They'll always move further right: Why every defeat only makes Republicans more extreme

GOP somehow thinks they only lose because they're not conservative enough. That's a recipe for even more losing

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 24, 2015 6:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Charlie Neibergall/Jason Reed/David Goldman)
(AP/Reuters/Charlie Neibergall/Jason Reed/David Goldman)

As the 2016 election campaign heats up, one thing seems certain: media coverage will be dominated by a reflexive posture of “balance” between two extremes, which press critic Jay Rosen dubbed “The View from Nowhere” back in 2003. Implicit in this posture is the simplifying assumption that each side is a mirror image of the other, and thus that the parties on each side are mirror images as well. Not in all particulars, of course—that’s where the daily stuff of news comes from—but more generally, in terms of how they should be understood. Hence, any critical coverage of one side requires similar critical coverage of the other, regardless of how well the underlying substance holds up—Watergate vs. Whitewater, for example.

The media is hardly alone in this, as many policymakers, analysts and political scientists also tend toward this view as well. A few years ago, as a sort of exception that proves the rule, two quintessential Washington figures, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, openly broke with this view, citing disproportionate conservative extremism in their book "It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism" -- which was relatively shunned compared to how warmly their work has usually been treated. Yet, it’s long been obvious that liberals and conservatives are not mirror images of each other, and neither are the parties they are most closely associated with.

In 1967, pioneering public opinion researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril published a landmark book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion." They found that roughly half the population was ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government, while two-thirds were operationally liberal, in the sense of wanting to spend more on specifically identified government programs. What’s more, almost one-quarter of Americans were both ideological conservatives and operational liberals.

Decades of polling since then has only confirmed and fleshed out this finding (see, for example, "Ideology in America" by Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson), but its significance and relationship to other aspects of American politics seems to have gotten lost.

But political scientists Matt Grossmann of Michigan State University and David Hopkins of Boston College may be about to change that.  Their paper “Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats: The Asymmetry of American Party Politics” was recently published in the journal Perspectives on Politics, and its clear-eyed view of how left and right differ from one another in American politics could go a long way toward clarifying—as opposed to oversimplifying—what’s going on in our politics, including (but hardly limited to) how the 2016 campaign unfolds.

To understand that picture and what it entails, as well as the evidence supporting it, Salon recently interviewed Grossmann. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

The folk belief in American politics—in the media, and the political classes more generally—is that the two parties are more or less mirror images of one another, with a related belief that objectivity and realism require that one treat them as such: whatever one says about one party, you have to say something similar about the other, or else you're not being objective, not being realistic; deep down, you're a partisan hack, or at least you've been influenced by them.

But in your paper "Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats"--as well as other writings--you not only argue that this view is objectively false, and there's a fundamental asymmetry between the parties, but that there's a long, if obscured, history of contrary voices and data to support them, which goes much deeper and goes back much longer that the relatively recent fracture highlighted by the Tea Party. You write that "Democrats and Republicans are motivated by dissimilar political goals and think about partisanship and party conflict in fundamentally different ways, which in turn stimulates distinct approaches to governing by leaders on each side."

In simplest terms, what is the difference between the parties that you point to, and--broadly speaking--what's the sort of evidence in support of drawing this distinction?

First of all, we agree with your characterization that we're resuscitating a long-held view in both popular political debate and in older political science--and especially more historically oriented political science--that never saw the parties as mirror images, and would note that it's not necessarily true everywhere in political science. In comparative politics, for example, people who study parties across the world don't necessarily assume that the parties that in one country are organized similarly or are motivated by similar goals.

Yes, I was speaking in broad terms.

Yes, so we share that generalization. Our simplest way of putting it is that the Republican Party is based on an ideological movement, around conservatism, as a set of broad ideas and principles, and the Democratic Party is much more a coalition of social group that have specific concerns, and usually have particular policy goals that they want to try to achieve. So we think that that certainly plays out in how partisans—both in the public and among elites—see party competition, and it also plays out in campaigns, and in governing. Parties have incentives to reinforce the basis on which they have collected support among fellow partisans. Our connection to the old Free and Cantril and the more recent Stimson work is that the basis of each party matches their potential victory in public opinion. That is, Democrats are on better terms, not when they defend government in the abstract, or when they sort of acknowledge a broader project of remedying any quality, but when they focus on particular goals that can be solved with specific policy solutions, whereas Republicans are always on firmer ground—both among their own supporters and among the public as a whole—when they talk in broad principled terms about the size and scope of government, and respect for traditional values, and America's unique role in the world.

You go through a step-by-step process starting with the voters and then moving into the party itself, so it would be illuminating if we could walk through that, starting with the divided nature of the attitudes of the general public and how that relates to the voters in the parties--and then go on from there to talk more about activists and donors.

All right. For a long time public-opinion scholars have noticed that people tend to call themselves conservatives much more often than liberals, even though they tend to agree with the liberal position on most poll questions of specific policy areas. Sometimes there's been an effort to discount one of those, saying that they must either not really understand what the labels mean, or they must not understand enough about the policies to connect them together. But more recently people have sort of accepted that this is a true phenomenon. I think one thing that we add is that this isn't just a label"‘conservative," but that also any time that you frame the policy debate in broad terms about the size and scope of government, you tend to have conservative opinions in the public.

We noticed a similar trend when you ask voters an open-ended question--what they like and dislike about each political party or set of candidates--you tend to get very similar answers across time, among Democratic respondents and among Republican respondents. Republican respondents, especially, activists, people who are paying attention to the campaign and doing things to try to influence it tend to give very broad ideological answers. We present an example where they list three or four isms that they say the Democrats are for [“secularism, elitism, and collectivism”], and they say we're for a smaller size and scope of government. Then on the Democratic side, they tend to mention what groups are favored by each party; they say the Republicans are the party of rich white people, and the Democrats are the party of the downtrodden, or they help women, or help the poor.

Those basic tendencies have been there for a long time, and we think that they in some ways match up to the approaches that the parties can take to get support from the public as a whole. That is, Republicans can stick to these broad principles, satisfying their constituencies, and staying on the ground that they share with the public, whereas Democrats can say we are for the right people, and they can propose specific policies in support of both their constituency and the American public as a whole.

Moving on to the asymmetry among activists and donors. How has that manifested itself? What kind of evidence can you cite in that area that can help bring it out of the realm of argumentation and give some people some real evidence that carries over into the parties' structures?

We have thus far found that basic asymmetry everyplace that we have looked. One way is to stick with survey data, but to try to survey either people who give money to each party or participate in elections a lot. Another way is to look at writings. So we can look at opinion columns, we can also look at the party platforms and speeches, to see if the same kind of patterns come out. So what we present in that article was when you look at the text from the platforms, the kinds of issues raised by columnists, and the views of donors about who they are going to support, in all of those cases it matches the basic asymmetry, which is Republicans tend to care more about ideology, and agreement on broad principles, whereas Democrats are more concerned with the group coalitions of the parties and the specific policies associated with these constituencies.

I noticed the pattern with columnists was particularly striking, that it was something like 10 times more often conservative columnists would talk about ideology. They were doing that around 10 percent of the time and liberals around just barely over 1 percent of the time. So that was very striking.

Yes. I think any time you pick up a newspaper, you can sort of see this in action. You do have some people who are on the liberal side who take a broader view and are willing to defend liberal ideology in aggregate. To some extent, that's a relatively recent phenomenon, and does not represent the kind of modal opinion column on that side. Whereas on the Republican side they're constantly coming back to broad principles, and how issues fit together into broader claims about what each political party or side supports.

How does this manifest itself in terms of congressional behavior? You have a sort of interesting discussion in terms of what's happening in Congress in the 21st century as a result of that. Could you go over that a bit?

We're in some sense trying to explain why there is regularly resuscitating ideological fervor on the right, and why members of Congress in the Republican Party tend to react differently to it. So, obviously the Tea Party is the latest manifestation of that, but we think it reflects a kind of long-running pattern, which is that Republicans get into office, they are--from the Tea Party or conservative’s perspective—unable to reverse the size and scope of government, and so there's reaction to that, that is both against Democrats in charge but also even against their own party leadership.

Republican elites tend not to avoid it, or dismiss it; they tend to take it very seriously. That says to us that they see it in their constituency as well, and that it's tied in organizationally through party networks as well. One of the interesting things is that even though certainly everyone would agree that both parties are polarizing, most people would say that the Republican Party has been moving right quite steadily, and yet over that time period, Republicans in the public have still asked their party to move more conservative, rather than more moderate, and they also favor party leaders that stick to principle, rather than moderate to get things done. So the unequal pressure from the constituencies is going to be felt very differently by Republican and Democratic officials, and we think that that explains why the party leaders operate quite differently in Congress.

We also think that the different coalitional structures of the two sides matter to their leadership. To the extent that Democrats have trouble in Congress, it’s about how to reconcile all the competing claims on the agenda, how to satisfy a diverse constituency; whereas on the Republican side, it's almost always an ideological battle over is this giving in too much to big government, is this sticking enough to conservative principles or not?

So, you saw this in the latest round in the healthcare battles. I think it's pretty clear that Democrats learned from the Clinton health care plan failure that, "Okay, we need to moderate our position, and we need to go and satisfy as many groups as we can." They successfully did that. But Democratic officials were still left with, "Well, why is it that we told people that were going to do in the 2008 elections, we satisfied all of the different constituencies, we picked up some conservative policy proposals, but still the public moved against us?" We think that that reflects the right/left divide that Republicans are going to quite regularly be able to talk about a whole proposal or set of proposals as trying to expand the size and scope of government, even if people are on board with the specific policy aims of Democrats. It also means that Republicans have constituency pressure that basically makes it a lot easier to just try to block things than to actually make compromises and to move forward with policymaking.

Since you brought up that example, it seems that this insight provides greater clarity on the situation of the parties more generally, and one of things that you did talk about in the paper was the post-2012 debate over the Republican reinvention, what that means to the possible future of the GOP. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you had to say about that?

Yes, that particular discussion didn't last all that long, and it does not seem to be playing a big role in the beginnings of the 2016 primary, and it reflects a long historical pattern. When the Democrats lose a national election, there has tended to be more discussion about whether the party had been moderate enough, how they can reach out to particular constituencies with new policies, whereas when the Republicans lose you see a little bit of that; it tends not to last very long, and it tends to be overwhelmed by the view that the Republicans just need to present a broad view, that they need to go back to first principles, that if they're going to reach out to new groups, it has to be on the basis of agreement, of shared agreement with conservatism, rather than a certain policy agenda.

So what happened in that case was a few Republican elites said, "We need to do something different, we need to support immigration reform in an effort to at least improve our image among Latinos." But that effort did not go very far, and certainly among Republican primary voters, it's now considered a liability if you were ever on board.

The kind of move on immigration that was being considered and that Jeb Bush still seems to sort of want is not incompatible with conservatism on an international basis. For example, Germany under Bismarck was the originator of the modern form of the welfare state, under conservative governance. So the idea of an activist government reshaping policy for conservative ends is not anathema to conservatism per se, although it is in America.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

I think it's certainly true that the Republican Party stands out among conservative parties in the world in a way that the Democratic Party does not stand out among liberal or center-left parties in the world. That is, if you rate them on ideological scale spectrum, the Republican Party is quite consistently a conservative party, whereas the Democrats are pretty typical center-left party. And yes, it's certainly true that conservatism in the U.S. has come to mean something different, but also something more consistent and extreme than it does elsewhere. But the specific operational liberal positions on policies that Americans hold are not all that different than those held in Europe or other places in the world. What is unique is the consistent agreement with ideological principles on the right and the broad acceptability of conservatism. So Americans are operationally liberal and symbolically conservative, and it's the symbolic conservatism that stands out.

I would say, on immigration, it doesn’t necessarily match up. One place where the Republican Party is less extreme than right parties elsewhere, actually, is on this kind of national identity/nativism kind of dimension, and that's true in the public too. There are plenty of publics in the world that are anti-immigration. So that doesn't necessarily stand out there. But I think the Republican Party's aversion to try to provide specific policies to appeal to a particular constituency is quite unique.

In the last section of "The Political Opinion of Americans," Free and Cantril argue that there's a need for restatement of American ideology to bring the symbolic and operational levels into harmony. At the highest level, those who might have led on this were assassinated—Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King. But still, a significant portion of the more educated politically engaged classes could have engaged in that sort of effort. Yet we’ve seen virtually nothing along those lines. It seems to remain a road not taken. I would understand why there hasn't been a successful shift in that direction; what I find puzzling is that there haven't been any sustained efforts that could potentially produce partial victories, or generate ideas that take on a life of their own. Do you have any thoughts about that?

First, we could reconcile in two different ways. So part of this is Republicans not trying to get their voters and supporters to support the specific policies that they have in mind. But I assume we're talking mostly about on the left, why is there not a broader agenda to both try to sell principles of liberalism and connect those to the agenda that people already support. And I think that's a good question.

Historically, I think there's a large literature on the conservative intellectual movement, and the conservative renaissance and connection with the Republican Party, and the basic formulation is that people who saw themselves as outside what they saw as the liberal elite in academia and in foundations and law schools, everywhere they saw elites in society, created a quite self-consciously political and conservative infrastructure to counter that perceived liberal orthodoxy. So they had more reason, potentially, to build a separate infrastructure and broad agenda along those lines.

But I also think there might be some more specific historical... for example, there were fights on foreign policy, obviously on the right and the left, but it is interesting that the McCarthy/McGovern faction within the Democratic Party was principally stimulated by opposition to the Vietnam War. So it was not a faction that was very easily going to transition into a defense of the national government's broad role in solving social problems.

I also think that there was this alternative route; the alternative route was the incorporation of the New Left, through more specific social movements organized around identity politics and particular issue agendas, like environmentalism, and that was successful. So, in some ways, despite not pursuing this project that you and I are recommending, they've had success in policy terms, and in building organizational infrastructure; it's just that it's divided by issue areas, and it's tied to the diversity of the constituencies of the Democratic Party, rather than a broader intellectual movement.

I do have one criticism of Free and Cantril's work which I wouldn’t blame them for, because of the time when they wrote. But since then, the importance of social conservatism has emerged as a much bigger factor than it was when they did their survey in 1964, yet you don't have much to say about that either. The focus remains on small government conservatism, as opposed to foreign policy conservatism or social conservatism, and I'm wondering what would a consideration of social conservatism do to complicate the picture that you have drawn?

One thing I would say is yes, there's been a tremendous rise of the religious right since then, but also perhaps a more recent fall within the pro-Republican coalition. You might actually want to take a look at Ellis and Stimson on this, because part of their argument is that part of what motivates conservatives, broad conservative policies, is that people already considered themselves culturally and religiously conservative, and so they were open to taking that same label and view when it came to politics. I think we would share that [perspective]. They do find, and we agree with this, on the social issues side it has remained a broad vision. What they say is you can occasionally get the social conservatives riled up about a specific issue, but their attraction to conservatism in the Republican Party does not seem to be based on any specific issue. You often see a rise and fall of those issues without necessarily undercutting the attachment to the ideological label of the party.

Intellectually, this was always recognized in conservative circles. There was a very active fusionist effort, to try to put together libertarians, older, what we called the base social conservatives, and foreign-policy conservatives, or neo-conservatives. So there was an active effort to compile that coalition, and it does seem like they were able to—as long as we keep with the broad principles—and that could be part of the explanation for why it was worth staying on that broad ground, rather than trying to reach an agreement on a specific set of principles.

I will say, also, one reason that we focus on the size and scope of government as the central dimension, it’s going to pose very different problems for the party that’s in favor of limiting the size and scope of government, because the role of government does tend to expand over time. That's not just true in the U.S., but as you say, conservative parties elsewhere have been more open to either accommodation or leading the charge into some new area. So that's why we think that dimension is unique. You have an ideological faction that wants a smaller size and scope of government, they regularly failed to achieve that, and so they're regularly disappointed with their own leaders, as well as the opposition. And that is—although somewhat true across other issue areas—most apparent in the economic policy dimension.

Yes, that puts a very sharp focus on it. I have a further question in that spirit. There’s a question of reality there, in that you cannot shrink government in the abstract without shrinking it concretely. Then, all of a sudden there's something that's going to impact people in places that they might not expect it. I'm thinking of the cry, "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!" for example, and the fact that the Republicans have been very ginger about how they go about trying to cut entitlements so that the older white Americans who are more dependent on Medicare don’t see the ax coming their way.

Yes, well, a few things about that. First of all, yes, I think that's a very manifest representation of the disjuncture in public opinion. But, we should also keep in mind that that person showed up to yell at their Congressman about Obamacare. So often the people have a specific issue position that is against their more ideological perspective, they may still be motivated to participate in politics on the basis of that general perspective, rather than the specific one. So I think it's a good example of that.

I think more generally it's true that Republican politicians recognize this. They regularly try to do what you say is impossible, which is they do things like a broad balanced-budget amendment, or demanding unspecified cuts overall in the budget, so they're trying to pursue what they know people favor in a broad sense, but not get blamed for the specific disagreements that that would entail.

I guess, to defend the conservatives a little bit, I would say if you’re in a movement that thinks that the size of government is growing too fast and too broad, that puts you in the constant battle of trying to figure out whether to go back and try to repeal things, or whether you should accept and preserve those things that are there already. And many Republican politicians have sided with this idea that, well, you can try to do both, you can try to repeal what you can, but otherwise make sure that you're seen as a defender of what's come before, even if your ideological forebears would've been against it.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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