Reminder: Democratic rank and file actually likes Democrats who compromise

by: Chris Bowers

Tue May 25, 2010 at 12:15

This morning, a Democratic White House and wide Democratic majorities in Congress continue to pursue compromises with Republicans on Wall Street reform, Don't Ask Don't tell, the extension of unemployment benefits, the response to the oil spill, and more.  The memory of Democratic compromise on health reform is still fresh, too.

Given all this, you might be wondering why Democrats are so eager to compromise even when they are in charge.  You might especially be wondering this given that Republicans seem to govern with a steamroller when they are in charge.

The influence of corporate money is certainly one cause.  However, another, much less discussed cause, is that the Democratic rank and file actually wants Democratic politicians to compromise, while the Republican rank and file does not want their leaders to do so.

In early 2007, right after Democrats had retaken Congress, Pew found (PDF, page 16) that self-identified Democrats preferred politicians who compromised, while self-identified Republicans preferred politicians who stood by their beliefs:

Three and a half years later, in a poll released yesterday, Pew has confirmed this finding.  Republicans do not like politicians who compromise, but Democrats do (emphasis mine):

The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, sponsored by SHRM, finds more positive than negative reactions to a candidate who is willing to make compromises. A substantial minority (42%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who will make compromises with people they disagree with; only about half as many (22%) say they would be less likely to back a candidate willing to compromise, while 29% say it will make no difference. But there is a wide partisan divide. More than twice as many Republicans (40%) as Democrats (19%) or independents (15%) say they would be less willing to favor a candidate willing to compromise.

The language in the Pew article on the poll is a bit garbled, but it means that far more self-identified Republicans dislike compromising politicians than Democrats.  Which means, conversely, that far more self-identified Democrats like compromising politicians than do self-identified Republicans

When leading Democrats, such as President Obama, incessantly talk about the need to be bi-partisan and reach consensus with Republicans, they are actually engaging in a form of base messaging.  Disturbing as this may seem to some progressives, including myself, it kind of makes sense when you think about a certain form of liberalism for a moment.  The conceptualization of a rational world, which rational humans are gradually improving through rational dialogue and good-faith research, is at the core of the late Enlightenment, liberal mindset.  It isn't hard to grasp how such an ideology--which I personally find to be quite naive--can lead to admiration of compromising politicians.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Democrats who want a less compromising Democratic Party are going to have to convince the Democratic rank and file that the party should be less compromising.    That may be difficult, however, since the belief in compromise  is endemic to an ideology that is widespread among the Democratic base.  Frustratingly enough, the Democratic base likes, and wants, compromise.

Chris Bowers :: Reminder: Democratic rank and file actually likes Democrats who compromise

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but that data, specific to Bush, is useful (4.00 / 2)
if you can paint the Republicans as bad-faith negotiator obstructionists, then you can convince the base that they should be opposed and stood up to.  I wouldn't mind compromise with the Republicans of the '50s, or even a good-faith version of the conservative values voter.  It's the scorched-Earth, take no prisoners version of the teabagger Republican that I have a problem with.  

If you make it clear that the right wing is not negotiating, and does not care about negotiating, then you can move the base on this.  At least, that's my hypothesis to explain the data above.  

Well, Duh! (4.00 / 8)
This is really old news, I'm afraid.  Way back in 1967 (using data collected in 1964), Lloyd Free and Hadly Cantril, two of real pioneers of public opinion research, published The political beliefs of Americans: A study of public opinion.

One of their most basic findings was that the American public was "almost schizoid" as I believe UNC's James Stimson put it.  One the one hand, they were philosophically conservative, favoring free markets and rugged individualism.  On the other hand, they were programmatically liberal, favoring all sorts of social spending.

There are all sorts of things one can conclude from this, particularly by looking at other data in their book and/or subsequent related data, but one of the most fundamental is this: the appeal of liberalism is that it solves problems, and part of solving problems is compromising.

There's just one hitch, though:  There's a world of difference between compromising between main street Reps and Dems and compromising between elite Reps and Dems.  For one thing, elite Reps really do want to slash the hell out of social spending, if not eliminate it completely.  But GSS data shows that less 1% of the public wants to cut social spending across the boards.

So there's this huge gap in terms of what folks are talking about in Versailles vs. America.  And a great deal of the confusion that's generated in the political realm has to do with obscuring this vast gap.  If elite Dems shared the values of their base--the values that they run on, as opposed to governing on (see Lincoln, Blanche)--then they'd first of make this gap quite visible by focusing like a laser on what they believe, and forcing the inner Rand Paul of every GOP officeholder out into the open.  Then and only then would they proceed to compromise.

And that's what Democratic voters would really love.  Because that's how things worked when Dems ran the country for most of the time from 1932 to 1968.  It's got the compromise, the flexibility, and willing to work things through along with the values that put the many before the few.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

GIGO (4.00 / 4)
It always amazes me that pollsters invariably do one of two things: 1) ask questions which have a complex subtext without acknowledging even to themselves that such a subtext exists, or 2) use the subtext to get the answers that they want.

These are the same guys who expect professors to give true/false tests in their philosophy classes so that they can determine how much progress we're making in education.


[ Parent ]
Better Yet (4.00 / 3)
Are the questions where both answers confirm the narratives they have in mind.

Such as, either the people are isolationists, or they want to invade the world.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
When, just anecdotally (4.00 / 3)
(and within what I assume to be a MORE politically engaged group of friends than normal), what really seems to be the case is that most people are just apolitical people who want to live their lives and not be driven into poverty.  

It explains these apparent contradictions in polling data pretty well, too.  Government interference bad!  Social spending good!  

[ Parent ]
And it's just that kind of polling contradiction (4.00 / 3)
that seems to be giving Obama comforts as he gears up to attack the deficit as opposed to stimulate the economy, the possible ultimate result being a political and substantive blunder of epic proportions, going after Social Security.  

[ Parent ]
Not to mention that It's silly to think (4.00 / 7)
Obama is compromising because the polls tell him it's a good idea.

By this point, no one should doubt that Obama likes the substance of these compromised bills, because they match his ideological bent as well as the wishes, more or less, of his benefactors.

In general, people shouldn't put any stock at all in polling on wishy washy terms like "compromise." Do people really want "compromise" more than they want a real jobs policy? Is that what Obama's pollsters are telling him? Puh-leeze.

[ Parent ]
Weaknesses of liberalism (4.00 / 3)
I resisted Chris's data on the Democratic base when it first came out, but I've conceded.

I've never really been a liberal, much lss a moderate, and I welcome the progressive label even though its specific meaning has not been decided on yet.

But liberalism has an array of related weaknesses which have conspired to cripple it. In this context, Democratic moderates are a kind of weak liberal, more liberal than liberals in some respects. "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take  his own side in a quarrel."

Hostility to ideology and a love of splitting the difference (and dislike of struggle) have been points of principle for Democrats since at least the fifties and probably long before. Raising compromise to the level of principle and anti-ideology to the level of ideology have a crippling effect. You have to have a principle in order to compromise it, some of the time, but if compromise is the principle compromise is automatic.

And as Chris says, it's not just the leaders but the core (as I've only recently conceded). It's a party that's disarmed. Some of this may come from social-science value-freedom, and some certainly comes from the pragmatist preference for what works over what's right if the choice has to be made.

It would seem that at least since Gingrich's 1994 "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control", the handbook on smearing Democrats, with a longish list of smear words, both leadership and rank and file would have realized that that game was over, but life doesn't work that way. (Or Rush Limbaugh, for another example). It's only got worse since 1994.

I also think that liberal's anti-judgmental hedonism and their commitment to individualism and privacy also makes them a weaker force than duty-driven conservatives. A lot of liberals seem to think of politics as one option among many, and almost all all of the other options are intrinsically more attractive.

And I'm convinced that some not especially reactionary moralistic people are driven into the conservative camp by their abhorrence of liberal anti-judgmental dogma and relativism. I know of one strong case, a HS teacher of mind who supported Jesse Jackson in 1980 but now is a Christian conservative.

The common threads are moral neutrality and relativism, the refusal to judge or be judged, the rejection of obligation, the sanctity of individual choices, and so on. The complex is specifically liberal and need not be accepted by radicals or progressives.

Here's The Thing, Though (4.00 / 1)
Moral nuetrality is quite American when translated as "keep your nose out of other people's business."  In fact, that's the one aspect of libertarianism that makes it superficially so appealing.  (And it's also quite Christian, in the sense of "Let ye who is without sin....")

The problem is when you take that general, pragmatic background orientation and elevate it to a "high principle".  That's what the Versailles Dems have done in the name of a pre-New Deal "liberalism".  And it's also what Rand Paul has done.  So, in a sense, the libertarians and the Versailles liberals share a common ideology, just expressed in a different octave, as it were.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Ethical neutrality, individualism, and free-marketism are indigenous and idomatic (0.00 / 0)
A lot of our work is uphill for that reason.  

[ Parent ]
Not Necessarily So (4.00 / 1)
"Help your neighbor" is just as strong a part of the American tradition, as are the ideas of a fair shake for all, and sticking up for the underdog.  Most countries/cultures are like that--they embrace a number of different norms that are in tension, if not outright conflict with one another.

The problem we face is not those ideas, per se, necessarily, but rather the way they are presented as totally excluding any contrasting or conflicting ideas, such as the ones I just mentioned.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Compromise is a bedrock liberal concept. (4.00 / 4)
It's a principle that liberals support because it's as old as liberalism itself. It reflects the worn belief that people will pursue their rational self-interest and negotiate accordingly. So yes, it's hardly surprising that self-ID liberals would say that.

But what else do we see in this poll? We see growing dissatisfaction for what passes for "compromise" among Dems. We see growing anti-incumbent sentiment. We see sizable--and growing-- disapproval for the way healthcare and the banksters were handled. We will see the same thing on FinReg as well. Oh, and the BP Oilpocalypse threatens the Obama Adminstration's legitimacy outright, as well it should, given how lame they are in compromising the well-being of the entire eastern seaboard right into the annals of worst disasters in human history.

Chances are the ruling elites see this pretty much the way you do. They'll take the largely hard-wired notion of  "compromise" and milk it for everything it's worth. After all, it's the biggest lie they can present the polity in terms of having an active excuse for not doing any of the Right Things. The ruling elites take ideas like "compromise," which they do not agree with at all and will never actually engage in themselves, and use them to justify maintaining a status quo that simply doesn't work for the nation... or the people of this nation.

I would ask, however, who is "compromising" with progressives? Anyone? Of course not! So perhaps all this talk about compromise is misplaced, yes?

So yes, Dems like some notion of compromise. But that doesn't mean they don't want our biggest problems fixed anyway. The problem is the ruling elites aren't interested in doing that. They simply don't give a rat's patooty what happens, as long as their bacon is safe and most profitable. Perhaps Dems are increasingly aware of this problem and want new people in office for that very reason.

Lastly, if compromise is really so important to the American polity, why is congressional approval less than 20% now? Surely, if compromise were really all that important, it would be much higher than that, since every crappy bill they produce involves boatloads of compromise... with corporate lobbies, corporate Dems and corporate Republicans and no one else.

Methinks the "compromise is more important than anything else and we're just giving them what they really want" meme is doomed to fail. Mostly because it's simply not true.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

A few points (4.00 / 3)
1. This isn't a form of "base messaging." Those numbers are for Dems as a whole. You're conflating all Dems with base Dems, who are no doubt less in favor of compromise.

2. The high number of Dems who like compromise is due, at least in part, to all the Democratic pols who've been running scared for all these years, praising Republicans ideas while blasting liberal one...This is DLCsm begetting DLCsm.

3. I see this kind public-opinion argument popping up more and more often. Matt Yglesias wrote a similar one in regards to Obama's adoption of the Bushian civil liberties agenda, saying that the public supports it, so we can't do anything until we change the public's mind.

But where do Yglesias and Bowers get this quaint idea that Democratic pols give people what they want.  The progressive position has majority support on a wide array of issues -- health care, trade, taxes, jobs, regulation, spending priorities -- yet Obama and most other Democratic pols -- following the money or elite option their own ideological bent -- almost invariably do otherwise.


When The Polls Are With Them (4.00 / 8)
They have a duty to serve the public will.

When the polls are against them, they have a duty to stand up for principle--and people must respect them for that.

No wonder they can't be prosecuted for anything!  They can't even be accused!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Chris wasn't praising Democratic pols (0.00 / 0)
He was saying that progressives are wrong to assume that rank and file Democrats support us against the compromising centrist Democrats. In other words, we have a very tough row to hoe.

Estimates I've seen of the progressive proportion of the electorate are in the 5%-10% range. The winger proportion is 28% (per Kung Fu Monkey), the low-information "independent" proportion is high (20%? 35%?) and the mushy centrist proportion is high.  

[ Parent ]
?? (4.00 / 1)
I wasn't saying he was praising Democratic pols.

I was saying...well, I was saying what I said.

As for your numbers, which refer to self-identifying labels, that's mainly an issue of branding. On substance, the progressive position on virtually all bread and butter issues is supported not just by a majority of Democrats but by a majority of the country. You must know this.

And I can say with certainty that Dems' support for, say, trade reform and progressive taxation is a lot stronger than their support for "compromise." I don't buy for a second that Dems' support for "compromise," as found in this poll, is why Democratic pols compromise.

(I recently saw a Chomsky interview in which he talked about how the things that are supported by huge majorities of Americans are almost deemed politically impossible. He said someone ought to write a book about it. My thought was, hasn't he written several?)

[ Parent ]
Somehow that doesn't show up in voting (0.00 / 0)
A lot of people seem to end up voting for people who disagree with them about most major issues. There are various possible explanations and I don't know which is best. I've been seeing those polls for 10-20-30 years and they've never paid off.

It's not that voters demand compromise, it's that compromise is fine with them and you can't attack a weak Democrat for compromising.  

[ Parent ]
As you know as well as anyone (0.00 / 0)
neither party is giving the country what it wants, because there's essentially one party, the corporate party.

One of the reasons I'm one of the few people who takes the prospect of a Lou Dobbs candidacy seriously is that unlike the Democratic and Republican candidate, he would hold the majority position on Wall Street bailouts, outsourcing, trade, and Afghanistan. (Also immigration.)

No need to be naive here -- there's not a screaming lefty inside all Americans -- but I'm confident that if you advocate positions that benefit, say, 90 percent of Americans, most (not 90 percent) will support you.  

[ Parent ]
Not self-identifying labels (0.00 / 0)
No one IDs themself as crazified. No one IDs themself as low-information. The low progressive number is the problem. Like many progressives, I've assumed for years that a lot of weak, centrist, DLC voters would really be progressives if they knew better, and that a lot of discouraged voters are really progressives at heart, and so on, but I no longer believe that.

For an example, I've spent awhile recently on mainstream Dem sites (e.g. Al Franken's Facebook page) arguing about Obama's record, and after all the disappointing things he's done, Obama still has very strong support from Democrats who dislike conflict and want compromise, and attempts to criticize Obama are not appreciated. Chris's numbers, IIRC, was that 80% of Democrats are happy with Obama and only 20% are disappointed in him.


[ Parent ]
Compromising Centrist Democrats (0.00 / 0)
I'm intrigued by this term. Do you mean Obama on health care, financial regulation, oil drilling, and other issues? Or some species of Democrat between him and progressives?

I honestly see little difference these days between progressives and traditional Democratic policies and constituencies. Maybe it's three decades of Reaganism. But the difference between DLC type Democrats (also Blue Dogs and ConservaDems) and traditional Democrats is rather stark. And the differences between these three types of Democrats and moderate Republicans are rather minor, for the most part. I would not call them centrist Democrats.

I'd argue, in terms of rhetoric, that labels matter. If moderate Republicanism is called "centrist Democrat" it only makes the job of taking back the Democratic party that much harder.

So I'm curious if you meant something from this label or if it was simply a throwaway.

[ Parent ]
It was a throwaway, in the context of this argument (0.00 / 0)
It would be any Democrat who's basically satisfied with Obama.  

[ Parent ]
... (4.00 / 1)
Can't we just dissolve the party membership and elect another?

I feel that. (0.00 / 0)
I guess we just keep building tough progressives and eventually grow a new culture and ideology.

Obama should be a good vehicle for this as a counter-example.  

I would like to see Openleft help to facilitate this kind of a movement.  Maybe you feel that you already are, but I think you could do more to identify the project and offer organizing tools like: "how to organize a progressive action caucus in your local Democratic party organization".

It might also mean formalizing the Openleft party line, or the process through which that is deliberated.  Maybe that's just not something you are into right now?

USA: 1950 to 2010

[ Parent ]
It's Also Where You Compromise From (4.00 / 3)
With the caveats about polling noted above, this result doesn't surprise me at all. Paul and others here at Open Left have noted for a long time research that shows Democrats and Republicans think differently. Democrats like complexity and working with complexity towards solutions. Republicans like to be told what to do, in essence. If your brain is wired to like hierarchy, then compromise will likely short circuit your brain.

But the real issue is where you start from when you compromise. If you pose as a Democrat and push instead Republican policies, even moderate Republican policies, then compromise is evil and not likely to be supported by rank and file Democrats. My guess is that many (most?) Democrats are happy with compromise IF it starts from Democratic principles pushing policies that benefit Democratic constituencies. I don't believe either scenario was polled, only the general notion of compromise and with the caveats people note above.

Certainly Obama rarely if ever compromises starting from the Democratic position. So far, he's started from the Republican position with policies that benefit Republican constituencies. This polling result, if true, absolutely does not give Obama or any right wing Democrat the go ahead to continue to sell out the Democratic party and its interests, as the poll suggests.

This Post Just Blew My Mind. (0.00 / 0)
Seriously, Atrios is right. Our politics is just Lucy pulling away the football at the last second over and over again.  This provides some needed empirical evidence.  

What about the result that shows that (4.00 / 1)
63% of Republicans want their leaders to "compromise with Dems" on "most important issue"?

This may be true, (0.00 / 0)
but I'm not sure we can assume causation based on this data.

You're suggesting something like this:

Dem base likes compromise --> Dem officials compromise.

Rep base hates compromise --> Rep officials don't compromise.

Another possibility is this:

Dem officials constantly talk about the importance of compromise, media and Reps demand that Dems compromise  --> Dem base says they value compromise

Rep officials constantly talk about the importance of compromise, media and Dems never demand that Reps compromise  -->Rep base says they do not value compromise

That said, I think you are right that liberals by demeanor are more inclined to compromise.  But I think that inclination matters less than the elite dynamics.  Unfortunately, the survey question cannot distinguishing between these mechanisms.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


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