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Democrats pander. Republicans shirk. Both should worry progressive activists.

Democrats tend to believe in the wisdom of crowds more than Republicans.

Women’s march, January 22, 2017
Emily Crockett/Vox

Galvanized by the outcome on November 8, Democratic activists — whose differences were on such clear display last summer — appear to be coalescing into an organized resistance movement.

Indeed, progressives are protesting and donating at unprecedented rates (and propelling Saturday Night Live to its highest ratings in decades). What’s more, reminiscent of the Tea Party after President Obama had assumed office, these agitators are placing concerted pressure on their elected representatives to oppose the new president’s agenda.

But will this so-called Tea Party of the left replicate the success of its conservative namesake? In other words, will Democratic lawmakers, on the whole, give the activists what they want? The odds might be against it, according to evidence that Christopher Carman and I present in Representing Red and Blue: How the Culture Wars Change the Way Citizens Speak and Politicians Listen.

Using roll calls and a variety of other data from 1985 to 2010, we observe that Democratic lawmakers are much more likely than Republican ones to follow public opinion at any given point in time — a difference in red and blue governing styles that has grown over time. At first glance, this pattern might tempt progressive readers to feel optimistic.

But here’s the kicker: The disproportionate responsiveness that Democratic lawmakers display is toward the median voter in their districts, not the median activist. They seem to take their cues from poll results and electoral returns, not necessarily from phone calls and emails. This means the Democratic caucus, on the whole, tends to represent the center left, not the base. The Republican caucus, meanwhile, tends to do just the opposite; it muffle moderates and amplify ideologues — which is one reason the Tea Party achieved substantial obstructionist success during the Obama years.

Why do Republicans and Democrats seem to govern so differently? The short answer is that that’s the way each partisan constituency likes it. In nationally representative surveys and experiments we fielded from 2006 to 2012, we found that liberal citizens are simply keener than conservatives are on the idea of mass agency. That is, most liberals (especially secular ones) have a generally sanguine view of the aggregated public’s capacity to make good decisions, and so they favor representatives who simply figure out what the masses want and give it to them (as long as minority rights are safeguarded). As such, candidates who signal a willingness to change their minds at the urging of popular majorities tend to enjoy an advantage in Democratic nomination contests.

On the other hand, a lot of cultural conservatives — traditionalistic Christians, in particular — view human nature as fundamentally incompetent and depraved, and are therefore suspicious of secular mass wisdom (despite strategically minded rhetoric to the contrary). In fact, these “values voters” often view cooperating with the cultural majority as selling their souls to the devil. Accordingly, they are subconsciously drawn to resolute, stubborn, or perhaps even autocratic leadership styles, because those styles signal principled conviction. And so, by extension, GOP candidates who espouse those leadership styles hold an advantage in their primaries and caucuses.

In the end, then, blue America winds up getting representatives who “pander” to mass opinion, while red America gets representatives who “shirk” it.

So, to return to where we started, do progressive activists have a shot at pressuring Democratic (or even Republican) lawmakers into thwarting the Trump agenda? Based on our findings, we would keep expectations low. Sure, Democratic senators and House members in very progressive places such as New York and California will surely follow their constituents’ lead and block Trump wherever they can. But legislators in baby blue places like Colorado and Nevada will also do their constituents’ bidding, which means going along to get along more often than not.

Of course, in an alternate universe in which Hillary Clinton is president and the median voter is still somewhere near the ideological center but the activism is coming from the right, we would expect those activists to get more of the gridlock they would be seeking (and, indeed, that the progressive activists are seeking now). That is because Democrats would pander to the median voter, as they do, and Republicans would stay firmly on the far right, as they do. After all, that is what they did from 2009 to 2016, and they succeeded in thwarting a lot of President Obama’s agenda.

But in our universe, where Trump is president, we don’t expect the Herbal Tea Party to build as many blockades. Democrats are still Democrats, after all, which means that many of them are inclined to seek common ground.

But what if protest is really more than the new brunch? What if the activism we are witnessing actually reflects a broad shift leftward among the mass citizenry, or at least widespread resistance to the Trump administration? If so, wouldn’t that encourage Democratic lawmakers to take up the call? In a word, “yes,” but that would still only get the progressives so far. Remember, by at least some measures, the conservative cacophony of resistance to Obama succeeded in moving public opinion rightward in some key policy areas, which encouraged some Democratic lawmakers to move along with it.

But for all the reasons I have discussed in this post and my previous post, we don’t see congressional Republicans doing the same, no matter how loud the progressive voices get. Instead, we expect them to fold their arms, plug their ears, and march in lockstep to the beat of Steve Bannon and Mike Pence — even as the pitchforks reach the gates.

David C. Barker is currently director of the Institute for Social Research at California State University Sacramento. In August 2017, he will become the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

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