Parties aren’t arbitrary collections of interest groups either

In one way, I agree with Mark’s post.  There is nothing inherently liberal in the Democratic Party, and nothing inherently conservative in the Republican Party.  All of the most common ideological terms – conservative, liberal, reactionary, progressive – are at best, convenient descriptions of pluralities of Party members at this particular point in history.  Useful in casual conversation, but frustratingly contradictory for anyone who thinks about it for more than 5 minutes.

But where I disagree is with the idea that outside of ideological coherence, you’re left with concluding that political parties are: a) a coalition of interest groups; or b) a vehicle for gaining power.  My own take is that political parties have their own philosophies, quite separate from the ideological groupings that count today, and that, while those groupings can and will evolve into, form, join, or co-opt other parties, there will still be room for the voters who have always been Democrats or Republicans, and, if you dropped them into any point throughout American history (at least after each party was formed) would have then also been members of the same party they claim today.  In other words, they’re realignment-proof.

This is actually one of the things that always bugs me with the debate between the assumed progressive base of the Democratic Party and the “Clintonian (or New) Democratic” wing.  Until about a century ago, Progressives were more closely associated with the Republican Party, most famously Teddy Roosevelt.  Until about 55 years ago, the Clintonian Democrats – who I would describe as optimistic, future-focused, market-oriented moderates – were also most closely associated with the Republican Party; Dwight Eisenhower, in this case.  So, the back and forth between who *actually* forms the nucleus of the Democratic Party today is basically hashed out between two factions that would’ve called themselves Republicans anytime before, say, 1912.

Fifty years from now, progressives may have moved back into the Republican camp, may have joined the Green Party, may have formed their own Party, or may have stayed with the Democrats – but whatever happens, they’re progressives first, partisans second.  The same can be said of New Democrats (though admittedly, they might have to change their name), the libertarian-Right, libertarian-Left, religious-Right, religious-Left, or yes, even (maybe) my beloved Populists.

The marriage between ideology and Party has always been a marriage of convenience, and it shouldn’t be shocking to us when the partners move on in search of a new love, or when, with a wink, Party leaders in one part of the country allow fellow partisans in another region to flirt with another ideology.  But when an ideology switches its partisan allegiance, the Party it leaves doesn’t just become an empty shell waiting to take on the identity of its next suitor.

I was thinking about this recently when I read a couple of articles on Democratic Party factions and other ideological groupings, and I noticed a couple of weird patterns about the descriptions of “conservative democrats” and “moderate democrats.”  Intuitively, it would make sense to imagine the Democratic Party as a line between conservatives and Progressives (or liberal, if you prefer), with moderates in the middle.  Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but it would stand to reason that conservatives are to the Right of moderates who are in turn to the Right of progressives.

But in the Pew survey, the Conservative Democrat “corresponding typology” is New Dealer.  By contrast, according to the wikipedia article, the New Democrats (generally lumped in with moderates) promote “neoliberal fiscal issues.”  And, also in the wikipedia article, it is argued that:

“Conservative Democrats are distinguishable by staunch liberal views on economic issues (a populist orientation setting them apart from conservative Republicans and explaining their continued allegiance to the Democratic Party), with their moderate to conservative views on other issues.”

So this implies that conservative Democrats are basically Reagan Democrats – the once solidly Democratic, stereotypically rust belt grouping who started breaking away from the Party in the late ’60s, while moderate Democrats are the formerly Republican, professional class voters who began voting Democratic in the ’90s, but never felt particularly comfortable with the protectionist or class-conscious wings of the Party.

If that’s the case, then it makes more sense to imagine the conservative-moderate-liberal Democratic factions as a triangle, each sharing some issues with another faction and differing on others.  If it’s a triangle, then there’s no reason to imagine some sort of continuum that would lead into Republican territory: conservative Democrats would be no closer to Republicanism than moderate Democrats or progressive Democrats.

I also found it interesting the way the passage distinguishes between conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans – the two are very different, despite sharing their conservatism.  Parties matter, independent of any modifying ideology.  The same shorthand can be said of liberal – or, “Rockefeller” Republicans.

Over the past 40 or so years, the ideological grouping has gained importance while the partisan grouping has diminished, so it has become second nature to put the emphasis on the first word – liberal Republican, conservative Democrat to the modern ear is virtually the same as saying Democratic-leaning Republican or Republican-leaning Democrat.  Again, if politics is viewed as a continuum, there would be little, if any, difference between those two particular groupings.

But intuitively, we know that there is a major difference between Reagan Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans.  Trace it back to the farm and labor roots of the Democratic Party and the business and civic roots of the Republican Party, if you want.  I don’t know – good an explanation as any, I guess.

So getting back to Mark’s point, I just don’t think that the fact of differing (and sometimes opposing) ideologies within the same Party is proof of some overall arbitrariness in the Party system.  I’d say this is especially true when it involves an issue like crime – something that really can’t be given a partisan home.

None of that is to say that parties shouldn’t be exlusionary to some extent (former Senator Bob Kerrey has referred to himself as a “Hamiltonian Democrat,” something I’ve always found too contradictory to make any sense).   But being exclusionary in terms of progressive-conservative ideology is itself pretty arbitrary and completely denies the ancestry of each Party.

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8 thoughts on “Parties aren’t arbitrary collections of interest groups either

  1. It’s not clear to me why an organization whose primary purpose is to elect people to office cannot also have ideological purpose(s) for wanting to do this, even if they prove in office to be committed more to their primary purpose than their ideological purpose. Id don’t think it proves you are not ideological at all just because don’t act primarily pusuant to the ideology, though I would accept if Mark says that is exactly his definition of ideological, in which case, then, yes parties are not ideological. They exist to gain power. But I think in the case of both the Democratic and the Republican parties, they exist to gain power for it’s own sake, but alsofor an instrumental purpose. Certainly the parties are not purely ideological, otherwise they would be unelectable. But the two major parties we have are also not purely solipsistic in that seeking of power – I believe parties that were purely power-maximizing would neither have passed tax-breaks that overwhelmingly benefitted the rich, nor a health-care bill that requires all employers eventually to offer health insurance to their employees and the employees to accept it as part of compensation. One can obviously say that these measures satisfy interest groups within the parties, which is a prior requirement for party operation before being able to expand their appeal, but at the same time, ideology and interest tends to be less distinguishable than this distinction allows for. There will never be a party that can possibly be a factor in democratic politics that one could call ideological if we don’t allow that frequently an ideology is just an elaborate justification of an interest. If we don’t allow that those are still legitimate ideologies, then I don’t see the point of raising this question at all. Clearly, politics is driven by interest. In my view, that does not mean it is not ideological, but if on thinks that is does, then what is the point of raising ideology in democratic debates? Interests come first, but that doesn’t eliminate ideology.

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  2. Another thing to say is that, yes, parties are not inherently of a particular ideology, nor even consistently of a particular ideology. Obviously, the ideological commitments of the parties have shifted over time. But that is a far cry from showing that they are not ideological. Indeed I would say it is laughable to say that they are not ideological. They commit themselves to platform; in each of the last two major changeovers in party control we have seen the parties enact major parts of those platforms. Those platforms are clearly ideological. And while the platforms have obviously changed radically over the course of a century or so, they remain remarkably consistent over the period of a generation or two. None of this is to say parties are not primarily committed to achieving power, largely for its own sake. But it just doesn’t follow from that that they are not ideological. Their ideologies serve their pursuit of power as much or more than they pursue power for the purpose of their ideology, but they clearly mix both those purposes.

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  3. Just ogonna keep going:

    To be sure, parties are also fundamentally coalitions that will include plenty of people, and perhaps even some politicians, with a real agenda. But the parties themselves are nothing more than tools for those politicians and people to gain access to the halls of power. Those people and politicians care nothing about whether someone in another area of the country, under the same party banner, actively opposes or undermines their agenda. All they care about, instead, is whether that particular someone will give them greater access to power if elected.

    This seems to me to be quite an extreme bar to set in order to be able to call a party ideological. Surely we needn’t say that all members of a party must agree on some point or other in order for it to be ideological. That’s just what coalition party politics is: trying to attract people to your party so that your party can achieve governing status and ursue the agenda. Mark allows that some members (and he didn’t stipulate not a critical mass) may be pusuing that agenda for ideological reasons. If it furthers that agenda to increase the party’s power to pursue that agenda (which is ideological in content, and, for, a critical mass, in motive) to have members who oppose that agenda join the party for other (perhaps purely power-seeking, perhaps separate ideological) reasons, then it is still an ideological endeavor everyone is engaged in, it seems to me. Which is all to say that it seems to me it is rather an empirical question, and a mostly non-transparent one because it deals in part with members’ motivation for action, whether a particular party, including either of the two major American ones, is ideological in character at any particular time. They may be, and they may not be, and it may not be the same answer from day to day, or with respect to one issue or another.

    At some level, it is simply a tautology to say that an organization that seeks to convince myriad smaller interest groups, many of which interests are ideological, that it will serve their interest best to use as a political vehicle is not inherently ideological. At the same time, it also clearly inaccurate to say that that organization is not ideological when the collection of ideological interests it serves becomes more or less stable over a period of time. Simply being capable of changing ideology over time, or adopting that of a newly dominant force within, does not mean that a party does not have an ideology, especially at a given time. That is an overly formalist view of political parties.

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  4. Lisa:

    A lot to mull over here, especially considering as my post was far from my best effort and probably a bit too cynical. I think there’s a lot to what you’ve said here, though, and mull it over I shall.

    In particular, I love your description of the modern Democratic Party as a triangle, which provides a beautiful symmetry to the so-called “three-legged stool” of the Republican Party. Thinking about the Dem coalition in that manner will help me a lot in my future analyses.

    One area where I think I’m struggling to get my point across (and in which I used to do quite a bit better) is in trying to explain the ideological incoherency of the two parties’ core bases (an incoherency that I think remains a bigger problem on the Right than on the Left, by the way), and the tendency of politics to reduce what are ultimately political philosophies with a particular normative worldview into nothing more than a set of policy prescriptions that may or may not fit that worldview.

    There is one particular point I want to respond to right now, though:
    ” But when an ideology switches its partisan allegiance, the Party it leaves doesn’t just become an empty shell waiting to take on the identity of its next suitor.”

    I wasn’t trying to imply that this is what occurs when an ideology or interest group switches sides. Rather, I tend to think that what’s left when this happens is that the Party will sort of reformulate around the ideologies that remain. With fewer ideologies to now accommodate, the Party will become more philosophically coherent even as it becomes less rigid on particular issues, and especially on particular issues that are of low priority to the remaining groups (but may have been a high priority for the departing group). This newfound flexibility allows it to accommodate new ideologies or interest groups to replace the departing group.

    That said, your point about Conservative Democrats is really, really good, and poses serious problems for my theory. It’s also counterintuitive in that it implies that they are sort of the “Real Democrats,” with an ideological history within the party that you could presumably trace back all the way to Jackson, if not further.

    What would be the comparable group within the GOP, though? The Wall Street Republicans, perhaps? Presumably so.

    If that assumption is correct, then you wind up with the core ideology of each party being that of the group within each party who is most despised and distrusted by the rest of the party.

    One possible problem within this analysis of yours – although I don’t think it’s fatal: since the conclusion of the Civil Rights era , member voting in Congress turns out to fit almost perfectly on a one-dimensional linear graph, no matter what the issue. Unfortunately, I can’t find the link right now, but I know Paul Krugman wrote about it on his blog about a year ago or so. But, as I said, I don’t think this is fatal to your theory – voting patterns don’t tell you about intraparty negotiations that are critical in the formation and passage of legislation.

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  5. Lisa and Mark your posts/comments are really interesting but I wonder the degree to which parties-ideologies are influenced by regional characteristics. Yes Democratic progressives now would likely have called themselves Republican progressives before the Wilson administration but at no point would they have been overwhelmingly Southern. By the same token, populist Republicans of the contemporary South don’t sound or vote terribly different from populist Democrats of the Old South.

    It seems to me that the existence of contrarian impulses in parties is indicative of the natural friction between long standing differences in character and interests between the regions comprising a national party. The same party that exists as an alliance against ancestral enemies/those who would harm our interests.

    I could be wrong in relation to specific individuals from certain regions, but overall if you replaced conservative-moderate-liberal with Southern-Western/Mid-Atlantic-Northern, for the most part I think we’d be talking about overlapping groups.

    So in short, what’s the connection between ideology and region and how does it factor in?

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