The Mistaken Connection of Ideology and Partisanship

Many political observers are decrying the “polarization” of our politics. The feeling is that the two parties are becoming more ideological, both in Congress and the electorate. By confusing ideology and partisanship, we are doing ourselves no favors. While ideological movement in the parties is questionably happening, partisan movement towards nearly tribalism is clearly impacting our politics every day.

I have no doubt of the ideological differences between Mark Meadows and Charlie Dent, but I would argue there is very little difference in their partisanship. Dent was an open moderate ideologically, one who criticized Trump even. Dent was also an 85% Republican vote in the U.S. House, meaning the difference between he and the ultra-conservative leader Meadows was about one in ten votes in Congress, or less. One could argue the same on the Democratic side using Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin in the Senate. While activists would point to obvious differences between the two, it’s important to note that both have been pretty solidly Democratic votes in the Senate against Trump, including the major votes like health care. It’s important to understand there are differences between moderates and the liberal and conservative wings of their respective parties, but it’s important to not over-state them- the gap is only one or so votes out of ten, which adds up to a small hand full of votes over the life of each Congress.

Partisanship is the dominate factor in our Congress right now, more so than ideology. Members of Congress stay loyal to their parties in Congress, regardless of whether they represent safe or in-danger seats. The main reason for this is that voters, regardless of their ideology, don’t often reward bi-partisanship. Occasionally this isn’t true, when an issue of general consensus comes up, but these are increasingly rare. With so much demographic sorting going on, the two political parties want different things. We really don’t “all want the same things in the end,” as many people like to say. The two parties have different priorities and views of the world, and so there’s less and less to do together. With gerrymandered districts making most Congressional races about the primary, where bi-partisan work is *mostly* frowned on. Even a moderate legislator is smart to vote with their party almost all of the time.

This does not mean that John McCain is Rand Paul now, it just means that they’re going to vote together almost all the time. For all the ideological kicking and screaming about Hillary and Bernie in the 2016 primaries, it’s important to note that they voted together about 90% of the time in Congress. It also does not mean that they’re ideological matches though either. There are substantive ideological differences in both parties. A potential Senator Mitt Romney viewsthe world far different than Donald Trump, even if he ends up voting with him regularly. Reverse their roles and you would get a very different government, even if the policy overlap would be substantial. The ideology gap is real.

Even ideology isn’t what it used to be though. The Blue Dogs on the Democratic side and the “Rockefeller Republicans” on the Republican side are mostly gone. Southern white Democrats are basically a historical artifact, while the California Republican Party is literally so weak in the legislature there that they don’t have to show up for work for business to go on. With such past forces of moderation gone, the internal gaps in the parties are smaller than before. The debates in the Democratic Party are over what role the government should play in health care, not if they belong involved. How much should the minimum wage rise? Republicans have similar debates over what shade of red their policies should take, not if they should be red. The terms “conservative Democrat” and “liberal Republican” are mostly dead.

Ideological divides now generally are about the degree of compromise one should accept, and on what issues. “Berniecrats” want no compromise on leftist economics, while Hillary backers aren’t interested in compromise on social issues. Ideological fights break out when discussing if Senators or Congressmen should break from partisan orthodoxy to support home state commerce interests, such as Bernie Sanders voting with the NRA on guns or Cory Booker voting friendly to pharmaceutical producers. Ideological disputes are now mostly about whether party orthodoxy can be adapted and amended for local interests of the electeds.

It does is all no good to confuse partisanship and ideology, or their effects on our politics. Voters are generally not rewarding attempts at bi-partisanship in 2018 elections- they don’t see much common ground. The question of ideology is different though. While some purists, such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, are winning primaries, we’re seeing plenty of pragmatists win too. This doesn’t mean Conor Lamb and Gretchen Whitmer will be “Republican-lite,” it means they’re going to bend on the issues their constituents demand it on. It means a Senator Romney is probably going to criticize Donald Trump, while being a fairly reliable vote. Voters seem to like moderating, reasonable ideology, but still expect you to vote with your party, usually. These are the fault lines in American politics in 2018, and we’d all do better to understand them correctly.

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