How differing party cultures affect governing

Do the two major parties have distinct cultures that lead to differing governing behaviors? Recent political science research suggests that is the case.

Scholars Matt Grossman of Michigan State University and David Hopkins of Boston College have amassed considerable evidence indicating that the Democratic and Republican parties have very different governing styles and differing beliefs in their partisan missions.

Their evidence suggests that the interparty differences make it much more difficult for the GOP than for the Democrats to ably govern the nation. But first, to their evidence.

Grossman and Hopkins summarize their findings as follows: "The Republican Party is primarily the agent of an ideological movement whose supporters prize doctrinal purity, while the Democratic Party is better understood as a coalition of social groups seeking concrete government action."

The authors contend that each party's distinctive style presents the party with governing challenges. "Republicans face an enduring internal tension between adherence to doctrine and the inevitable concessions or failures inherent in governing." Democrats' lack of internal ideological coherence, however, "denies the party a common philosophy to direct its actions and a common cause around which to mobilize its supporters."

They present lots of evidence revealing the differing orientations of the parties. In opinion surveys, Republicans tend to conceptualize their mission as ideological but Democrats view their party's task as helping particular groups. Republican also want more ideologically pure leaders and emphasize principles over compromise far more than do Democrats.

Republican donors are highly unified around the far end of the conservative side of the ideological spectrum. Democratic donors are less uniform in their ideology and occupy more diverse ideological positions.

Further, national party platforms reflect the differences between the parties. In analyzing their content, the authors find that GOP platforms include more references to ideological principles than do Democratic platforms, but Democratic platforms mention particular groups and their needs more than do GOP platforms.

Recent events in national politics give abundant examples of the differing party cultures uncovered by the research of Grossman and Hopkins. In recent years, the GOP-controlled U.S. House has pushed for repeated government shutdowns in lieu of striking compromises with congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama. These constitute multiple examples of standing on ideological principles rather than compromising those principles with rival partisans.

Repeatedly, House Speaker Boehner has had to get "must pass" legislation funding the government approved with more Democratic than Republican votes because his GOP followers found the compromise legislation unacceptable on principled grounds.

Grossman and Hopkins suggest that Democrats may have an advantage in their "group oriented" approach to governing. Traditional approaches to policymaking, they argue, are "much more applicable to the practical, group-based approach of the Democratic Party than the symbolic, ideological character of the Republicans."

This is also the case because of some important substantive ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats nowadays are very much the party of government. Democratic officeholders and activists like government, believe it can accomplish many worthy goals, and are happy to employ it in the pursuit of favored goals.

Democrats' motto is "We're from the government and we are here to help you." They are disposed to assist many interest groups via government action - regulation, legislation and appropriations. Political scientist Theodore Lowi in 1969 accurately labeled this approach "interest group liberalism."

Republicans are in principle anti-government. They are suspicious of the routines of governing. Many in the party don't want to govern at all, in that their agenda is to reduce as much as possible the scale of governance at the local, state and national levels.

This leads Republicans to challenge the traditional governing routines more than Democrats. The U.S. government shutdowns of recent years are examples of that.

Republicans, standing on principle, question the very legitimacy of officeholders with contrasting agendas. Consider the partisan tirades focused on Obama in recent years.

Democrats also often profess principles and engage in partisan tirades. Republicans, however, couple that with rigid adherence to ideological principle in governing practice far more than do Democrats.

The GOP cultural style is a major political problem for Republican governing and electoral prospects nationally. Can a party govern well when it doesn't like government, finds partisan rivals illegitimate and subjects all possible governmental actions to ideological purity tests?

Probably not. Successful governance inevitably involves flexibility, a give-and-take approach when addressing the various interests affected by possible government actions. This approach lies at the center of the Democratic Party's culture in the nation.

This permits the Democrats a flexible agenda that appeals to many groups in the electorate - promoting electoral success. The Democratic approach also makes legislating easier by forging consensus among a variety of groups seeking government benefits, a practice many Republicans find loathsome in principle.

Ideological rigidity and purity comes at a price for the GOP. As the U.S. becomes more diverse, an adaptable, group-oriented party culture is best suited for gaining political advantage from this increasing diversity. This is a lesson the national GOP has yet to learn.


Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Published: Fri, May 01, 2015


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