's Comparative Politics/Debate and Compromise

NOTE: This article discusses contemporary trends in political compromise.

Compromise: A Political Dirty Word?


by Ruth A. Wooden

February, 2005

Last week, Public Agenda released new public opinion research on religion and public life that concluded Americans - religious Americans especially - have become less likely to support political compromise over the past four years on issues such as abortion, gay rights and the death penalty. BR>

Headlines about the study ranged from "Survey finds church-going Americans less tolerant" to "Religion vs. Unity: Compromise seen as retreat from core values" to "Faithful standing more firm, poll says." These were all from generally respected, major news organizations and show how differently various parties can interpret the same piece of research. It also suggests a compelling interest in re-examining the role of compromise in our political system.

Public Agenda's research suggest that public attitudes are shifting. In 2000, 84% of Americans overall said "Even elected officials who are deeply religious sometimes have to make compromises and set their convictions aside to get results while in government." In 2004, that number had dropped to 74%, with even sharper drops among weekly service attenders (82% in 2000 vs. 63% in 2004) and Evangelicals (79% in 2000 vs. 63% in 2004). With a margin of error of ±3% for the total sample, these numbers are all statistically significant shifts.

While a majority of Americans overall still want their elected officials to compromise on issues of abortion, gay rights and the death penalty, their ranks are dissipating. But among the most devout Americans - those who attend serves weekly - there has been a notable majority shift downward. In 2004, 32% of this group said elected officials should be willing to compromise on the abortion question, down from 51% in 2000. There were similar majority shifts downward on gay rights (57% to 39%) and the death penalty (52% to 42%).

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan organization. We listen. We present what we hear. We actively avoid inserting our own opinions into the message. The disparity in reporting on this research, however, behooves us to further discuss of the findings.

In some ways, it is not really surprising that compromise might be less acceptable or important to many Americans. There seem to be relatively few voices today arguing for compromise or proposing middle-ground approaches on these issues. It may also reflect the fact that there are very few avenues for people to hear about and think about compromise positions. The media tend to highlight sharp pro/con debates on these issues, with very little room for middle-range or compromise approaches to be laid out and considered.

While the research shows that important groups in America are becoming less supportive of compromise on issues of religious significance, we don't necessarily know why this might be. It could be that over the past four years these groups have felt our society is threatened by the cultural developments occurring in America and therefore need to draw very deep lines in the sand. Or, just the opposite, with political trends over the past four years favoring their positions, they may feel emboldened and inclined to hold their leaders to the standards they believe are right.

Here, we looked at the views of religious Americans, and found that certain segments of the religious community seem less supportive of compromise on these highly charged public issues. It should also be noted that in our society unwillingness to compromise is not a trait held only by the more religious segments of the population. For example, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates often present their views as "non-negotiable."

This is something we should all be paying attention to regardless of our own religious perspectives because, historically, progress occurs in America when consensus builds around a set of compromises or trade-offs. That seems to be an important characteristic of how democracy works. So, the double-digit decrease in support for compromise among certain groups has major implications for the nation.

Too often, compromise is portrayed in politics as either selling out your cause or a tactic employed by politicians who don't really have any cause at all. We need to recognize the value that consensus building and compromise have played in the past, and that these processes for coming to understanding are part of our nation's core values.

It is difficult to say if the decrease in certain groups' willingness to embrace compromise on difficult issues is feeding the political system's increasing contentiousness, or vice versa. Regardless, America needs leaders who recognize this tension and seek constructive ways to create dialogue between firmly held, divergent positions - and who seek new opportunities to create solutions capable of winning broad public support.

Ruth A. Wooden is President of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research and citizen engagement organization. Public Agenda publishes an online issue guide on religion and, in addition to the new research discussed in this piece, published the 2000 landmark report For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life.