Americans Divided by Bipartisanship

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Bipartisanship may be rare because Americans only pay lip service support to the idea while actually preferring compromises that favor their partisan perspective.

That's the conclusion of research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that suggests what Americans dislike is uncivil discourse. However, that dislike translates into hardened partisan views. "In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship," according to the research.

Neil Malhotra, a professor in political economy, and his Stanford colleagues compare politics to sports. Fans may be shocked by athletes fighting or acting badly, but they still want their team to win.

Americans conflicted attitudes about bipartisanship aren't an isolated example, say the authors. There is broad support for civil liberties and free speech, but often intense intolerance for the exercise of those freedoms by groups that are unpopular or controversial. Americans want to see government shrunk, but not at the expense of programs they value or depend on.

The experiments Malhotra and his team conducted showed people recognize bipartisan solutions, but still favor outcomes that more closely mirror their views. That underlying reality may buttress resistance in Congress and state legislative bodies to resist calls for bipartisanship because it doesn't produce political attaboys.

“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," Malhotra says. "Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”

"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, they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party."

The issues used in the Stanford research were relatively benign, not like the more emotion-charged issues that Congress faces. The research findings cast doubt on hopes that a spirit of bipartisanship will emerge in the halls of Congress for the ironic reason that it may be too politically risky.