Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Groups vs. Ideas within Parties

I shouldn't really wade into this without having read Hans Noel, who is both very smart and (I think) on the other side of this issue from me...but I absolutely love this from Matt Yglesias.  Gotta quote:
The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes. 
The exact same thing is true of issues surrounding federalism, right?  In reality, both Democrats and Republicans tend to support states when it is otherwise convenient to do so, but have no problem supporting the national government is that's what will achieve their goals.  But Democrats pretty much banished states' rights talk from their vocabularies when they decided not to be the racist party any more, so talk about the virtues of local government and the evils of Washington wind up the more-or-less exclusive domain of Republicans.*

The truth is that when discussing politics, the press and most pols are far more comfortable talking about ideology than about groups, but in fact it's probably much better to think about parties as collections of groups than it is to think of them as proponents of ideas.  Granted, what Yglesias calls "historical and rhetorical tropes" can matter; Republicans might, all things be equal, tend to support policies that resonate with the way they talk about  politics, but things are rarely equal, and when it comes to a competition between ideology and group interests, odds are very good that group interests will win.

I'd also separate out partisanship from ideology and group-representation as a reason that parties take positions on issues of public policy.  In the case of health care, for example, it seems to me that partisanship (the urge to oppose whatever Obama supported because of the belief it would help Republicans candidates in 2010) won out over group representation, which would have led Republicans to fight for a bill that would have helped GOP-affiliated or leaning groups such as doctors, Pharma, and the insurance industry. 

All of which, in my opinion, is a perfectly healthy part of how parties facilitate democracy.  What's less healthy, to me, is how reluctant many are to acknowledge it.  If someone would say that he was supporting the Democrats because, as an African American, he supported the party that works for African Americans -- or that, as a wealthy American, she supports the Republicans because that's the party that looks out for rich folks...well, people don't like to hear that.  (And, yes, people have multiple identities, and can choose which of those to identify with politically, so I'm not saying that African Americans "have to" be Democrats, or that Anglo evangelical Christians "have to" be Republicans).  I do think it's fine, and regardless of value it's natural in politics, for people to express their preferences with something more universal than "gimme," but in my opinion American political culture is too friendly to ideas and not even close to friendly enough to groups, or political parties.

*And are oddly popular in the abstract among Americans.  What I always say to students to balance that out is (1) have you ever been to a DMV?, and (2) James Carville's joke -- I'll race you from Disneyland to Disneyworld, and I get to take the federal roads.  Although I should say that Texas DMV offices are fine, and Indiana's, or at least the one that I went to, are terrific.  California and Arizona?  Not so much, and I can't imagine how bad it must be now in both of those states.


  1. "...when it comes to a competition between ideology and group interests, odds are very good that group interests will win"

    How do you explain the "What's the matter with Kansas" argument?

    I know from my personal experience in discussing health reform with my middle class, right wing evangelical father that he was very concerned with a hypothetical rich person who might not be able to get a procedure he desired under fully government run health care regime. He was much more concerned with this hypothetical rich person than he was with the fact that his son's family can't afford health insurance on the individual market or the fact that his daughter's family is in a precarious health insurance situation where if they lost their coverage (under the conditions at the time of the discussion) they would be unable to get new coverage.

    It seems to me that in the case of the Republicans at least, the party has been very successful at convincing the majority of their members that the ideas of Reagan economics are more important than the interests of most of the groups that make up their coalition. It happens that the ideas match up with the group interests of a portion of their coalition, but when ideas are trumping the interests of most of the members of the group, it seems to me that ideas are winning over group interests.

    You could make the same argument for the Democrats and affirmative action. AA is obviously an important group interest for a portion of their coalition, but the rest of the coalition has to be persuaded by ideas that AA is worthwhile since it works directly against their own group interests.

  2. JB: You have stated a reality re politics (universally) often thought but not well expressed. Feel given significance of the distinction between ideological rhetoric which is thinking in gaseous generalities and mindless contradictory shibboleths vs awareness of and commitment to one's self-interests, as in all the lower class southern whites who would rather lose an arm or their house than vote for economic self-interests they have in common with blacks, this phenomenon needs even more forceful hard hitting succinctness to communicate this fundamental reality. Where in the literature can I find that to move on and explore further what you have more or less adumbrated here, sir?

  3. Mellors:
    For my money, a great piece that touches this question, if only tangentially, is Dahl's Preface to Democratic Theory. The part that I always had the most trouble with in Dahl's argument was the theme that a person's expressed choice is the best way of measuring what is in their interest. As a fairly paternalistic, elitist guy, it's not hard to see why that bothers me.

  4. Mellors,

    I'll second Matt's pick of Dahl's Preface, although I do think it's fairly tangential to the main point above -- but it's a great book, and I didn't include it in my "ten books" list, so I want in on Matt's recommendation.

    On groups and parties, David Karol's new book is highly relevant. Karol is also a co-author, with several others, of an important unpublished (AFAIK) essay on parties. I'd recommend my own unpublished essay, too, but I don't have it online anywhere (shhh...don't tell Sides). Their essay says that parties are creatures of groups; I say that parties are creatures of pols, groups, and party insiders, with circumstances and context affecting who gets the upper hand. Both are reactions to John Aldrich (Why Parties?), who says that parties are creatures of politicians.

    Karol's Book:

    Essay by Bawn et. al:


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