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Compromise vs. Compromises: Conceptions of Bipartisanship in the American Electorate (WP-13-01)

Laurel Harbridge, Neil Malhotra, and Brian Harrison

Public opinion surveys regularly assert that Americans want political leaders to work together and to engage in bipartisan compromise. If so, why has Congress become increasingly acrimonious even though the American public wants it to be “bipartisan”? Many scholars claim that this is simply a breakdown of representation. This working paper offers another explanation: although people profess support for “bipartisanship” in an abstract sense, what they desire procedurally out of their party representatives in Congress is to not compromise with the other side. To test this argument, the researchers conduct three experiments in which they alter aspects of the political context to see how people respond to parties (not) coming together to achieve broadly popular public policy goals. They find that citizens’ proclaimed desire for bipartisanship in actuality reflects self-serving partisan desires. Consequently, members of Congress do not have electoral incentives to reach across to aisle to build costly bipartisan coalitions.

This IPR working paper has been published as Harbridge, L., N. Malhotra, and B. Harrison. 2014. Public Preferences for Bipartisanship in the Policymaking Process. Legislative Studies Quarterly 39(3): 327–55.

Laurel Harbridge, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Neil Malhotra, Associate Professor of Political Economy, Stanford Graduate School of Business

Brian Harrison, Doctoral Student in Political Science, Northwestern University

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