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What Political Parties Talk About When They Talk About Groups

Republicans talk about ideology and Democrats talk about groups—but they may be talking about the same thing.
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Rally of the Tea Party Patriots in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, on September 12, 2010. (Photo: R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock)

Rally of the Tea Party Patriots in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, on September 12, 2010. (Photo: R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock)

There was a fascinating debate last week over whether Republicans and Democrats actually think differently from each other. In a new publication (described in this Monkey Cage post), Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins describe their research into differences in the way Republicans and Democrats speak about politics. As they note, these differences are very revealing about the ways that partisans perceive the political world and their role in it:

The Republican Party, we argue, is best understood as the agent of an ideological movement dedicated to advancing the cause of conservatism.... The Democratic Party, in contrast, is best understood as a coalition of social groups seeking various forms of government action.

As a result, they argue, Republicans tend to pursue more ideologically driven tactics and policies when in office and are more likely to see compromise as betrayal while Democrats see it as essential for governing. This helps explain the rather asymmetric nature of recent party politics, in which only the Republicans have exploited such tactics as government shutdowns, credit defaults, and presidential impeachment. It also helps to explain why much of recent party polarization in Congress has been driven by Republicans.

Writing at Mischiefs of Faction, however, Hans Noel argues that describing politics in terms of groups may not actually be substantively different that describing it in terms of ideology. In a real sense, when Democrats talk about groups, they are talking about ideology. Note, for example, Barack Obama's recent address at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march:

Because of what [civil rights protestors] did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors.

Yes, on the surface, this is a discussion about embracing once-marginalized communities. But the very act of incorporating marginalized groups into the American mainstream is an ideological one.

Historically, it has tended to be Democrats who seek to bring in new populations, whether it's urban machine bosses embracing Irish and Polish workers over a century ago or Democratic politicians welcoming Latinos and gays and lesbians today. Republican leaders often (but not always) initially oppose such overtures, expressing concerns about maintaining the nation's identity and culture. But the idea that once-marginalized groups have a place in the American political system is an ideological claim, and those who argue for it tend to be on the left.

Conversely, Noel notes, Republicans have a strong group identity, but there's less mass appeal in advocating for those groups, which include people who are already very comfortably within the American mainstream. Business owners, CEOs, Christians, and others may benefit from Republican policies, but it is far easier for advocates of those policies to appeal to broader ideological terms like free-market capitalism and individualism than to speak explicitly for empowering their preferred groups.

So it may well be that Democrats are talking ideologically when they speak of groups, and Republicans are talking about groups when they speak of ideology. This doesn't necessarily completely explain away the findings that Grossman and Hopkins are talking about. Just why are Republicans less likely to compromise than Democrats?

It seems fair to say that there are still important differences between the way the parties behave that can't be explained away by situational matters, such as who holds the White House, who just won an election, etc. Republicans really have been moving rightward more quickly than Democrats have been moving leftward. Anyone who wants to "fix" polarization is going to need to deal with that asymmetry.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.