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Why Compromise Is A Bad Word In Politics


Here's one thing that many people mean when they say Washington is broken. They may mean that politicians from different parties seem unable or totally unwilling to compromise, and many voters hate that. And yet many voters also hate it if politicians from their own party should compromise with the other side. That could be considered giving in. NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about social science research, and he's found some that relates to this political problem. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. So voters want compromise, they just don't want their guys to compromise. Is this correct?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think so, because if you look at the ratings that Congress enjoys among the American people today, it's in the very low double digits.

INSKEEP: Eleven, twelve percent around.

VEDANTAM: Right. And at least at a cognitive level, people believe that getting stuff done requires compromise. Now, I talked with this psychologist who studies politics at the University of Montana. His name is Luke Conway, and he told me the problem is that compromise is really, really terrible politics. Here he is.

LUKE CONWAY: The view from 30,000 feet is that simplicity sells. Few people march under a banner that says, we may be right, we may be wrong, let's compromise! You know, that's not good politics.

VEDANTAM: So basically, people want compromise, but when they see compromise, they see it as caving in.

INSKEEP: Or we want compromise in the general sense, but on a particular issue, we want our side to win. Is that what's being said here?

VEDANTAM: The uncharitable view is that we want compromise so long as it's the other side that's compromising.

INSKEEP: So why is it that voters would see compromise as bad?

VEDANTAM: You know, I've talked with different psychologists about this, and one of the dominant opinions is that we believe that consistency and the ability to hold firm is a core trait of leadership, that great leaders are people who can look out into the horizon steer towards a distant point and not get sidetracked by all manner of differences.

INSKEEP: You were talking about this just the other day, the hedgehog theory of leadership.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: You stay right on target regardless, or you at least appear to be staying right on target at all times.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. But there's also some evidence that the fact that Americans are so unable to see compromise might at least partially have something to do with American culture. Here's Luke Conway again.

CONWAY: It's partially based on our hyper-individualistic norm that says the person is more important. So I can't go from situation A to situation B and be a different person.

INSKEEP: Hyper-individualistic norm?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, he's basically saying that in the United States we tend to see human behavior as driven by individuals. So psychologists have this term, they call it the fundamental attribution error. And the fundamental attribution error says when I do something, when I look at my own behavior, I tend to see it in context. So I think of myself as being a safe driver, but if I'm driving fast today, it's because I'm running late for an appointment.

But when I look at another person driving quickly, I say this person is a reckless driver, so I see it as being dispositional. And what Conway is suggesting is that Americans may have a tendency to see human behavior as more disposition or driven by the individual as opposed to driven by the context.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning I understand that I have to make compromises in my own life, but if I see some politician flip-flop or change his views or sign onto something he doesn't totally agree with, that means the politician is craven, he's terrible.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, that we see people who change their minds on issues as fundamentally lacking core principles, which is really, really important to us.

INSKEEP: OK. Does Conway have an example where people have different attitudes about consistency depending on the situation here?

VEDANTAM: He does. He actually thinks that there's research suggesting that in non-Western countries - he actually cited the example of Japan in particular - people are more willing to see behavior as contextually driven as opposed to dispositionally driven. The point that Conway is making is not, you know, a universal blanket statement about how Japanese are different from Americans, but he's saying there are tendencies that are driven by the culture that make some people more willing to tolerate inconsistency than we Americans do.

INSKEEP: Well, now, what about inside this country? Because there have been any number of polls that have suggested that for whatever reason, in this current political situation more Democrats have been willing to say I want my politicians to compromise than Republicans.

VEDANTAM: You know, I've seen the same survey, Steve. I'm not sure I know of good psychological research that explains that, but it could be that the same patterns we're seeing between Western and non-Western countries at the global level are also playing themselves out at the domestic level, meaning that one party tends to be more willing to compromise while the other party tends to see compromise as being a really bad thing.

INSKEEP: It's a cultural difference, in other words.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.