Democrats and Republicans, Different? Really?

A recent Vox article explaining the rationale behind the Clintons’ choice of Tim Kaine as their running mate gratuitously brings up the contention that Democrats and Republicans are fundamentally different: that the former is a “coalitional” party while the latter is an “ideological” party. While not wrong, I think this characterization badly overstates the case, and, indeed, misleads in a smug, faux intellectual manner.

The idea that the “Democrats” represent diverse “peoples” and that the “Republicans,” a narrow set of “interests” is ancient: it goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson.  As most long lived ideas are, it rests on a certain set of truths.

A much more recent and more rigorous exploration of the idea, though, appears in David Mayhew’s 1967 masterpiece that is unfortunately overshadowed by the better known but not widely read 1974 work, where he noted that Democrats in Congress consist of diverse set of interests that cooperate on the basis of an “inclusive” compromise, while the Republicans are unified by a pro-business ideology.  Note that the “diverse” in Mayhew’s account goes far beyond any “diversity” today: the Democrats were, it is worth recalling, simultaneously the party of civil rights and Jim Crow, of the unions and union-busting, and pro-war and pro-peace.  Indeed, the 1967 book places Mayhew’s 1974 argument in context: it is not so much that Congress was universalistic, but that Congress was owned by the Democratic Party that operated on the universalistic principle and that the Republican Party was merely a faction of the Democratic Party simply getting its share for not making too much trouble–which they didn’t.

The situation today is different: there is no dominant party.  For all its “coalitionness,” Democrats are nowhere close to its dominant former self–heck, it does not even have a majority in either chamber of Congress.  It is “diverse” only because none of its internal factions is enough to yield a lot of votes.  Its diversity, indeed, is not a strategy for a broad coalition, but the means to maintain a narrow one: one needs to only to be reminded of why Kaine received such lukewarm reaction: he represents the rejection of the Sanders supporters.

The implicit conceit behind the Vox article is that Sanders voters were liberal ideologues who wanted the Democrats to orient towards ideology rather than coalition.  I don’t think this is at all the case: between 1/3 and 40% of the Sanders voters were independents, not Democrats.  A large minority described themselves as “moderates,” a nebulous term meaning that they don’t see where they fit in the political spectrum.  More than 1/4 thought Obama has been too liberal.  In other words, while the average Sanders voter may have been liberal ideologues, a large minority was very far from it.  As Tom Frank’s new book contends, these are the people  who have been increasingly excluded from today’s Democratic Party.  Some “coalitional” party.

The choice that the Democratic insiders have made, then, is exactly the opposite of what the article is implying: Democrats are going for more, not less, exclusivism, with the “cultural diversity” (but not too much) alongside the commitment to market economy and internstionalist foreign policy as the means to enforce their exclusivity. Given the state of the Republican Party, this may be good enough to look diverse.  But to pretend that today’s Democrats are much different from the Republicans, in the sense of being dominated by a handful of exclusivist elites who systematically refuse to compromise outside their narrow circle, is absurd.



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