Compromise vs. Compromises: What Does 'Bipartisanship' Really Mean to Americans?

12 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 26 Aug 2012

See all articles by Laurel Harbridge-Yong

Laurel Harbridge-Yong

Northwestern University

Neil A. Malhotra

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Brian Harrison

Wesleyan University

Date Written: 2012


Public opinion surveys regularly assert that Americans want political leaders to work together and to engage in bipartisan compromise. 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. We offer 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, we conduct three experiments in which we alter aspects of the political context to see how people respond to parties (not) coming together to achieve broadly popular public policy goals. Specifically, we investigate preferences for bipartisanship and attitudes toward Congress and its output by portraying bipartisanship as either an equal compromise or a capitulation by one side; by altering the partisan distribution of roll call votes on specific pieces of legislation; and by examining how partisan control of a chamber affects preferences for bipartisanship. In all cases, we 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.

Keywords: Public Opinion, Experiments, Congress, Polarization, Bipartisan, Compromise

Suggested Citation

Harbridge, Laurel and Malhotra, Neil A. and Harrison, Brian, Compromise vs. Compromises: What Does 'Bipartisanship' Really Mean to Americans? (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Laurel Harbridge (Contact Author)

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Neil A. Malhotra

Stanford Graduate School of Business ( email )

655 Knight Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5015
United States

Brian Harrison

Wesleyan University ( email )

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