On Capitol Hill, Republicans are united by their support for slashing taxes on the wealthy, and their opposition to increasing social spending on the poor. Congressman Steve King and Senator Susan Collins disagree about many things — among them the propriety of the president’s tweets, the benefits of legal immigration, and whether nonwhite people have ever contributed anything to “civilization” — but they nevertheless share a deep and abiding commitment to making the tax code more regressive.
Which is to say, the bitterest divisions among Republican elected officials, commentators, and operatives appear to lie on “culture war” issues; chiefly, on questions of immigration policy, racial rhetoric, and how unconditional one’s loyalty should be to Donald Trump’s personality cult.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often appear most united on (what are conventionally referred to as) issues of social and cultural liberalism. During the 2016 primary, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton boasted nearly identical platforms on abortion, LGBT rights, criminal-justice reform, and immigration. But they argued bitterly over the desirability of single-payer health care, tuition-free public college, and breaking up the major Wall Street banks. In recent weeks, this internal division over the size and role of government has come back to the foreground, as a bill loosening post-2008 financial regulations sparked an acrimonious spat between the right and left flanks of Chuck Schumer’s caucus.
All this has led many pundits to believe that Donald Trump’s “brand of hard-edge nationalism” has sown divisions within the GOP base — and even chased a significant number of moderate Republicans out of the party, while Democratic voters are split between Sanders-style social democrats and Clintonian “neoliberals.”
But a new working paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels suggests this conventional wisdom is wrong. In truth, Republican voters are united by their support for Trump’s reactionary nationalism, and divided on questions of taxes and spending — while the Democratic base is bound together by its support for “big government,” but somewhat divided by culture war issues.
In 2015 and 2016, YouGov surveyed the same 2,000 Americans about their views on the major parties and a wide range of policy issues. In November 2017, Bartels checked up on those same 2,000 individuals to see how the 2016 campaign had impacted their ideological views and partisan identities. Here’s what he found:
[T]he current conventional wisdom regarding the bases of conflict within each party seems, judging from my analysis, to be quite mistaken. Democrats are supposed to be split between “the young progressives” drawn to Sanders’s democratic socialism (Yglesias 2016) and an old guard committed to the neoliberalism of the Clintons and Joe Biden. In fact, however, rank and file Democrats are relatively united in their enthusiasm for an active government, but less united on cultural issues, where a sizable minority cling to the traditional values downplayed or even rejected by most party leaders.
Conversely…rank and file Republicans seem to be relatively united and energized by “hard-edge nationalism,” but less united on the role of government, with a sizeable minority expressing rather un-Republican enthusiasm for a strong welfare state…a majority of Republicans endorse government efforts to regulate pollution, provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work, and ensure access to good health care, while substantial minorities favor reducing income differences and helping families pay for child care and college.
Remarkably, Bartels finds “no evidence in these data that Trump has alienated traditional Republicans — at least, not to the point of precipitating defections from the party.” Only 21 of the participants in YouGov’s survey defected from the Republican Party in 2015 to the Democratic Party in 2017. And these voters were not more highly educated — nor much more socially or culturally liberal — than the average Republican. Coincidentally, exactly 21 respondents made the opposite partisan switch between 2015 and 2017. And these voters did look about as one would expect: While they tended to be a tad more conservative than the average Democrat on “limited government” issues, voters who defected to Trump’s GOP were far to the right of the generic blue American on issues of “culture conservatism.”
Now, this is just one study. And other surveys have shown a more significant decline in Republican self-identification than the one Bartels found. But his conclusions about the nature of intraparty divides among Democratic and Republican bases are buttressed by other studies of the electorate and single-issue polls.
And yet, none of this means that the conventional wisdom about the “the bases of conflict within each party” is wrong. After all, we don’t live in a direct democracy, but rather, a deeply dysfunctional republic — one in which the average member of Congress is a millionaire, the average House race costs more than $10 million to win, and corporations spend roughly $2.6 billion each year on lobbying. A sizable minority (if not a slim majority) of Republican voters support raising taxes on the superrich to fund more generous health-insurance subsidies for the middle-class — but that hasn’t prevented GOP lawmakers from almost unanimously supporting the opposite proposition.
Meanwhile, just because Democratic voters are united in their support for “big government” liberalism doesn’t mean that the party isn’t riven by internal conflicts over the size and scale of the welfare and regulatory states. Democratic candidates need money to win elections; corporations have a great deal of that stuff, and tend to be more comfortable with the party’s social liberalism than with its economically populist streak. And one consequence of this reality is that Chuck Schumer is currently helping Mitch McConnell increase the probability of a future financial crisis.
Similarly, just because one-fourth of Democratic voters think Trump has a point about standing for the national anthem, building a border wall, and the scourge of “reverse racism,” doesn’t mean one-fourth of Democratic lawmakers are likely to feel the same: Such attitudes are disproportionately concentrated in non-college-educated voters, and there are very few of those in Congress. The fact that an elite socioeconomic and educational background is virtually a prerequisite for federal office in the U.S. means that our representatives tend to be more economically conservative, and culturally liberal, than their constituents. And this bent is reinforced by campaign finance pressures.
All of which is to say: Conventional wisdom is largely right about the most salient divisions in both parties — but wrong in assuming that those divisions are rooted in popular opinion. Political journalists should make a greater effort to mind this distinction; otherwise, they risk conveying the impression that there is a significant constituency for Paul Ryan’s austerity budgets — and broad, public consensus in favor of financial deregulation — when all available evidence points to the opposite conclusion.