Education and the Curious Case of Conservative Compromise

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 59 –75
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919866509
Over the decades, education has been found to be one of
the most important explanations for many social and
political attitudes and behaviors (Bartels 2006; Converse
1964; Erikson and Tedin 2015; Prior 2005; Rosenstone
and Hansen 1993). Education is included in just about
every model that attempts to explain political thinking.
Even if it is not to be part of the story someone is telling,
it is so routinely significant that it must be accounted for.
Why education should matter so much to democratic
thinking and participation is not hard to fathom. Formal
education contributes to things that would have to have
political consequences. Better educated people are more
likely to have the knowledge that makes policy and poli-
tics more understandable (Delli Carpini and Keeter
1996). With that foundation, educated people are more
likely to seek additional information (American Press
Institute 2014; Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954).
So it is not surprising that better educated citizens vote
and participate in other ways at higher rates than those
with less education (Hillygus 2005; Prior 2005;
Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Wolfinger and Rosenstone
The benefits of education go beyond providing the
ability to be an active citizen. Education contributes to
the type of citizen one can become. Political scientists
have found that educated people are more likely to be
politically efficacious, believing that their contributions
to the political system matter and that they are obligated
to participate (Abramson 1983; Cassel and Hill 1981;
Semetko and Valkenburg 1998). Education gives people
the confidence and ability to sort out complex political
questions, distinguish between political alternatives
(Sniderman, Glaser, and Griffin 1990), and engage in
political discussion, further stimulating interest and a
sense of obligation to participate. Samuel Popkin (1991,
36) argues that education affects politics “by increasing
the number of issues that citizens see as politically rele-
vant, and by increasing the number of connections they
make between their own lives and national and interna-
tional events.” This is not to say that education is a pana-
cea. Plenty of well-educated people are apolitical, and
there are less educated people who engage in politics. All
else the same, however, education is a consistent and
powerful contributor to meaningful citizenship.
In this project, we explore the effect of education on
one dimension of democratic thinking: acceptance of
866509PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919866509Political Research QuarterlyGlaser et al.
1Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Deborah J. Schildkraut, Department of Political Science, Tufts
University, Medford, MA 02155, USA.
Education and the Curious Case of
Conservative Compromise
James M. Glaser1, Jeffrey M. Berry1,
and Deborah J. Schildkraut1
“Education,” notes Philip Converse, “is everywhere the universal solvent.” Whatever the ill of the body politic,
many believe that greater education improves the condition. Much scholarship explores the impact of education
on political attitudes and behaviors, but scholars have not examined the relationship of education to support for
political compromise. This is especially topical, as compromise between parties seems harder than ever to achieve, yet
compromise is necessary for democratic governance. We examine whether higher levels of education lead to support
for compromise and find that education does matter, but the relationship is conditional. For liberals and moderates,
more education promotes greater support for compromise. For conservatives, those with more education are not
more likely to support compromise than those with less education. We argue that for conservatives, education
matters for compromise support, but it also leads to better understanding of bedrock ideological principles that inhibit
approval of compromise.
compromise, ideology, education
60 Political Research Quarterly 74(1)
compromise. Democratic practice is necessarily messy.
Different interests, beliefs, and priorities get articulated
in the process of policymaking and get sorted out as rep-
resentatives distribute resources, determine which values
will be maximized, and set a course for the future.
Democratic theory suggests that our presidential, first-
past-the-post, bicameral and tripartite, pluralistic system
works because our system is designed to generate politi-
cal outcomes that satisfy majorities. The processes of
American governance are imperfect—slow, tortuous,
often conflict-ridden—but somehow, we have been able
to get to the necessary compromises required for demo-
cratic self-governance.
We argue that attitudes about compromise should be
related to education, with better educated people more
likely to accept compromise as an essential feature of our
politics. Education should increase the likelihood of
viewing compromise as the cost of having a functioning
government. The logic is straightforward: education
should lead people to appreciate that compromise is how
democracies maximize the preferences of the largest
number of people, even if one’s own preferences are not
maximized in the process. As we show in the upcoming
pages, the relationship between education and attitudes
toward political compromise is as expected, but with one
caveat, and an important one at that. We show that this
relationship is conditional: it looks different for conserva-
tives than for liberals and moderates. We explore why
conservatives are distinctive when it comes to compro-
mise, and in the conclusion, we discuss how this contrib-
utes to our more polarized politics (Abramowitz 2013,
2018; Lee 2016; Theriault 2008, 2013). In the end, we
add compromise to the list of political outcomes for
which the role of education is more complicated than
people often appreciate.
The Nature of Compromise
Our conventional understanding of compromise in poli-
tics is grounded in behavioral science. People negotiate
from positions in which they assign values to their own
preferences and weigh that assessment against what is
being offered in exchange. The values assigned might
not correspond with others’ judgments, but negotiations
are not dependent on such accuracy (Kahneman and
Tversky 1984). Whatever the valuations, the path to
successful outcomes is agreements that are “win-
win”—both sides believe that they are gaining from the
For politicians, the valuations are abstractions—they
do not gain a tangible good or service in exchange for
agreeing to a compromise on legislation. But part of the
win-win is the reward of crafting good legislation that
moves us forward. A second reward is the appreciation of
constituents who, to paraphrase David Mayhew (1974),
give legislators the credit they claim.
The willingness of citizens to appreciate the value of
compromise—and to reward legislators who work to find
compromise—is critical to the functioning of a democ-
racy. As Gutmann and Thompson (2014, 1) note,
“Compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy
without compromise is impossible.” Still, there is no
guarantee that public opinion will value compromise and
accept policy solutions that only qualify as half loaves
rather than full ones. Nevertheless, as we will show, when
asked by pollsters, Americans offer strong support for
compromise and most say they prefer that their elected
officials work toward compromise rather than stand on
principle. Despite the increasing polarization of the
American electorate (Abramowitz 2013; Iyengar, Sood,
and Lelkes 2012), a majority of Americans prefer com-
promise to sticking to principle: support for compromise
stands at 53 percent in a recent Gallup Poll (Newport
2016).1 Perhaps because of polarization among politi-
cians, the preference for compromisers is actually trend-
ing upward in Gallup’s time series (Newport 2016).
Although the public professes support for compromise
in principle, whether compromise is the preferred route to
policymaking when the rubber hits the road is less clear.
The messiness of the legislative process, the veritable
sausage making, challenges the public’s patience and
understanding (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1996, 2002).
In this era of omniscient media and a daily stream of
behind-the-scenes reporting, dealmaking becomes very
public. Opponents vilify dealmakers and use partisan
cues to undercut support for bipartisan agreements while
decrying their own party’s leaders when intraparty nego-
tiations appear to be going in the wrong direction. Our
current era of “insecure majorities,” where each election
holds the possibility that the party in the majority will
switch, has served to increase the incentives of the minor-
ity party to resist compromise at all costs (Lee 2016).
Still, one might expect that those most likely to look
past partisanship and soundbite politics are those who are
most educated. They should appreciate the challenges of
democratic government and should be most likely to pos-
sess what Gutmann and Thompson (2014, 3) term the
“compromising mindset.”2 It turns out, however, that the
relationship between education and compromise is not so
Education: The Universal Solvent?
Political rhetoric is most often about principles, about
values, and about those things we should cherish and
tenaciously support. This is how we think about politics,
but not so much how we think about governance. Because
parties, interest groups, and individuals hold different

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