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Political scientists show how our politics have become asymmetric

Sep 29, 2016

Democrats are liberals, and Republicans conservatives, right?

We usually talk and think about the major parties that way, as if they were two different flavors of ice cream.

Republicans are red raspberry; Democrats, blueberry.

Republicans want lower taxes and fewer services; Democrats higher taxes and more services.

Democrats are pro-choice; Republicans anti-abortion, et cetera, et cetera.


But a new book coauthored by one of Michigan’s fastest-rising political scientists argues that the way we’ve been conditioned to think about all this is wrong.

Matt Grossman, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, is also director of MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, which, in addition to polling and scholarship, runs a host of political leadership programs.

Grossman, who has written or edited six books on politics, first got some statewide attention this spring, when he was the only pollster to suggest that Hillary Clinton might not win the Michigan presidential primary in a landslide. Bernie Sanders, of course, won.

Now Grossman and co-author David Hopkins are out with a new book: Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Interest Group Democrats, in which they argue that the two parties are entirely different creatures.

The [Republican] party "can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement."

Democrats are a coalition of groups who unite to pursue an extensive list of mostly compatible policy objectives, including things like civil rights, family leave benefits, environmental protections and higher minimum wage.

But while Republicans take positions on all these issues, that’s not what defines them. Their party “can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement.”

Forty years ago a struggle was going on between movement conservatives and pragmatic, more moderate Republicans like Governor Bill Milliken and even President Gerald Ford, who held sometimes liberal positions on issues like abortion and civil rights.

Those battles are over, and the conservatives have completely won. These days, Republicans are “a less diverse set of voters who perceive themselves as mainstream Americans defending the values of individual liberty and traditional morality,” against evil.

That theory goes a long way to explain the current campaign.

By and large, Republicans and Democrats are not trying to change voters’ minds. They are trying to mobilize their own troops.

Hillary Clinton is generally seen as having decisively won the first debate Monday. But Grossman would argue that doesn’t mean she converted many Trump voters; she merely energized her base.

And the best thing we can do, Grossman thinks, is encourage voters from each party to try to understand the other.

Earlier this week, during a public affairs TV show I host in Toledo, I asked Grossman if it mattered that Donald Trump was once essentially a liberal. He said, not much, since he has been preaching a classic conservative ideological message.

However, his personally objectionable qualities have made him a somewhat weaker candidate than some of his rivals might have been. Grossman thinks a Clinton victory is likely, but not by a landslide; he also thinks whoever wins will soon become unpopular.

I have to confess that I find the spectacle of our politics as two hostile camps glaring at each other like North and South Korea depressing. But that’s what we’ve got.

And the best thing we can do, Grossman thinks, is encourage voters from each party to try to understand the other. If we are ever going to strengthen democracy, we need to start by “acknowledging the contradictions in our own collective political mind.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.