Background & Theory:
Democracy allows for people of different beliefs to resolve their differences peacefully, often requiring some level of compromise to obtain at least some of what they want. However, with increasing political polarization in the United States, political absolutists are halting the practice of compromise for their Congressional representatives.
In a 2019 study published in “Personality and Individual Differences”, researcher Kevin Arceneaux at Temple University set out to answer three specific questions:
1. Does prescribing to an absolutist point of view make one have a more extreme political attitude?
2. Is there a correlation between absolutism and intolerance of other political positions?
3. Do absolutists prefer a politician who does not compromise with people on opposite sides of the political spectrum?
A mix of observational and experimental approaches were used to obtain evidence. The bulk of the results come from a web-based survey administered by Qualtrics, which uses quota sampling methods to produce broadly representative samples of data. To measure absolutism, the Ethics Position Questionnaire was used which measures people’s predisposition towards absolutist ethical positions. In addition to the Ethics Position Questionnaire, the Qualtrics survey also measured individual traits that have been shown to influence political attitudes from the Big Five personality test. An experiment was also added to the Qualtrics survey where respondents were given political scenarios that they would respond to with questions regarding compromise.
To the question of whether prescribing to an absolutist point of view makes one have a more extreme political attitude, the short answer is no. Absolutism can explain a person’s tendency to adopt extreme political positions but does not alone determine people’s political attitudes. In wondering if there is a correlation between absolutism and intolerance of other political positions, evidence showed that a person with different contentious beliefs should still be extended basic civil liberties. Allowing everyone equal access to basic civil liberties like free speech and the right to hold office is a basic tenant of democracy which surprisingly, seems to weaken absolutism. Finally, in response to whether absolutists prefer a politician who does not compromise, the results show that that absolutists do indeed strongly prefer politicians who do not compromise and detest those who are willing to compromise. Additionally, these results are not bound to a specific political party. This means that social conservative absolutists and social liberal absolutists are equally as likely to punish politicians who compromise on important moral issues.
What We Can Learn:
• The evidence shown here presents that absolutist opinions tend to be more extreme and absolutists are less tolerant with those they disagree with, which consequently contributes to the fact that absolutists are less likely to support politicians who are willing to compromise.
• Considering that compromise is an essential tool that helps make democracy work, absolutism is a serious problem for the functions of the United States’ representative democracy.
• People still believe that those different from them deserve the same civil liberties that they receive, such as free speech and holding office. This weakens absolutism. It seems that the primary way we can resolve conflict based on strongly held moral principles may be through focusing on the civil liberties we share and the commonalities between us.