Are the Democrats becoming a more ideological party while the Republicans emphasize social identity? The one year anniversary special edition of the podcast experiments with a more conversational format to discuss party change. Matt Grossmann is joined by his Asymmetric Politics co-author, Boston College political scientist David Hopkins. They discuss how much, and in what direction, the parties are changing. They both see more change on the Democratic side, but no decline in asymmetry.
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Matt Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, are the Democratic and Republican parties becoming more similar or different? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. It’s the one-year anniversary of the podcast, and we’re experimenting with a more conversational format for this special edition. Today my guest is my co-author, Boston College political scientist, David Hopkins. We’ll be talking about how much the parties are changing since our book, Asymmetric Politics in 2016. I also got a chance to ask Dave about his new Cambridge University Press book, Red Fighting Blue. In Asymmetric Politics, we described the Democratic Party as a coalition of social groups and the Republican party as a symbolic ideological movement. We’ve all seen more change on the Democratic side since 2016, but most lines up with our theory.
David Hopkins: It seems to be the biggest change by far is this mobilization of women in the 2018 election, or really since the victory of Trump in 2016. We see it not only in terms of general activism and political donations and other forms of political participation, but also particularly candidates. A lot of candidates running, female candidates running at record rates, but also Democratic primary voters supporting women for Congress and other offices at record rates. We’ve seen just in one election cycle a transformation of the candidate and activist population of the Democratic party. It’s tough to come up with a clear precedent for such a big change over such a short time.
Matt Grossmann: I mean that’s obviously, in some ways, consistent with our argument that people identify with a social group and its policy priorities in the Democratic party, but it hadn’t heretofore really sort of been a group that had been active as a group within Democratic party politics. What changed and why, I guess? Feminists have always been part of the Democratic party coalition going back a long way, but I guess why hadn’t it materialized in terms of candidates and interest groups until now?
David Hopkins: Obviously there’s a Trump story here, that Trump in particular inspires this level of engagement and opposition, specifically among women, specifically among Democratic women. When we get to the bottom of the evidence of what’s driving this change this year, I’m sure a big part of the story is going to be just that Trump provokes this particular counter mobilization more than previous Republican candidates.
I also think there’s an interesting story about Hillary Clinton. I mean Hillary Clinton was not someone who inspired enthusiasm among Democratic voters and activists, certainly not to the extent that Obama had done. I do think there was something very meaningful about the idea of a woman president, that in some ways the meaning became greater when she was denied the presidency. Of course most people kind of assumed going into election day she was going to win.
I think for a lot of Democrats, especially a lot of Democratic women, as a genuinely historic moment, you know, make sure the kids stay up to see the first woman in history become president. I’m from Rochester, New York, which is where Susan B. Anthony is buried, and on election day in 2016 there were a long line of women coming to the grave site of Susan B. Anthony and sticking their “I voted” stickers right on the marker. I do think that there was something that was important, that then when it was, in this major upset, it was denied so abruptly, immediately generated this incredibly powerful political and emotional response. We saw it right from the beginning with the Women’s March in the first week of the Trump presidency, that from the beginning, the legacy of 2016 on both sides, both Trump and Clinton, has translated into this unprecedented engagement among Democratic women this year.
What about young people as a social group within the Democratic party coalition? Obviously they were associated with the Bernie Sanders candidacy to some extent. We’ve seen some recent successes of younger candidates. Are they operating more as a sort of a group constituency within the Democratic party than they used to be?
It seems like that’s possible. You know, young people are still obviously less likely to vote or to participate in general in politics than older people, but I do see some dynamics within the party, at least in some of the primaries and some of the districts we’ve seen this year, where there’s sort of a distinctive political style that plays better with younger voters, and as millennials and the younger Gen X generation sort of start reaching the age where they would be expected to vote and otherwise participate at higher rates, I think that may, going forward, be a more powerful constituency within the party. Certainly as a coalition partner, young people are starting to be important. If you’re running in a Democratic party primary and you can put together a coalition that’s young people plus, say, African-American or Latino voters, plus women, plus some other group, then it’s very easy-
Matt Grossmann: You can add to what you have already.
David Hopkins: Yeah. It’s very easy to make the math work in the Democratic primary. Only being the candidate of the young probably doesn’t get you the nomination in most parts of the country, but if you’re the candidate of the young and somebody else too, then maybe you’re in good shape.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah, and I mean that’s a very old story in some ways in the Democratic party. The party reforms had quotas for young people in addition to racial minorities. We saw Howard Dean and Obama run. They drew disproportionately from young people initially, and as you say, because there weren’t very many people born in the 1970s, there was actually a time period in which there were just fewer young voters relative to other generations. The sort of lynch pin in the Democratic party has always been racial minority voters. That is, you need to have some support from that constituency to win primaries, and African-Americans in particular had acted often as a block and a constituency that wants to be heard as African-Americans in the party. Is that changing at all? Is that constituency rising or falling or not really seeing much of a change?
David Hopkins: Well I think we’re seeing cases where they are a critical constituency. You know, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, cases of African-American candidates in Democratic primaries that, again, have been able to sort of put together a coalition that’s quite formidable. We saw here in Boston with Ayanna Pressley versus Capuano in the seventh district of Massachusetts, where again an important element of that coalition is getting strong support and strong turnout from African-American voters. Yeah, as the Democratic party becomes more racially diverse, I think they increase, in some ways, in importance over time.
Matt Grossmann: One of the major questions we get all the time, sometimes it’s phrased as a criticism, but sometimes it’s just a, “What’s likely to happen in the future?” is that the left is really rising as the left in the Democratic party, and obviously there are a few examples that are consistent with that thesis, although the sort of broader analyses of Democratic primaries this year haven’t really shown much of an ideological effect. That is, liberal candidates were no more likely to win compared to other candidates in Democratic primaries, but there does seem to be more liberal candidates running, and in particular on social issues, Democrats as a whole moving leftward or at least towards more acknowledgement of racial discrimination and towards more liberal positions on social issues. To what extent is the Democratic party moving left, and to what extent is it moving left because of this liberal movement within the Democratic party?
David Hopkins: That’s a great question. I think that we may see some overstatement of the change that has occurred. This one primary win in Brooklyn and sort of cherry picked few primary results in 2018 don’t really add up to a coast to coast transformation of the party, but I do think there’s something to the idea that the left is becoming somewhat stronger in terms of its organization and its mobilization within the Democratic party. That has been something that has sort hurt the left historically, has been organizational weakness, number one, in general, in America.
Matt Grossmann: There’s sort of been a protest politics preference.
David Hopkins: Right, over electoral politics, and also a sort of ambivalent relationship at best with the Democratic party. You know, a lot of lefties have not been really sure whether the Democrats are their friend or their enemy, or whether it’s better to work within the party or to try to pressure the party from outside. Maybe this is partially a legacy of the Sanders campaign. Maybe this is partially just a change in experience or in strategy or in ideas, but it does seem like there’s more organizational energy than there was in the recent past behind kind of a Democratic socialist of leftist kind of politics within the Democratic party that’s putting more focus on winning, backing candidates in Democratic primaries and trying to get them into office.
Now having said that, I do think that’s limited to certain parts of the country, to certain constituencies that already were usually represented by pretty liberal Democrats. I don’t think there’s a huge transformation, ideologically speaking, in the party at large, but I do think there’s maybe a change in the balance of pressure, where there’s a bit more pressure coming from the left wing on Democratic elected officials than probably they’ve been used to for the past 20 or 30 years.
Matt Grossmann: We also discussed what had not changed for the Democrats. Surprisingly, they’re looking fairly united. Any other changes that people sort of expected from the Democratic party that have materialized? I guess the one that I would point to might be this continuing fight between the Bernie and Hillary factions as if they were kind of these constant blocks. The resistance seems to have incorporated both pretty easily, and sort of Trump is uniting the Democratic party.
David Hopkins: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think you would normally think after a loss like the Democrats had in 2016, that there would be an incredible amount of internal conflict within a party in the Democrat’s position, if only to assign blame for the blowing of a winnable election against a candidate that they very much opposed. I don’t know if it’s that Democrats feel like the health of the republic is in the balance and this is no time to point fingers or what it is, but there’s really been less internal disagreement, ideological, tactical, really along any lines than you would sort of expect from a minority party that had just lost the White House in the fashion that they did.
I don’t know if this is related, but I think another point that comes out of what you said is that’s sort of surprising, sort of a dog that didn’t bark, is Bernie Sanders has sort of been much less of a factor in national politics post 2016 than I think a lot of people expected after 2016. I think they expected him to sort of claim the mantle of spokesman for the Democratic left or the American left, to play a very prominent role in debates over the future of the Democratic party to sort of try to consolidate influence.
Matt Grossmann: How about the Republicans? Hopkins says they’ve united around Trump to a greater extent than expected, but with surprising continuity in their views.
David Hopkins: One thing about the Republicans that may be somewhat surprising, I think, again, compared to expectations prior to 2017 is how thoroughly Trump has managed to consolidate power and leadership within the sort of electoral and candidate wing of the party. There really is no anti-Trump faction that you can really point to that speaks for a set of leading Republican office holders or Republican-aligned interest groups. He’s really succeeded pretty thoroughly in marginalizing opposition, not within the entire party, but within the kind of candidate and elected official wing of the party. He’s done that even though his broader appeal is so limited that at least if you’re representing a district that is open to competition in a general election, distancing yourself from Trump might be smart politics for other Republicans, but they haven’t really organized in any kind of systematic way to put any sort of limits on him or to separate themselves from him in any kind of consistent manner over the past two years. I think this is very-
Matt Grossmann: It doesn’t seem to be necessarily, on an ideological or issue basis. People aren’t really changing opinions on trade or anything like that. They’re just kind of going with Trump because they know the Republican base is with Trump. We actually saw this in the Michigan governor’s race too, where, if you want to say, the more Trumpian candidate won the primary, and it’s having problems in the general election for Bill Schuette, because he’s aligned himself more with Trump. There was nothing about him that necessarily connected him with Trump. I don’t think he’s endorsed any new Trumpian issue positions, so it seemed to be just a very that they want to make a personalistic attachment to Trump, but not necessarily kind of change their issue agenda.
David Hopkins: Yeah. I think it goes to show the power of the conservative media. The conservative media, by and large, has decided with, you know, a few exceptions in terms of …
Matt Grossmann: On the more elite side, especially.
David Hopkins: Yeah, elite, George Will, a few of the people at National Review are obviously exceptions to that, but in terms of the sort of popular media, cable news plus internet plus talk radio, you know, Trump’s their guy. If you’re a Republican even in a vulnerable district, you’re scared to death that if you get crossways with Trump that the conservative media will sort of come down on you and the voters in your party will side with Trump in part because of that.
Matt Grossmann: That’s sort of an unexpected lack of change in some ways. You know, parties always get behind their incumbent president. Some people expected it to be different this time because we have such a different president. What about broader changes to our view of the Republican party? Does symbolic ideology still play the same role that it played, and has Trump taught us anything about the content of that symbolic ideology?
David Hopkins: It seems to me that Trump is a good test case for the extent to which symbolic conservatism at the mass level has a strong nationalist component to it, and even ethnocentric component to it. People who thought that symbolic conservatism was a completely different animal from that, I think, have been forced to grapple with that as a component. I would also say-
Matt Grossmann: I mean one of the points that I always make about it is that how can symbolic conservatism contain both the George Bush’s foreign policy and Donald Trump’s foreign policy as he articulated it in the campaign? The answer is it stays at this very symbolic general level of America might is right, even though there’s two different sets of policy positions associated with that view. You can imagine the very same people thinking that they’re holding the same view of America’s role in the world and endorsing these two very different candidates.
David Hopkins: Yeah. I think that’s right. According to my observation, I also think Trump has shifted a bit to sound more like a traditional conservative over time.
Matt Grossmann: Certainly on economic issues.
David Hopkins: Certainly on economic issues. In the 2016 campaign, for example, he almost never said anything about shrinking the size of government. That really wasn’t part of his message. Since he’s gotten into office he’s talked that kind of more traditional Republican talk much more.
Matt Grossmann: And obviously gone along with the tax cut.
David Hopkins: Yeah. Gone along with the specific policies that kind of flow from that. Trump has changed the party and changed conservatism to a degree, but I also think we can see the impact of the party and the ideological movement on Trump as well, that in some ways he’s become more conventional in his rhetoric as time has gone on.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s take, I guess, the more stark view of this. Some people say to us that, “What you say is symbolic conservatism was always racist or racially tinged White nationalist politics.” To what extent should we reach that view due to Trump, and have you changed you view on the extent to which that’s true?
David Hopkins: Yeah, I mean I remember when we published the book and even while we were writing the book, there was sort of a common critique from liberals that we were taking the small government conservative ideology too seriously as something sincere and not just kind of a dog whistle for ethnocentrism of various types. I think probably if we were writing the book today, we’d talk about that issue more in the book. Trump obviously brings this issue out more, and I think he shows that there is some truth to that. I also think he shows that there isn’t just a simple equation. We can’t simply say that symbolic conservatism is merely ethnocentrism or racism in disguise. One of the ways I think that that is important is you can sort of see people who have gotten off the Republican or conservative bus with Trump, who in fact are the people who are opponents of Trump from within the Republican party or within the conservative tradition. If it were just about taking what was always subtext and making it text and so who really cares, he’s just being honest, I don’t think we would have seen that change.
Matt Grossmann: Especially among folks that are, you know, economically invested in the Republican party’s policy priorities and sort of on board in other ways.
David Hopkins: Exactly right.
Matt Grossmann: There are people who are so disgusted by the racial politics or the gender politics that they’re making that move.
David Hopkins: Yeah. They’re not a majority of Republicans, but they are important in various ways. One population is just a lot of conservative intellectuals, professional Republicans in Washington who, you know, want nothing to do with the Trump administration, don’t want to work in the government under Trump, don’t support Trump actively within the party, and that has had an effect on Trump’s governing ability and the kinds of people who he’s been able to attract into power. That’s an important story even if it’s not the average Republican voter.
There are also pockets of previous Republican voters in a few key places, especially house districts in this election, districts that are upper middle class, white collar, professional, suburban, traditional red districts that are now in play or even leaning to the Democrats in part because you have these voters who were happy to support George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, but are not willing to support Trump. Some of them, again, actively opposed to Trump. It depends on how things go in November. It could turn out tha
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