The myth of Repub­li­can dis­unity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By J.T. Young

Democrats lean left even more than Repub­li­cans lean right, but they get less for it. While Amer­ica’s two par­ties are equally com­mit­ted to their re­spec­tive ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the size of those ide­o­log­i­cal con­stituen­cies. This dif­fer­ence helps ex­plain why the Demo­cratic Party, the larger in reg­is­tra­tion, is of­ten the mi­nor­ity party to­day.

Con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the Repub­li­cans Party is frac­tured and dom­i­nated by con­ser­va­tives. Two im­pli­ca­tions — of­ten ex­plicit — fol­low from this: Repub­li­cans’ dom­i­na­tion by the right is cost­ing them po­lit­i­cally and the rea­son for their dis­unity, while Democrats are less con­trolled by the left and com­par­a­tively more uni­fied.

There are two prob­lems with this “con­ven­tional wis­dom.” First, Repub­li­cans are cur­rently Washington’s ma­jor­ity — con­trol­ling the White House and Congress — and an even greater one across the na­tion’s state gov­ern­ments. So, claimed dom­i­na­tion by the right has hardly hurt Repub­li­cans here.

Sec­ond, this cen­tury’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions — five from 2000 through 2016 — also con­tra­dict con­ven­tional wis­dom. In these five elec­tions, Democrats av­er­aged 37.8 per­cent of the elec­torate, and Repub­li­cans 33.8 per­cent. While seem­ingly small, 4 per­cent is elec­torally sig­nif­i­cant.

Four of the last five elec­tions have had smaller pop­u­lar vote mar­gins. Fur­ther, self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion over­whelm­ingly pre­dicts vot­ing: Democrats voted Demo­cratic on av­er­age 89 per­cent and Repub­li­cans voted Repub­li­can 91 per­cent.

No­tably, Democrats sup­port the Demo­cratic Party less than Repub­li­cans do the Repub­li­can Party. Ad­di­tion­ally, Democrats’ greater party de­ser­tion is not just to vote for third party can­di­dates. They also vote for Repub­li­cans in greater per­cent­ages (8.4 per­cent) than Repub­li­cans vote for Democrats (7.4 per­cent). Democrats have done both in four of the last five elec­tions. Both con­tra­dict the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of greater Repub­li­can dis­unity — at least among mem­ber ranks.

The five elec­tions are equally re­veal­ing re­gard­ing ide­o­log­i­cal sup­port. Con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als were only slightly less loyal to par­ties than par­ties’ self­pro­fessed mem­bers. Con­ser­va­tives voted for Repub­li­cans on av­er­age 81.2 per­cent of the time, while lib­er­als voted for Democrats on av­er­age 84.6 per­cent of the time.

The ev­i­dence con­tra­dicts the per­cep­tion Repub­li­cans are the more ide­o­log­i­cally­at­tached party. Judged by lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive at­tach­ments, the con­clu­sion is not true. Tak­ing con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral vot­ing habits as in­dica­tive of how each group feels served by the re­spec­tive par­ties, lib­er­als feel Democrats do so markedly bet­ter (in each of the last four elec­tions) than con­ser­va­tives feel Repub­li­cans do.

Over­turn­ing these pop­u­lar as­sump­tions about Amer­i­can politics raises a big­ger ques­tion. Why does the Demo­cratic Party, with a larger per­cent­age of the elec­torate and greater loy­alty from their ide­o­log­i­cal base, cur­rently trail Repub­li­cans elec­torally in Washington and even more so in the states?

A sim­plis­tic an­swer would be that it is be­cause Democrats desert their party in greater per­cent­ages. But that still only begs the ques­tion — why — es­pe­cially with the Demo­cratic Party ben­e­fit­ting from greater loy­alty in their ide­o­log­i­cal base. Again, the num­bers pro­vide the an­swer. Although the Demo­cratic Party en­joys a much greater de­gree of ide­o­log­i­cal loy­alty from lib­er­als, that base is a dra­mat­i­cally smaller per­cent­age of the elec­torate than Repub­li­cans’ con­ser­va­tive one. Over the last five elec­tions, con­ser­va­tives have av­er­aged 33.8 per­cent of the elec­torate, just over a third; lib­er­als have av­er­aged just 22.8 per­cent, well un­der a quar­ter.

In Amer­i­can politics, where small sin­gle dig­its mat­ter greatly, the 10.6 per­cent av­er­age dif­fer­ence be­tween lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives mat­ters enor­mously. Even lib­er­als’ greater at­tach­ment to the Demo­cratic Party can­not off­set such a large quan­ti­ta­tive dif­fer­ence.

And there may be more than a sim­ple quan­ti­ta­tive dif­fer­ence at play too. Turn­ing back to pre­vail­ing con­ven­tional wis­dom, stripped of iden­ti­fiers, it premises that ide­ol­ogy was re­spon­si­ble for po­lit­i­cal dis­unity. Of course, by that it means Repub­li­can Party at­tach­ment to con­ser­va­tives frac­tures it.

Could not the same premise in­stead be po­lit­i­cally re­versed?

The points are there to make a case that the Demo­cratic Party’s stronger at­tach­ment to lib­er­als (as ev­i­denced by lib­er­als’ stronger at­tach­ment to it) has cre­ated a quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive weak­ness. Quan­ti­ta­tively, the Demo­cratic Party’s ide­o­log­i­cal ally is sim­ply far less nu­mer­ous than Repub­li­cans’ — thus un­der­cut­ting their mem­ber num­bers ad­van­tage. Qual­i­ta­tively, that at­tach­ment may also ex­plain Democrats’ higher av­er­age party de­ser­tion — par­tic­u­larly to the Repub­li­can Party — than Repub­li­cans.’

It makes sense a party’s mem­bers would strongly sup­port it. It equally makes sense each end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum would sup­port the party they per­ceive most closely rep­re­sents their pri­or­i­ties — all vot­ers do that. The quandary ex­ist­ing in pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis comes from the non­sen­si­cal con­clu­sions of con­ven­tional wis­dom: That the cur­rently ma­jor­ity party (Repub­li­can), de­spite its con­sis­tent mi­nor­ity of vot­ers, is harmed and frac­tured be­cause of ex­ces­sive at­tach­ment to one end of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum (con­ser­va­tive). The re­ver­sal of con­ven­tional wis­dom ac­tu­ally bet­ter ex­plains cur­rent con­di­tions.

Over the last five elec­tions, con­ser­va­tives have av­er­aged 33.8 per­cent of the elec­torate, just over a third; lib­er­als have av­er­aged just 22.8 per­cent, well un­der a quar­ter.

J.T. Young served in the Trea­sury Depart­ment and the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get and as a con­gres­sional staff mem­ber.

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