Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, a new book by BC Assistant Professor of Political Science David Hopkins and Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann, explores how the Republican and Democratic Parties think differently about both politics and government. Hopkins discusses his findings in a this Q&A with Sean Hennessey of the Office of News & Public Affairs:

Your book’s title spells out how you see the Republican Party being a vehicle of an ideological movement, while the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups. Talk a little bit about that.

The point of the book is that rather than thinking of the two major parties in America as mirror images of each other, we should think of them as two different types of parties. That means their sources of popular support, the goals of their activist populations, and the behavior of their politicians are all different.

On the Republican side, the GOP has been, for most of the past century, the agent of a conservative ideological movement. The vast majority of Republican office-holders, activists, and voters consider themselves to be conservatives and view the Republican Party as the party that upholds conservative values and pursues conservative policy.

When we look at evidence that illustrates how Republican voters view their differences with Democrats, they’re likely to say the parties are engaged in an ideological conflict. Therefore, the Republicans define themselves as the party of the right, of small government, of traditional social values, of American nationalism.

On the Democratic side, we see a very different pattern where party members don’t often speak or think in ideological terms. Democrats don’t necessarily view the parties as engaged in an ideological struggle. Instead, they see the parties as representing two different types of group coalitions, and they see politics not as a battle of philosophies but as a battle of group interests – which groups are going to get favorable policies from the government. 

So, a lot of rank and file Democrats define their party as one that speaks to their particular social group interests and social group identities while the Republican Party does not.  This leads to some very different approaches to governing, very different campaign strategies and so on. We really need to recognize this asymmetry if we’re going to understand American politics. 

Assistant Professor of Political Science David Hopkins
Assistant Professor of Political Science David Hopkins, author of 'Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.' (Lee Pellegrini)

You mentioned that while there are two different parties, one would think that candidates and office-holders would have the same type of agenda on each side. You’re saying they do not. People might be surprised to hear that.

When you look at the broad ideological pre-dispositions of Americans – whether they consider themselves on the left or the right, conservatives or liberals, for or against bigger government, for more traditional family values or for more progressive social and cultural attitudes – the American electorate looks relatively conservative. They tend to lean to the right collectively; there are more self-identified conservatives than liberals; there are more people for smaller government than bigger government. At that level, you’d say, “Oh, the American people are mostly right-of-center.”

But if you ask voters about specific policies — “Should we have more or less generous Social Security benefits? Should we have more federal funding for education, healthcare and the environment or should we have less?” — all of a sudden they look more liberal than conservative. In other words, a number of voters who think of themselves as conservatives also support a lot of liberal policies.

What does this mean for the parties? It means that it’s in the Republicans’ strategic interest to emphasize the broad abstract ideological themes where a majority of the electorate agrees with them. Democrats have a different set of incentives: Don’t talk about big ideologies, talk about policy specifics, because on the policy specifics, the majority of Americans are on the Democratic side.

So the different character and nature of each party is not just accidental; it’s in some respects the consequence of the incentives that the voters themselves provide to the parties to speak and sell themselves in very different ways.

Did your findings underscore the long-standing perception that the Democratic Party is the party of big government, and more help for the poor and middle-class, while the Republican Party is more aligned with small government – take care of yourself, do it on your own?

Sure, but Democrats don’t like to say that they’re for big government; they just like to talk about the specific government programs that are popular.

Which leads to the perception of big government.

Exactly. On the other hand, Republicans like to talk about small government but they don’t like to talk about cutting popular programs, which is what shrinking the government would actually involve. So yes, the voters do recognize that difference but it leads to a very distinct style of campaigning for the candidates in each party.

This book underscores how Democrats and Republicans really think differently, and brings new insight into polarization and how our government is so dysfunctional.

Yes, and polarization is a consequence of a lot of different historical changes. Certainly one of them is that the Republican Party in particular has become a lot more conservative than it used to be. There was a time in the past where there was a wing of the Republican Party that did not identify as conservative. During the mid-20th century, there were a lot of Republican office-holders who identified as moderates or even liberals and who resisted the conservative movement’s takeover of the Republican Party. But they are almost all gone. There are a few remaining – [Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [former U.S. Senator] Scott Brown, and [U.S. Senator] Susan Collins are among them – but just a scattered handful of moderate Republicans left.

The other thing I’ll say about polarization is that some of the dysfunction that we see in politics today stems from the fact that the parties don’t really understand each other very well. They especially don’t understand the ways that they are different. When Republicans think of themselves as being the party of individual liberty, a strong America, constitutional principles, and traditional social values, they often assume that the Democrats are against all those things. And when the Democrats see themselves as the party of disadvantaged social groups, they may assume that Republicans just want the rich to have a free ride while protecting existing privilege.

The fact that we have two parties that are so different often leads to misunderstandings about the motivations of the partisans on the other side of the aisle. It leads to a demonization of the opposition party, which is partly why it’s difficult for the parties to compromise and why voters and politicians in each party increasingly dislike the other side.

You’ve written that this year’s presidential election confirms the ways in which the Republican and Democratic parties are “very different animals,” that this difference has been around for years but it’s only recently been recognized. Why do you suppose that is?

There are a couple of reasons. From the point of view of political scientists, we try to develop theories in our research that apply as broadly as possible. It’s a much more useful endeavor to have a theory that applies to multiple parties than to have a theory that only applies to one party. In the United States, where there are only two main parties, we’d ideally want to have a theory of parties that applies equally well to the Republicans and the Democrats and does a good job of explaining what’s happening on the Democratic side and Republican side alike.

It’s also the case that journalists and to some extent citizens like the idea of symmetry, where the Democrats and Republicans obviously advocate different policies and draw from different supporters, but they’re equivalent in a way, there’s a balance in the system. Reporters and pundits can then apply critiques of one just as equally to the other, which makes it easier to avoid being accused of bias. There’s a sense in which the idea of symmetry itself has an intellectually pleasing quality that a lot of us find attractive.

So while in the past there have been cases where people have pointed out that Democrats do things differently than Republicans in particular respects – they have different procedures for selecting their national convention delegates, for example, or the congressional parties have different internal rules – in the big picture there’s a strong tendency to want the story to hold just as well on one side as the other. Our research is challenging that belief, in part because we think theories that treat the parties the same or as mirror images just don’t do a good job of explaining some of the major developments we’re seeing in our politics today.

The nomination race of 2016 is one of them. It’s hard to look at the way Democrats ran for president and the way Republicans ran for president and say, “Well, it was sort of the same.” In Congress last year, we saw Speaker of the House John Boehner deposed because of a rebellion by a purist conservative bloc within the Republican Party. There’s no purist leftist bloc in the Democratic Party that’s trying to overthrow House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid – it just doesn’t exist.

Similarly, we have the mainstream media and the conservative media but we don’t really have an explicitly liberal counterpart to the conservative media. There isn’t anything as powerful on the left as Fox News or talk radio is on the right. So there are a lot of ways in which politics today just seems out of balance. Our book argues, with some reluctance but with a devotion to accuracy, that political scientists need to re-think the theories that assume symmetry between the parties and need to treat each party separately as its own animal.

How does Donald Trump fit into all of this? Is his an ideological movement or one taking advantage of people being frustrated by government and hungry for change?

Trump is a fascinating figure and a challenge to theory-building because he breaks the mold in a lot of ways. We haven’t seen a lot of Donald Trumps before in American politics! But I do think some of the things our book identifies about the distinctiveness of the Republican Party help to account for why Trump successfully won the nomination.

One of the ways Trump is not like other Republicans is that he doesn’t talk a lot about conservatism as such, or about being a member of the conservative movement, and that’s very different from someone like Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, or George W. Bush. However, Trump is running a campaign that, like most Republican campaigns, emphasizes broad themes rather than a long list of individual policies. He talks a lot about American nationalism, about “making America great again” and returning to a particular vision of America and American strength. He’s not someone who gets caught up in the details of exactly what he’s going to do in office or how he’s going to do it. In that way, he is consistent with the usual Republican approach of stressing the big picture rather than specifics.

Trump is also very much a creature of the conservative media; he’s someone who really arose as an important political figure in the first term of the Obama administration when he became a very prominent anti-Obama voice. In fact, he had a regular appearance every week on Fox News for several years before he ran for president. He got a tremendous amount of attention from Fox News, talk radio and conservative Internet sites, and that laid the groundwork for him to run for president and to be accepted by Republican voters as a conservative. Even though he had previously donated to Democratic candidates and expressed liberal social views, all was forgiven because of how he established himself in the conservative media as one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration. And the conservative media has a lot of influence within Republican Party politics, as we’ve seen.

Where Trump doesn’t have specifics, Hillary Clinton is just the opposite. She doesn’t really give grandiose speeches but rather drills down into the nitty-gritty, and is more apt to explain, for example, how exactly to make college more affordable for young people.

Yes, Hillary Clinton is the archetypical Democrat in our view. She doesn’t talk about what it means to be a liberal; she doesn’t talk about her progressive vision for America. She talks instead about a laundry list of specific policies that each appeal to particular groups in the population. If you’re a college student, she has a policy for you to have more affordable loans. If you’re someone who needs healthcare, she has a policy to help get you healthcare. If you’re someone who is African American, gay, or a woman, she has a policy to protect you from discrimination.

That’s sort of the standard Democratic playbook, which is to assemble an electoral majority by building a coalition out of a bunch of different social groups that each has its own priorities and interests. And when you appeal to each group on its own terms, you wind up with more votes than if you talk more generally about ideology or principles.

And you really can’t argue one party’s approach is more effective than another, given the White House changes control every four to eight years.

Agreed. We as the American public have a kind of conflicted overall view. We like the Republican message of small government, individual liberty, patriotism and traditional moral values, and we also like the Democratic message of more money for Social Security, more regulation of insurance companies and corporate polluters, and more support for public education. So we’re up for grabs as a nation. Neither side can be assured of winning us over in any given election.

How do you think history will remember the 2016 presidential election?

The fact that Trump won the Republican nomination makes this election historically memorable, for sure. Trump represents a culmination of a larger trend on the Republican side that I think we can perceive in retrospect as going back farther than 2016 itself. Part of that story is the increasing power of the conservative media in Republican politics at the expense of the party’s traditional elected leadership, almost none of whom were particularly supportive of Trump. In fact, some of them were quite openly against Trump and yet that didn’t matter too much to Republican voters because they liked Trump’s message and didn’t really respect the judgment of their party’s elected officials.

Also, I’d note the way in which the Republicans have defined themselves in opposition to what they see as the unacceptable liberalism or even socialism of Democratic office-holders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton being chief among them. There was a tremendously fierce opposition to Obama among Republicans and conservatives beginning in the first year of his presidency, and lot of that opposition was not just saying, “We think his policies are misguided, we think they’re a mistake, we think they’re going to lead to bad outcomes for American citizens,” but instead claiming that the president was trying to impose a socialist or Marxist or un-American agenda on the nation, that he himself is not really pro-American, that he is intentionally trying to weaken the country, that he’s apologizing for America around the world – that he himself may not have been born in this country or may not have the religion that he says he has.

It’s certainly clear that a connection can be drawn between the character of the opposition to Obama from the early days of his presidency and the rise of Trump as the alternative. Trump represents the ultimate anti-Obama figure in the extent to which he talks about American strength, as well as the extent to which he has presented himself for years as an outspoken personal critic of Obama and someone who himself questioned Obama’s Americanness. I think we’ll probably look back at this election years from now and interpret the nomination of Trump at the end of Obama’s presidency as representing the fruition of what has happened in the Republican Party during those eight years.

—News & Public Affairs