In 1824, Thomas Jefferson noted that “A government held together by bands of reason only, requires much compromise of opinion.” Nearly 200 years later, a majority of Americans agree, but Donald Trump is not among them. Just days before the looming deadline for Congress to avoid a government shutdown, Trump took to social media with an “all caps” message for House Republicans: “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!”
Among the litany of unrealistic demands accompanying the former president’s declaration were calls to close the U.S. southern border with Mexico and withhold funding from the Department of Justice (a thinly veiled reference to its ongoing investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election). Along with endorsing Trump’s demands, House Republicans levied their own untenable ultimatums in response to the looming shutdown, including calls to cut off funding support for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.
With assertive confidence, Trump assured his supporters that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats would shoulder the blame for a government shutdown, though polls conducted at the same time suggest otherwise. In particular, a survey conducted by The Economist (Sept. 23-26) found that 29% of Americans would blame Republicans for the potential shutdown, compared with only 13% who say that they would blame Biden. A plurality of respondents (32%) say that they would blame both parties equally.
In light of Wednesday’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate, we revisited data from a survey conducted at the University of South Florida in June to better understand the attitudes of Floridians toward political compromises, as well as their confidence in the ability of Democrats and Republicans to work together in their best interest.
The responses — from a representative sample of 600 adult Floridians — emphasized a strong desire for compromise politics, with an overwhelming majority of respondents suggesting that policy outcomes should come about through a process of compromise between the two parties.
A large plurality of respondents (43%) said that they would prefer if “most policy outcomes were a relatively equal compromise between Republicans and Democrats.” Conversely, only 1 in 5 respondents indicated a preference for the types of “all or nothing” outcomes currently being demanded by Trump and his allies in Congress. Specifically, 9% indicated that they would prefer to see Democrats achieve their policy goals without compromising with Republicans, while 13% preferred to see Republicans achieve their policy goals without reaching across the aisle to compromise.
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Even among those who leaned decisively into ideological policy preferences, most said that they desire to see their own party compromise with the other along the way.
In spite of these overwhelming public preferences, leaders in both parties increasingly frame compromise solutions as evidence of “defeat,” rather than as the necessary art of effective democracy. Perhaps this is why voters across the political spectrum increasingly lack confidence in elected leaders to do the right thing.
When asked how confident they are in the ability of Democratic and Republican leaders to work together in their best interest, a significant majority of Floridians expressed disillusionment with the current political climate. Nearly two-thirds (61%) said that they are either “not very confident” or “not at all confident” in the ability of Democrats and Republicans to do so.
Consistent with national trends, Floridians also expressed far greater confidence in their local government leaders than in their federal counterparts. When asked whom they trusted most to make decisions in their best interest, only 25% chose the “federal government in Washington, D.C.,” compared with 47% who chose their “local county/city governments.”
In the face of such hardline demands from the nation’s elected leaders, it’s unsurprising to see this level of dissatisfaction among voters who increasingly crave responsible, adult leadership from their elected officials. Perhaps it’s time for those same elected officials to “read the room.”
The bottom line is this: America doesn’t work when its political leaders demand “all or nothing.” A nation as large and diverse as ours can’t be governed by the unflinching demands of a narrow majority (or in this case, a narrow minority). And politics is more than just a game we play in hopes of “winning out” over our neighbors. Politics is the art of compromise. Our politicians would do well to remember that.
Stephen Neely is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. J. Edwin Benton is a professor of political science and public administration at USF.