This is a book which sheds light on the mysteries of our current politics. “Asymmetric Politics: Group Interest Democrats and Ideological Republicans” from Oxford Press, written by Matt Grossman of Michigan State and David A. Hopkins of Boston College, shows how the two parties are fundamentally different, and have been for a long time. Their messaging to voters, use of media, attitudes towards social science and scientific research, conduct of campaigns, and governing objectives and styles are fundamentally different. These differences explain contradictory behavior we see within each party and among voters.
Asymmetric Parties – the Key Difference:
Here is the key. Republicans value ideological purity, with messaging adopted towards conservative abstract appeals. Smaller government, government incompetence (real or fabricated), lower taxes, conservative social values, constitutional fidelity, nationalistic sentiment and for a portion of the populace and nativism are Republican themes that appeal to broad swaths of the public, even some Democrats.
Democrats, in contrast, value solutions delivering specific policies benefiting specific interest groups in their broad coalition. Civil rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, labor rights, rights of working class, and environmentalism are key areas of focus for Democrats. Even when policies can be explained in terms of overall liberal objectives such as egalitarianism, Democrats avoid ideology in favor of pragmatic appeals to specific policy results and empirical practicality.
These different approaches, which are asymmetric, manifest themselves in different political messaging and different styles of governing, with Democrats emphasizing a pragmatic approach and Republicans emphasizing adherence to ideological goals.
The Role of the US Electorate in Supporting Asymmetry
Supporting these asymmetric party approaches is a fundamental contradiction within the US electorate, which on an abstract level favors conservative ideology and labels (the majority, including even many Democrats, prefer the label “Conservative”) while supporting a more left-leaning agenda when specific programs are at stake. Republicans may favor conservative principals in the abstract, but when presented with a menu of specific programs they often favor continuation or enlargement of those programs. Likewise, Democrats in some cases self-identify as ideologically conservative, but in terms of policy, identify more strongly with specific interests of their group. As the authors note, the public is “symbolically conservative but operationally liberal”.
Both parties are able to tap into deep American cultural strands. Democrats can tap into the desire to fix problems, using public and private means, while Republicans stress individual freedom and private achievement. Both can alienate the electorate when they overreach.
Party Styles – “Republican Ideological Purity”, “New Program Democrats” and the Hazards of Over-Reach
Increasingly, since the 1980’s, Republicans, encouraged by a media bubble (described below) and supported by “alternative view” scientific experts (more explanation below) have governed with an “all or nothing” mentality in support of ideological purity.
As the opposition party, Republicans have adopted ever more extreme views as they pursue ideological goals. Not only have Republicans disrupted government through shutdowns, as part of an “all or nothing” strategy, but when these tactics do not achieve the needed results, the “base” has increasingly turned their anger towards their own party’s leaders. Those who support pragmatic compromise with Democrats have come under attack.
Republican “scorched earth tactics”, such as conducted by Newt Gingrich, have sometimes resulted in overreach. When Newt Gingrich shut down the government during his 1995 shutdown, he faced the fact that many conservatives favor and depend on government services such as Medicare, education, the environment and health programs. Symbolically, the electorate supported him; on specifics his support eroded.
Likewise, when in power, Democrats seek to deliver concrete programs to solve issues. Obamacare, an extraordinarily complex piece of legislation, was passed without any Republican support to solve specific problems, such as extension of coverage to the uninsured and protection of pre-existing conditions. Without Republican participation in drafting the law, it was politically easy for Republicans to criticize Obamacare with great success as infringing on individual freedom and expanding the size of government. Republicans symbolically “repealed” Obamacare many times, knowing that Obama would veto their repeal attempts. But when Republicans needed to repeal Obamacare for real, those who would lose their insurance because of pre-existing conditions, including Republicans, spoke out. The over-reach of both parties – passing Obamacare without participation from Republicans, and half-baked Republican attempts to repeal and replace the law – have resulted in political paralysis.
Since the 1990’s, with the ascendance of Newt Gingrich, the Republican movement towards ideological purity, has resulted in not just obstructionism toward Democratic Presidents when Republicans are in the minority, but also purges within the Republican Party to achieve conservative purity. Republicans have campaigned for symbolic government, supporting all or nothing results. This inevitably has resulted in disappointment with Republican leaders like John Boehner, who faced with the impossibility of governing without compromise, negotiated with Obama and was criticized for doing so. With the advent of the Tea Party, primary challenges displacing more moderate Republicans, by conservative candidates promising a revolution in Washington, have proliferated. The need to prove Republican conservative credentials has caused a rightward move of the Party.
In contrast to symbolic “all or nothing” messaging, Republican Presidents, who need to satisfy a larger portion of the electorate, have governed more moderately. Nixon and George W. Bush are examples, with Bush angering many Conservatives with his stance on immigration and expansion of Medicare. In part, the populist Republican rejection of “establishment Republicans” is a reaction to Bush.
Republican Media and Science
The authors do an excellent job in explaining the rise of Republican media as a response to the mainstream media’s liberal makeup (for which they provide empirical evidence) and perceived media liberal bias. Republican media was created as a rejection of mainstream media. The rise of FOX News is the most successful result of an iterative, on-going attempt to establish alternative, Conservative news sources.
Likewise, Republicans who distrusted academia and its science, especially social science, as biased, worked to establish their own think tanks (Heritage, etc.) as alternative sources of scientifically supported policy. Congressional Republicans were then able to draw upon ideologically motivated social scientists to support their policies, in opposition to mainstream academia (which is predominantly liberal) and traditional scientists. On global warming, for example, Republicans have enlisted opposition science to counter mainstream academic research on this topic.
Democrats on the other hand, trust mainstream news and its stress on “objectivity”. Likewise, they trust mainstream academia.
Each Party and its members have become ever more captive to bubbles of information from their own information-producing institutions, with the Republicans utilizing non-mainstream science to support their views.
Democrats are at a disadvantage in not having developed and promoted an intellectual cannon with broad appeal, to support the proper role of government. By focusing on policies to benefit specific groups, broad messaging becomes difficult. Witness the challenge that Hillary Clinton had in delivering a coherent message with broad appeal.
Suggested Correctives to Re-Balance Government
The authors suggest that each Party needs to stop viewing itself as the mirror image of the other Party, and instead should learn from the other Party.
Democrats could offer a more symbolic, vigorous message about the role of Government in society. They could also not just add programs, but eliminate those which are outdated and ineffective, to illustrate that their preferred governing style “does not always need to be paired with expansive government and faster social change”.
Republicans could benefit from adopting a more pragmatic approach.
Of course, these are optimistic prescriptions which neither Party seems like to adopt.
As tool to illuminate paradoxical behavior, this book is extraordinary. Already, SupportTheCenter.Org is looking back at interviews with Trump supporters in a new light. The concept of “symbolically conservative but operationally liberal” explains a great deal. The appeal of ideological purity to Republicans is evident in many of my interviews.
But at the same time, this book does not completely explain the increasing trajectory of these trends – the tribalism, the split between urban and rural, and the extreme disaffection with government permeating the Republican base. Likewise, the history of the Democratic Party and the groups it supports are important to the cultural shift and tribal split between the Parties.
Despite these shortcomings (no book can explain everything), “Asymmetric Politics” provides an extraordinary lens for unpacking current political trends, and it suggests strategies SupportTheCenter will use to encourage centrist thought and practice. It is highly recommended for its solid evidence and explanatory power.