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What Democrats can learn from Republicans

Pete Souza/White House

At Slate, Reihan Salam has an interesting column limning what Republicans can learn from Democrats. The answer, mainly, is that they can learn the messy work of passing laws. "Republicans are just not as good as Democrats at achieving their policy goals," frets Salam.

In this, Salam is relying on research by political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins which suggests that Democrats prize policy wins while Republicans prize ideological purity. This isn't true of every Democrat, or every Republican, of course. But it's true of enough of them to create a real difference between the two parties.

Take the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as examples. On domestic policy, both leaders strayed from their bases. Clinton reformed welfare, passed NAFTA, and prioritized balanced budgets over public spending. Bush expanded federal control over schools with No Child Left Behind, expanded entitlements with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and blew up the deficit. Today, Clinton's domestic policy is regarded as heroic among Democrats, and Bush is considered an apostate among Republicans.

(Related: Why Democrats and Republicans don't understand each other.)

The other key observation of Grossmann and Hopkins is that conservatism is much more popular than liberalism — a finding backed up in poll after poll, and consistent over decades:

liberal conservative poll


This has proven, counterintuitively, to be an advantage for liberal Democrats, who have had to learn to persuade people who don't find liberalism appealing in the least. "Liberals understand that they can't win without moderates; conservatives will only concede this unfortunate fact reluctantly, if at all," Salam writes.

Since liberal Democrats want policy wins and accept the limits of their popularity, they're are a lot better at compromising to get legislation done — and compromise is, in the American political system, the only way legislation gets done.

So Salam is right. There's much Republicans can learn from Democrats. But there's much Democrats can learn from Republicans, too. If Democrats are better at achieving their policy goals than Republicans, Republicans are smarter about winning political power than Democrats.

How conservatives win

For one thing, it's important to vote in midterm elections. That might seem an obvious point, but portions of the Democratic coalition routinely seem to forget it; Republicans don't. As Ron Brownstein wrote, "the modern Democratic coalition is a boom-and-bust coalition that depends heavily on minorities and young people who turn out much less regularly in midterm than presidential elections."

As you can see in the graph below, both Democrats and liberals make up a higher percentage of the vote in presidential elections than in midterm elections. Both Republicans and conservatives show the opposite trend. Those few percentage points can be decisive:

Behind that difference lurks a deeper lesson: Republicans — up to and including the most hardcore conservatives — are more engaged with the unglamorous, sub-presidential elections of American politics than Democrats.

The difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement is instructive. The Tea Party channeled its revulsion towards Washington into a powerful, if temporary, takeover of the Republican Party's primary system. The result was that the GOP establishment effectively became the Tea Party.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was just the reverse. It defined itself by its unwillingness to interact with the existing machinery of the government. "You're creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature," David Graeber, one of the movement's founders, told me. "And it's a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you're protesting. If you make demands, you're saying, in a way, that you're asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem."

The boring work of sub-presidential politics


Chris Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, led the GOP to a huge sweep in 2014 governor races. (Steve Pope/Getty)

The Occupy Wall Street movement was, of course, an expression of the American Left, not of the Democratic Party. But you can see the echoes of that attitude in more mainstream Democratic politics. Democrats turn out excitedly for charismatic leaders able to offer a vision of changing American politics — e.g., Barack Obama, in 2008. And when congressional elections happen to coincide with exciting presidential elections, Democrats can make big gains. But they often stay home when the election will merely decide the composition of existing American political institutions.

The magnitude of the Democratic Party's problems on this front are much clearer if you ignore the presidency and include statehouses. In an incisive column on the 2014 election results, Yuval Levin writes, "Next January, Republicans will control both houses of Congress, three-fifths of the nation's governorships, and about 70 of its 99 state legislative chambers. That should mean the Republican Party is basically the nation's governing party." Republicans also hold a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court.

Levin's point is to chide the Republicans for giving "every impression of still understanding themselves as the opposition party, because they do not control the presidency." But the reverse is true, too: Democrats still understand themselves as the majority party despite controlling nothing but the presidency. They have captured the high ground of American politics, but lost the crucial farmland.

Republicans have made these gains with what is, by most measures, the smaller of the two coalitions. That's why Democrats routinely win elections when turnout is high. But Republicans are doing more with less than the Democrats are — in part through gerrymandering, in part through population patterns, but in part by focusing on elections that some Democrats often skip. The conservative movement has been focused on state legislatures and local school boards for a long time now. In that way, Republicans are much more politically efficient than Democrats.

Democrats miss this tendency in themselves because they are so focused on the excesses of the Republicans who hold office. The most liberal Democrats engaged in government are far more pragmatic than the most conservative Republicans — and that can give the Democratic Party a sheen of pragmatism that the Republican Party lacks.

What that obscures is the pragmatism of those Republican ideologues who actually do the work of taking over state legislatures and governorships and, ultimately, Congress. Their Democratic counterparts often sit that work out, and so there are fewer unreasonable Democrats walking the halls of the Capitol than unreasonable Republicans, but those unreasonable Republicans are demonstrating a much more pragmatic relationship to winning power — if not to using it — than those absent Democrats.

When Democrats do win power they're actually quite effective at wielding it — the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency proved that. But being good at legislating isn't of much use if the other party controls all the legislatures.

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