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Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree about how they disagree

- September 7, 2016
Blue Democratic donkey cookies and red Republican elephant cookies are displayed on Nov. 2, 2012, at the Red Mug Bake Shop in Superior, Wis., where Vice President Biden visited. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Republican and Democratic voters disagree about a lot. But the divide between each party’s members is much wider than simply distinct policy positions and different evaluations of candidates. Each party’s supporters define the terms and stakes of political competition quite differently. Republicans believe they’re battling over two opposing ideologies, while Democrats view partisan conflict instead as a fight between different social groups.

In our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, we show that this pattern has held true across decades of history and a variety of political contexts — and demonstrate that each group of partisans is fundamentally correct about its own side.

The Republican Party defines itself in ideological terms as the vehicle of symbolic conservatism. The Democratic Party, in contrast, is organized as a social group coalition.

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This asymmetry is clear in the responses that citizens surveyed by the American National Election Studies (ANES) give to open-ended questions asking what they like and dislike about each major party and presidential nominee. Consider these responses, drawn from the 2012 ANES. We found:

Republicans tend to emphasize what they view as ideological disagreement between the parties: 

  • Democrats “want the government to run everything and they think the government can fix everything.” Republicans “want people to be personally responsible for their own lives.”
  • The Democratic Party “promotes big government, secularism, elitism and collectivism.” The Republican Party “pushes for cutting the size of the federal government.”
  • Democrats are “quite socialistic, [giving] way too much power to the government.” Republicans are for “fiscal responsibility and conservatism . . . less government, more power to the states, encouraging jobs . . . with less dependency on the federal government.”

Democrats tend to describe a clash between competing group interests:

  • Democrats “support the poor and middle class.” Republicans “look out for the rich and don’t care about the poor and middle class.”
  • Democrats have “concern for the working class . . . [and have] always worked to help women.” Republicans’ “concern is for people who have money.”
  • Democrats are “the party of the common man.” Republicans are “for rich, mainly white older folks who tend to be quite judgmental, narrow-minded and unconcerned for their fellow Americans.”

One party is battling for an ideology; the other is battling for groups of people.

They’re fighting, in other words, over different things. This pattern has endured for decades. The figure below illustrates the longevity of this difference by classifying ANES respondents between 1964 and 2000 who considered themselves strong Democrats or strong Republicans as either ideologues or group interest voters, based on the type of language they used to describe their relationship to the parties. Strong Republicans favor an ideological conceptualization of party politics, while Democrats emphasize how the parties represent group benefits.


What’s more, we find that Republicans are consistently more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than Democrats are to consider themselves liberals. Republicans are also more likely to say they believe that their party should stand up for its principles and become more ideologically pure, while Democrats tend to favor pragmatic compromise and a more moderate party.

On the whole, Americans call themselves conservative . . . but prefer liberal policies

These differences are reinforced by Americans’ tendency, for more than 50 years, to prefer left-of-center positions on most specific issues (as you can see in the dashed blue line in the figure below), while preferring to call themselves conservatives rather than liberals (green dotted line) and to say that, in the abstract, government should be smaller rather than bigger (solid red line).

GROSSMAN pubopin

Republican and Democratic candidates and leaders reinforce these different party identities in their messages

That means Republican leaders have a strong incentive to frame electoral choices in broad ideological terms: conservatism vs. liberalism; small government vs. big government; cultural traditionalism vs. social radicalism.

Democratic candidates, in contrast, prefer to emphasize disagreements over individual policies: Should health-care access be expanded? Should public education be more generously funded? Should the minimum wage be increased? Democrats commonly promote their specific policy proposals by emphasizing the particular social groups that would benefit. For example, they advocate anti-discrimination laws for racial minorities, abortion rights for women and affordable college tuition for young people.

In other words, political elites reinforce these distinct party identities when they communicate with the American public. Republican Party leaders encourage their voters to see the GOP as standing for a set of broad traditions and values. Democratic Party leaders push their voters to focus on the discrete interests of each social group within the Democratic coalition.

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Even Republican voters who identify as strong conservatives frequently depart from conservative orthodoxy on specific policy questions. For example, many Republicans say that they strongly support smaller government in the abstract but want specific federal programs to keep going or even expand. Former South Carolina congressman Robert Inglis once famously reported that a constituent had warned him to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” revealing a popular — if slightly confused — attitude among some U.S. conservatives.

You can see these tendencies in each party’s 2016 nominee for president

This tension between overarching ideology and specific policy views helps to explain why Republican voters chose Donald Trump as their party’s presidential nominee.

Self-identified conservatives in the 2016 primaries preferred Trump to the other Republican candidates — even though he did not always take conservative policy positions. For instance, Trump alienated many conservative intellectuals by opposing cuts in government benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, and by attacking international trade agreements. But many conservative voters agree with Trump on these issues, insulating his mass appeal within the GOP from accusations of ideological inconsistency.

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Democrats, meanwhile, nominated a candidate who rarely employs abstract rhetoric, courts an array of social groups by promoting specific policy initiatives aimed at their concerns, and calls herself a political pragmatist who has the experience needed to work effectively in public office. Each 2016 presidential nominee, in other words, accurately represents how that party’s voters view the great divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. Find him on Twitter @mattgrossmann.


David A. Hopkins is assistant professor of political science at Boston College and blogs about U.S. politics at Honest Graft.

Together they are the authors of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, published this week by Oxford University Press.