A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

5 May 2017 — 0956 mdt

Democrats want to make a deal, Republicans want to make a point

Last night, I rebuked Sen. Jon Tester for what I consider his excessively enthusiastic devotion to reaching across the aisle in search of compromise, which he seems to regard as an intrinsic rather than an instrumental good. Such gestures, I opined, would be greeted not with a handclasp but with a refusal to make common cause. That observation put me at odds with some Democrats and fellow bloggers.

Their pushback provides an opportunity to recommend Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, by Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 7 September 2016). Here are a few excerpts:

The assumption that the parties are more or less interchangeable in their composition, objectives, and behavior must be discarded in order to properly understand the most important attributes of contemporary politics, ranging from campaign strategy and governing style to the contours of public opinion and the role of the news media. Enduring party asymmetries challenge the development of unified theories of American parties intended to apply equally to Democrats and Republicans. Presuming that the parties act in a similar fashion in response to the same events makes for parsimonious theory, but the associated cost of inaccurate description and false equivalence is too high to bear.

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Since the 1980s, Republican officeholders have increasingly embraced a highly confrontational approach that eschews inside strategies premised on the pursuit of compromise in favor of maximizing partisan conflict, emphasizing symbolic acts of ideological differentiation, and engaging in near-automatic obstruction of initiatives proposed by the opposition.

While Democrats have also become more procedurally aggressive, several veteran observers of Washington workways have noted the Republican Party’s disproportionate contribution to the trend of increasing political hardball.

The series of governing crises over the past two decades that have been precipitated by Republican demands, including multiple government shutdowns, a near-default on the federal debt, and the second impeachment of a sitting president in American history, serve as illustrative examples of the growing divergence between a Republican Party increasingly devoted to expressions of ideological commitment and a Democratic Party that remains responsive to a set of social constituencies prizing incremental policy goals.

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As political journalist and Vox founder Ezra Klein summarizes, “Democrats tend to project their preference for policymaking onto the Republican Party — and then respond with anger and confusion when Republicans don’t seem interested in making a deal. Republicans tend to assume the Democratic Party is more ideological than it is, and so see various policy initiatives as part of an ideological effort to remake America along more socialistic lines.” These misapprehensions contribute to the current climate of incessant partisan vitriol.

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The Democratic Party, we argue, is a coalition of social groups that act as discrete voting blocs for candidates, constituencies for group leaders, and demanders of particular policy commitments. Since the 1960s, changes in the relative size and influence of Democratic constituencies reduced the size of the party’s conservative wing and expanded its policy agenda— but no organized liberal movement has emerged to dominate its internal organization or succeed in shifting its policies toward leftist positions.

The Republican Party, in contrast, serves as the vehicle of a conservative ideological movement that succeeded after the 1950s in fusing its various intellectual strands, marketing its broad critiques of government, building a supportive organizational network, and moving party doctrine toward the policy commitments of its right wing.

This underlying partisan asymmetry has produced distinct Democratic and Republican approaches to debating public issues, campaigning for votes, and pursuing policy change in government. The concurrent operational liberalism and symbolic conservatism of the American public has allowed each party to maintain its unique character while effectively competing for broader popular support.

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The Democratic Party’s character as a social group coalition fosters a relatively pragmatic, results-oriented style of politics in which officeholders are rewarded for delivering concrete benefits to targeted groups in order to address specific social problems.

Republicans, in contrast, are more likely to forge partisan ties based on common ideological beliefs, encouraging party officials to pursue broad rightward shifts in public policy.

As a result, Republican voters and activists are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to prize symbolic demonstrations of ideological purity and to pressure their party leaders to reject moderation and compromise.

This partisan asymmetry is further reinforced by the distribution of political attitudes within the public at large. The American electorate consistently holds collectively left-of-center views on most policy issues even as it leans to the right on more general measures of ideology— as Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril observed nearly five decades ago, the public is simultaneously operationally liberal and symbolically conservative.

I doubt that Tester, who revels in presenting himself as a godsend to independents and weak Republicans, is troubled that a liberal blogger in Kalispell thinks he takes bipartisanship to extremes. In fact, I suspect he may welcome my rebuke as proof that he’s more in touch with Montana than anyone else.