The Problem Isn’t Compromise, It’s Agreeing on the Problem

When asked about our persistent partisanship, many political commentators blame politicians for lacking the 'will'' or the 'stomach' for compromise. Getting into fights is more appealing to many of them than working to broker solutions. While there's some truth to that analysis, it goes deeper than that. Our political system can't solve our collective problems because we don't have collective problems; instead, we have Democratic ones and Republican ones. And, these aren’t just minor differences of opinion. When it comes to ranking the most pressing problems in America, Democrats and Republicans are not just in different places, they are on different planets. 

Last month, a Pew poll asked respondents to select the issues that they see as "a very big problem in the country today." Coming in at first place with 56 percent was "affordability of health care." On its face, an issue that 56 percent of Americans deem important would qualify as a collective concern. But, it's not. A significant percentage of Democrats (69 percent), put this on top of their list, but just 40 percent of Republicans feel the same way. Then look at immigration and border security. There you see that almost half the country (48 percent) see this as a big problem. But, again, that is driven mostly by the 72 percent of Republicans who pick this as a top priority. Only 29 percent of Democrats feel similarly. 

For almost every one of these top issues — from the budget deficit to guns — the gap between how important Democrats see it and how Republicans view it is enormous. The issue of 'violent crime' is only one where the two sides are in pretty close agreement - 52 percent of Republicans put it as a top problem, compared to 44 percent of Democrats.


Pew: Issues that are "a very big problem in the country today"


The most recent NBC survey showed a similar pattern. The top issues for Democrats were nowhere near the most important issues for Republicans and vice versa. For example, Republicans’ concern about border security and immigration is 40 points higher than that of Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats are 24-points more concerned about race relations than are Republicans. 


NBC: Most important issues facing the country


And, while President Biden continues to get high marks for his handling of the COVID crisis, it’s important to note that Democrats are much more concerned about the issue than are Republicans. In the NBC survey Democrats are 31 points more concerned than Republicans, while the Pew showed an even larger 47 point gap. In other words, even solving a ‘common’ problem like COVID does not make President Biden more popular with Republicans, in part because this isn’t as important to them as immigration or the deficit.

Priorities help to set policy. But, when the two sides have dramatically different opinions about what the nation’s top problems are, it means that they’ll always feel as if the other side is pushing an agenda that’s ‘out of touch.’ When interviewing members or candidates about a certain topic I’ll often get an answer like:  "I’ve been to town-hall meetings all over my district and no one has ever raised this issue" or "Everyone in my district is talking about X thing, not the Y thing you are asking me about.” To be sure, some of that is confirmation bias. Members like to go to parts of their state or districts where they’ll meet friendly audiences. But, it’s also reflective of a political map that is so well sorted that there are just a handful of members who get exposed to topics or issues that don’t line up neatly with the majority of their party. Throw in a media ecosystem designed to foster contempt and outrage, and those differences of priorities are turned into examples of ill intent.

Breaking the logjam of polarization isn’t just about getting Democrats and Republicans to work together. It’s also about ensuring that there is ideological, regional and geographical diversity within each of the parties. It’s easier to listen to a different perspective or priority when it comes from someone within your own group than when it comes from outside of your ‘tribe.’