Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times says that we, the American public, are to blame:
If Americans want to know why their elected officials can’t compromise, these scholars and pundits say, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror. … “Americans are self-segregating,” said Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort,” a 2008 book that examined, in the words of its subtitle, “why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.”
I have my own critiques of the finer points of Bill Bishop’s analysis, but his basic point, I think, is largely accurate. The American public, just like Congress, has sorted itself over the last several decades, into ideologically homogenous political parties, which is reflected even in geographic residential patterns. Stolberg continues:
Marketers … offer another explanation. Americans, they say, may profess an interest in compromise, as an abstract goal or principle. But they don’t want to make the trade-offs necessary to cut a deal. … “Every time I see surveys saying people want compromise, I just kind of chuckle,” Mr. Smith said. “To me a question like that is more a gauge of people’s frustration with the process than it is necessarily a true indication that people are willing to accept any sacrifice in order to come to some agreement.”
Yes. Public opinion polls have regularly shown that everyone wants to cut the budget, but when asked for specifics, no one actually wants to make a cut to any particular program, with the possible exception of foreign aid and culture/arts programs (see here and here).
To over-simplify things: our elected representatives do what we incentivize them to do through the mechanism of re-election. The constituencies of the American political parties are more ideologically homogenous than they’ve been in several decades, tolerating very little diversity. When those homogenous constituencies elect strongly ideological partisans to our legislative bodies, we should not be surprised that they are so unwilling to compromise.