Ezra Klein recently wrote on Vox about the findings of a couple of political scientists concerning the difference between Democrats and Republicans, particularly when it comes to policymaking. Matthew Grossman and David Hopkins published pieces entitled “The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left: Asymmetric Politics in America” and “Policymaking in Red and Blue: Asymmetric Partisan Politics and American Governance” that statistically confirm things that were already known to be broadly true.
Most fundamentally: Democrats and Republicans are different.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the rational explanation that Grossman and Hopkins give for the differences between Democratic and Republican approaches to policymaking is that it justifies the Tea Party’s uncompromising stance on what its members consider to be pure conservatism.
Klein sums up that difference this way: “Democrats are more focused on making policy to appease their various interest groups and Republicans are more focused on proving their commitment to the small-government philosophy that unites the base.”
A couple of Grossman’s and Hopkins’ findings interact to produce a rational tendency toward ideological intransigence on the Right. First, Republicans face less interest group pressure than their Democratic counterparts. Democratic politicians have had to answer to a more complex web of interests in making policy. Furthermore, interest groups on the Left have had to learn to give and take; in order to get what they want, they have to help others get what they want as well. Republicans have had to deal with this dynamic comparatively less.
Second, policymaking making has a liberal bias. That is to say that the policy made in the last seventy or so years has tended to move in the liberal rather than the conservative direction. Because of this, Democrats are more willing to take their time, compromise and be patient in achieving their policy demands.
In contrast, Republicans tend not to see an advantage to compromising in order to make policy, since it will only result in a slower march to liberalism. As Klein writes, “…American politics is fundamentally rational. Republicans are uncompromising because compromise tends to expand the scope of government. Democrats are willing to make deep concessions because policy moves in a generally liberal direction.”
In other words, Grossman and Hopkins, and in turn Klein, are acknowledging that if the GOP acts as the “party of no,” it is because it makes sense for them to do so. Klein quotes Speaker Boehner as saying, “we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
Certainly, there will be objections to these conclusions. First, does this mean that Democrats are not ideological? Absolutely not. There are simply fewer ideological liberals in the Democrat party. Grossman and Hopkins find that more people identify as Democrats than Republicans, but more also identify as conservatives than liberals.
This doesn’t make sense until you realize that people who prefer conservative policies still have personal interests. Consider, for example, the union worker who is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage and supports securing the border, yet votes Democrat in support of his union. His personal interests simply outweigh his policy preferences. Better perhaps to say that the policy preferences that he sees affecting him most directly outweigh the others.
That is how he can drive to his polling location in his gas-guzzling Silverado to vote for the same party as the environmentalist college student who drove there in her Suburu Outback decked out in Sierra Club stickers. They may agree on few things in life, but the Democrats have promised to look out for what both see as their interests.
A second objection: Republican leaders don’t really act in such a way that proves their commitment to small-government principles. If so, it appears that Republican leaders don’t really act as rationally as the Tea Party considering the composition of the Republican Party and the liberal tilt of policymaking history. Does this mean that the most rational thing for the GOP to do is to largely give into the demands of the Tea Party? Or is there something else at play here?
It may be that Republican leaders hope to imitate the success liberals have had in passing policy and therefore believe that they ought to copy their methods. That would also be a rational response, though they are not the Democratic Party and there is thus a limitation on how much they could truly behave like Democrats.
Or it could be that Republican leaders think compromise is the name of the game in a pluralistic society with a government constituted with checks and balances and separation of powers in other to prevent any faction to get everything it wants when it wants it. In this they would be correct. The Tea Party, whose interest in the framers is refreshing in this day and age, should recognize that they system Madison, et al, designed was not built to make any changes quickly, no matter how good they are.
That being said, if Republicans and Tea Partiers cannot bridge the gap between that reality and the realities recognized by Grossman and Hopkins, they will likely continue to see their goals frustrated. The Tea Party should realize that perhaps it isn’t that compromise is inherently liberal, but that liberals are more skilled at compromise. As well, Republican leaders need to realize that the Tea Party approach is rational given the realities of American politics.
Forget moderate Republican leaders; I’ll bet Ezra Klein never expected to imply that.