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Ideological mobilization helps parties, unless it overpowers them

Unlike the Democratic side, the Republican coalition includes too many ideological groups that care little about their party's success.

Host Sean Hannity on set of Fox's Hannity With Sean Hannity.
Host Sean Hannity on set of Fox's Hannity With Sean Hannity.
Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Liberals often complain that even though they have mobilized supporters across the country for a series of presidential campaigns in the past few decades, those mobilizations don't last. The campaigns of Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Bernie Sanders in 2016 energized liberals across the country, getting them involved in politics.

In addition to aiding these candidates, these mobilizations brought liberal priorities to the forefront of the national political agenda: withdrawing from Iraq in the case of Dean and Obama and getting corporate money out of politics in the case of Sanders.

But liberals worry that all these social movements only got real national influence during presidential campaigns. Of course there was a movement opposing the Iraq War before the Dean and Obama campaigns, but in each case it took a specific presidential candidate to get so many people involved in politics that the national Democratic Party could no longer ignore its left flank on these issues.

It has been very hard to sustain this level of liberal political activism outside of presidential campaigns. Dean and Obama tried to turn their campaign organizations into permanent liberal organizing vehicles: 2004's Dean for America organization became Democracy for America and 2008's Obama for America organization became Organizing for America (now renamed Organizing for Action).

But after the presidential election seasons were over, neither reborn organization had much success making liberal priorities more central to the national agenda or threatening Democrats with primary challenges if they don't support liberal principles.

The problem isn't just non-election periods. Democrats have had a very tough time turning out their increasingly young and nonwhite liberal base in midterm congressional elections. In the past eight years, the midterm electorate has looked different from the presidential electorate: older, whiter and thus much less liberal. In a recent interview with the New Republic's Brian Beutler, liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes calls their inability to mobilize outside of presidential campaigns "an unsolved problem" for American liberalism.

Liberals also often lament that they have no ideological news outlets comparable to Fox News and conservative talk radio. Sure, MSNBC has a series of evening liberal talk shows, but it also has a three-hour center-right morning show, and its corporate owner (NBCUniversal) is nowhere near as committed to the liberal cause as Rupert Murdoch is to conservatism. Efforts to develop liberal talk radio programming have had little success. If liberals had more powerful grassroots organizations and ideological media outlets, they might keep liberals more mobilized outside of presidential elections and put more pressure on Democrats in Washington.

Yet the current state of the Republican Party shows the danger that comes with this. The demographics of American conservatives make it easier to stay mobilized outside of presidential campaigns. Conservative activists are more involved in congressional primaries and in non-presidential years in general. Conservatives also have a large independent conservative media establishment in the connected worlds of Fox News and conservative talk radio. This conservative infrastructure provides energy to keep Republican members of Congress in line and turn out voters in non-presidential campaigns.

Yet it doesn't always have the Republican Party's best interests at heart. Conservative media outlets are concerned with maintaining their audiences, which tend to be the whitest, oldest, and most conservative portion of the Republican coalition. Local Tea Partiers and similar activists are often driven by disgust with the whole political system. They are often not willing to accept that making political change is, in Max Weber's words, the "slow boring of hard boards" and, as a result, endorse tactics that are counterproductive.

The balance between parties and ideological activists

Unlike in earlier periods, the Democratic and Republican parties are now closely aligned with American liberalism and conservatism, respectively. What is the optimal power balance between a party and its ideological infrastructure?

An ideologically motivated party coalition will achieve the most policy change when there is a balance between those with the party's best interests at heart and independent ideological organizations. Too much of the former, and politicians will be too willing to moderate and compromise. Yet too much of the latter often leads to counterproductive strategic choices.

But if the power of these two types of groups is balanced, an ideological infrastructure can put some pressure on the party and turn out voters in low profile elections, while those who care about getting elected and know how to move the levers of policymaking still have influence in nominations and legislative strategy.

Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins argue that the Republican Party is unified by ideology while the Democratic Party is a more pragmatic coalition of interest groups. Part of this difference is that independent conservative activists and ideological organizations have much more power on the Republican side than liberal activists and organizations do on the Democratic side.

The Trump nomination shows that, in the Republican Party, the power balance has shifted too far away from those whose primary concern is that party's welfare. Conservative talk radio has been very receptive to Trump all year. Some Fox anchors, such as Megyn Kelly, had strained relations with Trump, but they became friendlier once it was clear how popular he was with the conservative grassroots. Other Fox anchors, like Sean Hannity (also a talk radio host), have been consistently supportive.

As David Frum has pointed out, conservative media often have different incentives than the Republican Party, even though both are conservative organizations. The Republican Party cares about winning control of government and making policy more conservative. Conservative media organizations' primary goal is their own commercial success.

This would be an eminently winnable presidential election if the Republican Party nominated a generic boring candidate. Parties usually have trouble keeping control of the White House after two terms, and the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has mediocre approval ratings at best. Perhaps a strong economic surge in the remainder of the year will boost Democrats' fortunes. But right now, national conditions indicate a very close race.

Republican Party politicians and other professionals could have seen that this was a very winnable race and pushed the party toward an indistinct Republican nominee (with views at the median of the Republican Party) who could have taken office and signed a long list of conservative policy priorities coming out of a Republican Congress.

But the balance of power in the Republican Party has shifted too far toward the ideological infrastructure and away from strategic Party thinkers. Ideological organizations with some power can fuel a party to election victories and more ideological cohesion. But too much can lead a party to throw away a winnable election like this.

This post is part of a Mischiefs of Faction series on the Republican Party. See the previous entry here.