Ideology or Problem Solving – Which Will It Be?

A review of
Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats
(Authors: Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins)

Grossman and Hopkins have provided a deep dive into the “symbolic conservativism vs. operational liberalism” phenomenon, also explored a few years ago by Ellis and Stimson.  Their main thesis—which they hammer over and over in different aspects of the US political world—is that the Republican Party appeals to voters via high ideological arguments, while the Democratic Party appeals to a variety of groups, promising incremental problem solving.

In general elections, Democratic candidates develop targeted proposals and defend existing government programs, whereas Republicans sound more abstract themes and warn of threats to American values.

And neither side can understand the other:

Republicans claim that they are the party of principles, whereas Democrats are the party of giveaways. Democrats view themselves as the party of productivity and problem solving, while criticizing Republicans as the party of extremism and obstruction.  …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 they 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.”

Republicans’ tight ideological focus, G&H explain, has been fueled since the 1990s in no small part by establishment of an explicitly conservative media ecosystem as a conscious alternative to mainstream journalism.  Fox News Channel and other conservative media outlets (radio, websites) allow conservative writers and broadcasters to exert control over Republican politicians and voters alike.  The rhetoric is broadly ideological and uniquely coordinated with the aims of Republican officials and activists, producing a unified party message in public debate.   There is not an equivalent to this on the left.

FNC and conservative talk radio lack equally popular and influential counterparts on the left that openly advance the liberal cause or nurture ideological grievances against mainstream media outlets. Democrats therefore remain relatively unexposed to messages that encourage ideological self-identification or describe political conflict as reflecting the clash of two incompatible value systems. Instead, the information environment in which they reside claims to prize objectivity, empiricism, and policy expertise—thus remaining highly congruent with the character of the Democratic Party as a coalition of voters who demand practical solutions to social problems in the form of targeted government action.

Ideologically-committed liberals (a.k.a. progressives) certainly exist,  are vocal during primary elections, and may even represent a rising proportion of Democrats.  Unlike conservatives in the GOP, however, they generally do not dominate the party.

G&H thus provide clarity about the contrasting perspectives of the two parties.  But what about independent voters?  How do these voters attempt to weigh the two perspectives against each other?  How do they reason about it?  What information do they use?

It has been demonstrated that independents are “symbolically conservative”: they like the symbols of conservatism and want to preserve traditional values.  Yet at the same time, paradoxically, these same voters are “operationally liberal”; they want government to do and spend more to solve a variety of social problems.   It is a very stable phenomenon.   Although such voters espouse liberal views on most individual issues, in practice their conservative values often win out when voting in national elections.

…Internal contradictions between a voter’s symbolic and operational ideology are not guaranteed to be resolved in favor of the latter; on average, 61 percent of citizens with liberal issue positions and conservative self-identification vote Republican for president, whereas only 34 percent of these conflicted voters support Democrats.  Individuals who side with liberals on specific policies but agree with conservative ideas about government in general are sometimes swing voters, but are more likely to prioritize their ideological self-identification over their issue positions when making electoral choices.

The reason for this tendency is that, although these voters’ positions on individual issues may be liberal, the strength of such views may often be tentative or insufficiently solid. For example, in some cases they may not understand an individual issue well enough to confidently get behind a specific proposed solution; and consequently, in spite of their discomfort with the status quo on the issue, they opt for a wait-and-see stance.

Party strategists of course are familiar with the realities of the ideological differences between the parties, and seek to frame public messaging in ways that will appeal to independents.  For their part, Democrats are obliged to avoid messaging that inadvertently sets off mental alarms.

Popular support for many specific Democratic policy positions is dependably accompanied by general suspicion of government power, aversion to new taxes and expanded bureaucracies, and anxiety about broad social change— predispositions that render many citizens open to persuasion by Republican warnings about the dangers of Democratic policy activism.

Democratic caution has in fact, according to G&H, been influencing the political platforms of the Democratic Party ever since the Reagan Revolution:

In the policymaking arena, Democrats have responded to conservative critiques by advancing proposals that incorporate markets, build incrementally on existing institutions, minimize the role of bureaucracies, and decentralize responsibility. Republicans have thus succeeded in limiting visible expansions of government’s size, but not in reducing the breadth of national policy goals.

Despite Democrats’ fiscal restraint, though, fear of big government has apparently not diminished.

Although the discrepancy between the public’s broad (conservative) and specific (liberal) views on public policy has been consistent for decades, there is some evidence that Republicans have been increasingly successful in instilling public fear of “big government.”

It remains to be seen whether this trend continues through the Trump administration.

While the Democratic Party has moderated on economic issues, though, there has meanwhile been a steady march to the left on cultural matters such as abortion and gay rights, which may be worrisome to some independent voters who are concerned about preserving traditional values.  G&H note how Barack Obama finessed this issue:

His presidential campaigns adopted pithy but vague slogans like “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes We Can” that allowed liberal Democrats to read an idealistic purpose into his candidacies without risking an overt commitment to liberalism that might alienate swing voters.

Then lastly, while the Democratic Party’s approach of appealing to different groups is partly responsible for their electoral successes, caution about appearances is once again required.  Appearing to be the party of “giveaways” can alienate many independent voters.

Frequent reliance on the invocation of group-based self-interest may also tend to alienate voters who do not identify with the cited group or groups, or who find such appeals uninspiring or unseemly in comparison to the broader and more symbolic cast of Republican rhetoric.

In summary, Democrats must play a defensive strategy on several fronts.  On offense, though, Democrats present their mindset as more sensible than that of Republicans.

In response to the Republican Party’s anti-intellectual tinge and growing popular identification with organized Christianity, Democrats portray themselves as motivated by science, reason, evidence, and common sense rather than traditional authorities or dogmas.

Climate change is an interesting case of this philosophical divide manifesting itself in policy.  G&H observe that the reason for Republicans’ reluctance to accept the analysis of scientists is primarily ideological.

Liberals often assume that if conservatives believed the scientific evidence for problems like global warming, they would accept the necessity of their proposed regulatory solutions. The evidence suggests otherwise: conservatives oppose the solutions on ideological grounds and therefore work backward to reject the evidence supposedly justifying them.

It is a specific example of a more general tendency: Republicans’ ideology often causes them to avoid talking about specific societal problems.

To avoid creeping government expansion, conservatives tend to minimize evidence of problems that might be solved by government and may distrust the motives of those who seek to emphasize problems in order to provoke government activity.

Framing public debates in terms of problems and solutions tends to advantage Democratic interests, and thus Republicans try hard to keep the conversation focused on ideology.

Many Democrats are suspicious about the sincerity of Republican ideology.  G&H are not:

Critics often view conservative ideology as merely a rationalization for advancing the material interests of a few privileged social groups whom it is impolitic to champion explicitly. …Yet the distinctive cast of modern Republican politics, including the nature of internal partisan conflict as well as their style of opposition to Democrats, reveals that party members take conservative ideology quite seriously.

However sincere or not, Republicans have had a great deal of success with their ideological approach.  An interesting section of the book traces the crafting of the ideology from the 1960s onward.

According to movement chronicler George Nash, the “three-legged stool” of modern conservatism was most effectively united by opposition to liberal policies:

  • To the libertarians, modern liberalism was the ideology of the ever-aggrandizing bureaucratic, welfare state. If unchecked, it would become a totalitarian state, destroying individual liberty and private property—the wellsprings of a prosperous society.
  • To the traditionalists, liberalism was a disintegrative philosophy which, like an acid, was eating away at the ethical and institutional foundations of Western civilization, creating a vast spiritual void into which totalitarian false gods would enter.
  • To the Cold War anti-Communists, modern liberalism—rationalistic, relativistic, secular, anti-traditional, quasi-socialist—was by its very nature incapable of vigorously resisting an enemy on its left.

When laid out in this fashion, the foundations of Republican ideology do not necessarily look ironclad.  Throughout the book, though, G&H stick to academic neutrality and never once evaluate or comment upon the tenability of either side’s core arguments.  They do not ask whether our traditional values truly are under threat, or whether various disadvantaged groups really are getting a raw deal, or whether the administrative state promoted by liberals is getting out of control.

I can’t resist making some of my own observations in conclusion, considering in particular again the dilemma for independent voters.  For starters, the three “legs” enumerated by Nash.  Each is susceptible to rebuttals—to illustrate (not to dispute), here are some examples:

  1. What degree of risk, really, is there that modern liberalism could lead to a totalitarian state?   Stalin’s Russia came to power under the banner of Communism, but is it reasonable to imagine that something equivalent could happen in the modern United States?  (The conservative reply might allude to a “slippery slope,” though it would be difficult to prove that such a thing exists.)
  2. Does liberalism necessarily bring with it a “spiritual void” or “false gods”?  And is it uniquely responsible for the gradually-shrinking commitment to Christian religion?  (Humanists, secularists, and others certainly would demur on the first question, and social scientists might see circular reasoning in the second.)
  3. Is a strong and aggressive military needed to restrain the spread of communism or socialism in the world?  (This leg obviously seems less relevant in 2019 than it did during the Cold War.  Yet the word “socialist” still evokes very strong—if vestigial—emotional reactions from many Americans.)

The Democratic Party, however, does not dare to publicly put Republican ideology on trial.  Doing so would radicalize many Republicans, and in the process would likely alienate not only independent voters but also religiously-conservative minority groups.  So, independent voters are unlikely to encounter debates about the assumptions of ideological conservatism.

Still, there is no guarantee that the Republican formula will work forever.  It might, for example, be argued that Trump’s presidency signals a change in the Republican Party.  The great majority of Trump’s Republican support, however, was not about him or his policies, but was rather about holding onto power.  It can be admitted, certainly, that many Republicans today are not only energized against big government, but also against an unresponsive or malign “elite” government.  Republicans are also gaining energy from new far-left proposals such as Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which is easy to characterize as pie-in-the-sky or even destructive.   And so it would foolhardy to bet that Republican ideological fervor is going to run out of steam.

Perhaps the greatest risk to Republican electoral success is a stronger enthusiasm for center-left solutions by independent voters.  As discussed previously, the American public is operationally liberal about almost all individual issues.  When independent voters are not sufficiently focused on individual issues, their symbolic conservativism typically holds sway.  Conversely, if they do focus on individual issues, and obtain some degree of understanding about their realness, urgency, and solvability, then the fears originating in their symbolic conservatism may have insufficient power over them.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats will recognize this opportunity, and whether a way will be found to entice independent voters into focusing on issues.  Most voters do not have the energy for finding and reviewing facts and data, let alone reading policy documents.

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