Different Parties, Different Cultures

Fearing bias, and because the differences are difficult to measure with reliability, most—but not all—political scientists shy away from describing the cultural differences between Democrats and Republicans.
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Fearing bias, and because the differences are difficult to measure with reliability, most—but not all—political scientists shy away from describing the cultural differences between Democrats and Republicans.
(Photo: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

(Photo: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

Judy Gruber, who, back in 1987, taught the first political science class I ever attended, opened her lecture about political parties with jokes. I only remember a few of them, but they went something like this:

  • Republicans close their bedroom curtains but rarely need to. Democrats keep their curtains open but really shouldn’t.
  • Republican men prefer to date Democratic women. Although they intend to marry Republican women, they feel they’re entitled to some fun first.

You get the picture. It was good stuff, but this material is a quarter-century old now. I wonder if Professor Gruber, who tragically passed away almost a decade ago, would still be telling the same jokes.

The year before I took Gruber’s class, Jo Freeman broached this subject by writing one of the best essays ever written on the cultural differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. This is a subject that many political scientists shy away from, partially because the differences are difficult to measure with reliability and partially because they are highly sensitive to accusations of bias. Nonetheless, Freeman’s remains a rich essay and, even given the passage of time, a great deal of it still rings quite true.

Here are a few samplings, with some commentary:

  • “In the Democratic party power flows upward and in the Republican party power flows downward.” Her claim here is that Democrats gain stature by representing group interests and advocating their needs to those higher up, while Republicans simply have less of a group orientation. Republicans gain stature based on who they are, rather than whom they represent. This still sounds pretty accurate.
  • “Republicans perceive themselves as insiders even when they are out of power, and Democrats perceive themselves as outsiders even when they are in power.” That rich quote may well be an artifact of the 1980s, a particularly bleak period for Democratic presidential aspirations. Nonetheless, it still captures an important attitudinal difference. Notably, this runs somewhat against Jonathan Bernstein’s claim that some Republican leaders are not only comfortable with Republicans being out of power but actually prefer that state—it’s easier (and sometimes more profitable) to gin up outrage than to govern.

I was particularly interested in Freeman's description of common social identity as vital for Republican Party cohesion. As she writes:

[Republican] Party activists share membership in common social strata, with common rules of behavior and a common definition of who is acceptable.... A crowd of traditional Republicans can be identified by their common dress and their unspoken understanding that someone who dresses differently is not one of them. A crowd of Democrats cannot be identified by a common appearance; indeed they are so diverse that a few Republicans in their midst would not even be noticed.

She notes that the relatively new (for the time) Christian conservative movement seemed to be bringing a new class of activist into Republican circles and that it was causing visible class conflict. Freeman cites Molly Ivins' description of female Republican activists, which Ivins divided into the "ultrasuedes" (traditional Republicans) and the "polyesters" (insurgent conservatives):

The ultrasuedes ... look down on the polyesters.... Some ultrasuedes are feeling outnumbered by the polyesters this year as though their party has been taken over by people they would never allow to join the country club. Not the right sort.... As though someone had let some tacky girls into a Kappa chapter.

I guess it is a simple class distinction, but along with having more money, the ultrasuedes tend to be more sophisticated and also more liberal on social issues than the polyesters. They are frankly embarrassed, if not mortified, by the party's Jerry Falwell connection, but only in a social sense.

This dynamic, if not exactly describing today's divisions between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans, certainly seems to rhyme. Are there similar divisions today? You certainly won't hear them described in explicitly class terms—the time when you could describe insurgents as somehow lacking stature or culture has long since passed. In American politics today, people on both sides of any disagreement (perhaps particularly within the Republican Party) will tend to describe themselves as representing middle-class values and even compete over who is more authentically non-elite.

Nonetheless, Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin, in a thorough profile of the Tea Party movement, describe its adherents as "older, white, and middle class." These class differences may still be playing out within the Republican party much as they were in the 1980s.

My impression is that the parties may talk about themselves somewhat differently than they did when Freeman wrote her essay, but they haven’t necessarily changed their orientation all that much. If anything, given the polarization that has occurred since the 1980s—both ideological and geographical—the cultural differences are probably even more pronounced now than they used to be.