Skip to main content

Why Political Compromise Is So Hard

When issues get moralized, making concessions becomes nearly unthinkable.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

(Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Donald Trump insists he will be able to get Washington working again thanks to his miraculous ability to make deals. Hillary Clinton similarly asserts that, as president, she will be able to "get things done." But that would mean getting political partisans to compromise, which they are often loathe to do.

So why is it that certain questions are up for negotiation, while others inspire people to take uncompromising stances? Newly published research concludes there are two answers to that question, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither of them center on how important one considers an issue, nor how personally relevant the issue feels.

Rather, unwillingness to compromise is best predicted by the extremism of one's position, and—less obviously—whether one believes the issue is related to fundamental principles of right and wrong.

"Moralized attitudes lead citizens to oppose compromises, punish compromising politicians, and forsake material gains," writes political scientist Timothy Ryan of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. "These patterns emerge on economic and non-economic issues alike, and identify a psychological phenomenon that contributes to intractable political disputes."

Looking at how issues resonate at a moral level provides a more nuanced understanding of our differences, and suggests possible new approaches to healing them.

Ryan demonstrates this dynamic in a series of studies, published in the American Journal of Political Science. In the first, 1,610 participants were asked about their attitudes toward five political issues. For each, they were asked whether they preferred a liberal or a conservative solution.

For example, the question on Social Security posed the problem—the system is projected to gradually run out of money—and asked the participants if they preferred raising taxes or cutting benefits. Preferences for one approach or the other were noted on a seven-point scale.

In addition, participants were asked how important the issue was to them personally, and to what extent the issue directly affects them. Finally, they indicated the degree to which their positions reflected their "core moral beliefs and convictions."

As expected, Ryan found "extreme attitudes predicted opposition to compromise." More strikingly, he discovered that viewing the issue in moral terms "substantially reduced support for compromise, whether attitudes are extreme or not."

A second study, featuring 1,345 participants, focused specifically on Social Security reform, which was chosen because—unlike, say, abortion rights—it isn't generally thought of as a morally charged issue. As in the first study, participants indicated whether they preferred raising taxes or cutting benefits. They were then asked to evaluate two Congressional candidates who agreed with their stance, one of whom declared that the issue was, to some degree, "negotiable."

Ryan found the people who were less willing to vote for the flexible candidate were those who either had an extreme position, or those who framed the issue in moral terms.

"Resistance (to compromise) does not arise from extreme attitudes alone," he concludes. Rather, personal moral codes have "the potential to baffle the cost/benefit calculus, and render concession unthinkable."

The results suggest that if we're ever going to get back to a compromising mode, we're going to have to learn more about how moral convictions arise, and whether and how they can be modified. Researcher Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have laid out a detailed theory that suggests political liberals gravitate toward certain moral foundations (including caring for others), while conservatives resonate more strongly with different ones (such as respect for authority).

Another researcher, the University of Chicago's Daniel Bartels, argues that whether people process information in a moral context depends in part on whether they are focused on rules or consequences. "This finding might have particular relevance to politics," Ryan writes, "since, for most issues, political rhetoric can emphasize either consideration."

One can easily see how that framing could influence attitudes on, say, illegal immigration. Conservatives who see it as a moral issue (it conflicts with their sense of in-group loyalty and the sanctity of the rule of law) could conceivably soften their opposition if they were encouraged to consider the actual effects of deportation (families torn apart, etc.).

So looking at how issues resonate at a moral level provides a more nuanced understanding of our differences, and suggests possible new approaches to healing them. Given the current gridlock, creative approaches are certainly needed, and this is a promising one.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.