side and Republicans will be on the other, but where exactly is that dividing line for public preferences? Some people will know. The people who are politically attentive, the people who are tuned in, the people who are news junkies have a really good sense of some of that stuff. But the average American isn’t that tuned in. And when asked to say, what do you think other people think? They use a common heuristic of just assuming other people think the same thing they do. It’s called a false consensus bias.

And we tend to overestimate the degree to which other people share our views. And we just assume that absent knowledge otherwise, that people disagree with us. And if that’s your view of the world, if you assume that everyone wants the same things you do, believes in the same things you care about, then compromise isn’t particularly important. We don’t need to compromise. Let’s just do the thing that everyone wants. And this is compounded by our social lives as well. We often live in bubbles where we have regular political conversations, only with people who agree with us. And that can leave us to underestimate how much disagreement and dividedness we have in the American public about a lot of issues that people care about. And so what campaigns can do, competitive campaigns that make politics salient to people who otherwise don’t pay attention to politics except for during campaign seasons, is to remind voters about the divisions that exist in the electorate.

That not everyone shares their views. That not everyone wants the same things they do. And so I show that for people who are living in battleground states, they’re more likely to support politicians who are willing to compromise, than people who live in those non-competitive states, who don’t get the same exposure to competing viewpoints. And moreover, those effects are greatest among the people who are least tuned into politics. The politically engaged, the politically knowledgeable that information environment of a competitive campaign doesn’t do much to move their preferences.

But for those who are not really paying attention and just probably assuming that people agree with them, a campaign is a good reminder that there are divisions, there’s reasons why we need to pursue compromise. And I confirm the same in experiments too. If you give people information about the preferences of other Americans, that too has the same ability to shift people’s preferences about the need for compromise as a solution in policy domains.

Matt Grossmann: Lee sees some deals coming on stimulus and health soon.

Frances Lee: There is an economic crisis, so there will be a great need. There’s an economic crisis and a public health crisis. And so that puts pressure on Congress to act. I’m struck by the fact that the ‘Skinny’ bill that McConnell favors is an extension of economic relief around the pandemic, is $500 billion. Which is a behemoth. That’s vast legislation and that’s the “Skinny’ bill. So, whatever deal they strike will be above that. The CARES Act was jaw droppingly fast in the early days of the pandemic.

And of course, it’s hard to think of a more toxic political environment than prevailed at that juncture. The lead up to a presidential election, divided control of Congress, coming on the heels of a presidential impeachment. And yet, they managed to do it. Crisis does spur action on the part of Congress. Even at times when you think it’s impossible for Congress to come together, it does. Beyond that, of course there will be routine re-authorizations that committees will want to move forward on. They will not succeed on all of them. But with creative leadership and good negotiation, some of them will happen. They’ll happen on a bipartisan basis and will probably get very little news coverage.

Matt Grossmann: Wallach says Americans are ready for a new era of compromise under Biden.

Jennifer Wolak: The polling data suggests that Americans are much more optimistic about the possibilities of compromise than what your Twitter feed or what your news coverage is telling you right now. There’s a poll released by YouGov this week that gave people the direct situation. At the moment, it looks like we’re going to have a Senate of one party and a president of another party. So what do you want to happen? Do you want to see them work out compromises and get stuff done? Or do you want them to stick to their principles, even if less gets accomplished? And 80% of Americans chose the compromise option. Four out of five Americans agree that compromise is the best path forward. What do four out of five Americans agree on? Not a lot. But they’re agreeing on compromise in the setting. And it’s high support across the board in terms of partisanship.

The numbers for Democrats are exceptionally high. It’s 95% of Democrats they surveyed chose the compromise option. Independents, it was like 78%. But even among Republicans, that number is 66%. There’s a pretty strong public mandate, I think there in that survey, to say that even in the wake of a divided election, and the pessimistic news coverage we see, and some of those loud voices on Twitter that are stubbornly saying that spoils should go to the winner, and that those on the losing side should stick it to the winning side and that kind of stuff. That’s not really what average Americans want. Those voices are not representative of what the mass public wants.

The mass public says, “Okay. We’ve got a divided electorate. We just had an election that drew out massive amounts of turnout. People that have strong passions on both sides. And the nation is divided. And in that division, we should still try to just get some stuff done, rather than try to smite each other.” I think that we overestimate the degree to which people are really all that competitive about policy. It’s one thing to be competitive of an election and say, “Okay. We’re going to fight. We’re going to try to get our party elected. We’re going to try to win this.” But that competitiveness doesn’t seem to necessarily carry over into policymaking. When it comes to saying, “Okay. Now government needs to do things.” People want them to do things. They don’t necessarily want their party to be stubborn, to just stand up for their side. They want to see some stuff get done. And we’ll see whether that happens.

Matt Grossmann: And voters shouldn’t expect big ideological change. They should expect incrementalism.

Jennifer Wolak: If we have a deeply divided electorate and a closely divided electorate, that might just be the way things work. I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect to see sweeping ideological changes in a climate that’s this closely divided, where there’s so little shared ground between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And so voters who expect that their side should be able to make exceptional gains for the party in this kind of climate, are sort of maybe misreading the situation. I think that compromises in practice are often kind of boring. They’re over the small details. They’re about balancing particular provisions or saying, “Okay. Let’s reauthorize this bill, but what kind of edits will we do over what we passed last time?” It’s an incremental political system by design. It’s not a parliamentary system where a party win means that the party comes in and passes sweeping policy changes.

We have so many checks and balances. We have divided control of government. We have separation of powers. And that always stacks the deck in favor of incremental change. And so to expect sweeping change in a system that doesn’t really permit that is maybe just a bit of a miss for people’s expectations. I think that in that kind of environment, something should happen. We should try to get what we can get done. And I think that’s what the American people want to see. And so I think that even if it’s not delivering grand changes, progress in the direction of goals that Americans care about is worth having.

Matt Grossmann: Lee says the problem might be news on Congress, and she’s working on documenting it.

Frances Lee: Well, beginning work on a project of media coverage of Congress. As you’ve probably gathered from my comments today, I think that media coverage misleads us about the strengths and weaknesses of the legislative branch. I think coverage of Congress fails to get across what Congress does. That the fact that legislation today is just as bipartisan in aggregate, as it had been in the much less polarized eras. It’s something you would never know from following news coverage at the institution.

There’s a serious gap there between the reality of what Congress does, which is that it’s hard for Congress to act until it has resolved conflict. That conflict slows Congress down. It’s a body that functions best when it’s able to work out disagreement and pass legislation by large majorities, which is what happens. Now, there’s a great deal that Congress doesn’t get done. But what gets done, passes in that way by and large. And Congress does more than you would know from following news coverage because of the focus on conflict and politics above policy. And so I want to do a project on how news coverage gives us an inaccurate picture of national policymaking in Congress.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Francis Lee and Jennifer Wallach for joining me. Please check out The Limits of Party and Compromise and An Age of Party Polarization. And then listen in next time.

Photo Credit: Julio Obscuro under CC by 2.0