Published: Oct. 2, 2020 By

CU Boulder political scientist, author of Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization, to discuss the topic on Oct. 10.

U.S. citizens are politically polarized, but people still want their political leaders to sit down, discuss major issues and hammer out compromises. 

That’s the conclusion of Jennifer Wolak, professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder, whose scholarly research on the subject is the basis of her new book, Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization. 

Wolak will speak on the subject Saturday, Oct. 10, from 1-2:30 p.m. The presentation, which will be held via virtual Zoom webinar, requires pre-registration at this link. The event is part of the CU on the Weekend lecture series, presented by the Office for Outreach and Engagement.  

There's a tendency to frame absolutely everything in the news in terms of a partisan divide now.”​

In a recent interview, Wolak said her research on polarization and compromise began when she observed that the world described in the news media “didn't seem to match with my understanding of the world as I see it in survey data, as I see it in the people I know in my day-to-day life, as the people I talked to in my classes.” 

People frequently worry about nefarious others who are “stubborn and rigid and partisan and mean-spirited,” Wolak said, noting that we know such people exist from our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Wolak suggests that partisanship has become an “overwhelming narrative by which everything is understood.” That narrative reflects some reality, she said:

“We see in Congress over time that the parties have become more ideologically distinctive. There are fewer members of Congress who live in a middle space. There are fewer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats than there used to be.”

Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization. 

Additionally, she said, proportionately more voters occupy ideological extremes than was the case in previous decades. 

All that being the case, Wolak said, there’s still a normal, bell-shaped distribution of voters from left to right: “We have the most voters in the middle or just right or just left of that middle. And there are partisans on each end, but it's not the case that we have this sort of U-shaped distribution of diehard Democrats or diehard Republicans” with few people in the middle.

In Congress, partisans tend to be more polarized and averse to compromise. So are they reflecting the will of the voters?

No, Wolak argued. “Voters like compromise,” she said. “Any survey you look at, you find anywhere between a majority to a super-majority of Americans who say they want politicians to compromise. It's incredibly rare to find one (survey) where you find below half of Americans saying they want compromise.”

If a survey question asks voters about the principle of compromise generally in politics, up to 80% or 90% of Americans favor the concept. Those kinds of approval levels tend to be reserved for the nation’s core values, such as the Constitution, free speech, equal protection and other norms of democracy. 

Wolak said it makes sense that compromise as a principle enjoys such wide support. “People like compromise because they're taught in school it's a good thing to do … to share a toy, to work out agreements and spats. And so even when we're very, very small, we're taught that when you disagree, compromise is good. And that trickles up into adulthood as well.”

People’s democratic values have the same origins as their belief in compromise, and this means that their democratic values check their partisanship. 

In her book, Wolak discusses experiments in which participants are presented with examples of hypothetical members of Congress who embrace compromise or who reject it. “People evaluate the one who promises to compromise more favorably than the one who rejects compromise,” she noted.

In other research, she presented people with examples of legislation that resulted from compromise. She did not find evidence that people like political outcomes less when they know those outcomes stemmed from compromise. 

If average citizens like compromise, why isn’t that obvious? Wolak said news media coverage is part of the reason. “There's a tendency to frame absolutely everything in the news in terms of a partisan divide now.”

Another culprit, Wolak suggests, is social media. “Who posts political stuff on Facebook and Twitter? It's not the middle. It is the people who are the most ideologically extreme.”

Knowing that the vast majority of citizens occupy the political middle and embrace compromise on most issues might, Wolak said, help us check our “overly pessimistic narrative” and pursue common ground. 

If you go

  • Location: Virtual Zoom webinar; will include recorded and live portions, and audience participation.
  • Pre-registration: Required for each lecture. After registering, you will receive a Zoom webinar link.
  • Attendance: Limited to the first 3,000 people
  • Zoom room: Opens shortly before lecture
  • Cost: Free