Boston College Political Science Professor David Hopkins and Michigan State Professor Matt Grossman have recently released a book on party divides called Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.
Their book argues that Republicans and Democrats view politics on completely different terms. “The existing theories of American party politics assumed a kind of mirror image compatibility between Democrats and Republicans,” said Hopkins. “We saw just different kinds of parties.”
While the Republican Party tends to emphasize its vision of the ideological role of government, the Democrats tend to focus on policies that appeal in the here-and-now to different groups of people. For instance, a Democratic representative in Congress might argue for implementing a government-funded preschool program on the grounds that it benefits children, whereas Republicans might object that such a program oversteps the ideal of a small, limited government.
But these party differences can be traced back to the voters themselves. “A majority of the electorate is right of center in general terms … more likely to identify as a conservative, more likely to believe government should be smaller rather than bigger, more likely to believe that we should have traditional family values. But at the same time, the majority of the electorate on specific policy questions is left of center.”
A common litmus test is government size; voters tend to demand a smaller government, yet they support nearly all of the large programs government supplies.
This attitude of the electorate frames political discourse. Republican candidates and politicians speak about themselves in general terms of values and broad directions, while Democrats focus on the kinds of policies they support.
Party differences seep into political productivity, particularly in Congress. Republican ideological hardliners are less inclined to compromise on policy, feeling pressure to maintain a voting record of what Professor Hopkins describes as “unblemished conservatism.”
Democratic politicians tend to view policy compromise as necessary, per the demands of their constituency. “Most Democrats don’t view the role of the party as standing for a set of abstract principles. They view the role of the party as advancing the more concrete interests of its constituent groups,” discerned Hopkins. “A lot of people don’t view the Democratic party as a liberal party. They don’t necessarily want it to be a liberal party.”
However, Congress was not always so polarized. Hopkins notes that the Democratic Party followed an increasingly socially liberal curve after the bulk of working class southern voters left the party. On the other hand, an increasingly uncompromising view of ideology drove the Republicans further right.
Even the enigma of Donald Trump, perhaps a result of polarization, remains somewhat consistent with Hopkins’ conception of the two parties. “He campaigns in generalities and not specifics,” observed Hopkins. “When he does depart from Conservative doctrine, it is often where the American public departs.” Social security and trade deals are two prime examples.
The conservative media as well, born of purist Republican ideology and unmatched by a large pro-Democrat news brand, jumpstarted Trump. But Hopkins acknowledges that many unknown variables—many of which have yet to be investigated—have propelled the current Republican nominee.
Ultimately, Hopkins’ book contains the furthest thing from a partisan message. “Part of the problem that we have today in American politics is that the mutual demonization of opponents has progressed so much that people … won’t acknowledge that their opponents are making good faith arguments, or that they have something productive to add,” said Hopkins. “We have achieved our goal if we help people on one side better understand the people on the other side."