clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This election will reveal which Republicans have policy principles and which Republicans are primarily partisans

Since Donald Trump officially became the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee this week, party leaders have struggled over whether to rally behind him.

As they decide, we will learn something important — namely, how much of Republicans' increasing refusal to compromise with Democrats in recent years was because of an ideological commitment to conservative values, and how much of it was because of a partisan commitment to making Democrats look bad.

That's because the decision of whether to endorse Trump poses a direct conflict for most Republican leaders between their partisan identity and their professed ideological commitments. Trump is a Republican. But he is not an ideologue or a conservative. Whether they endorse him will reveal which of these values is most important to them.

Trump is not a conservative. How big a problem is this for Republicans?

Trump's heterodox mélange of stated and implied positions is definitively not "conservative" by standards that anybody in politics has used recently. For most elected Republicans, Trump's brand of nationalist populism would be a significant ideological departure from many, many things they've been on the record as saying.

As House Speaker Paul Ryan explained in not endorsing Trump (italics mine):

"I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution. There are lots of questions that conservatives, I think, are gonna want answers to, myself included. I want to be a part of this unifying process. I want to help to unify this party."

Notice, by the way, that Ryan chose to use "conservatives" rather than "Republicans" in this statement. This tells you something about how he sees the world, and why he's not endorsing Trump yet.

But Trump is now the party's nominee. Which means that those who put party first should endorse him now. As one of the respondents in Politico's latest insider poll crisply put it: "I am a Republican. This is my party. It has spoken."

This is also the view of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who issued a statement saying (again, my italics):

"I have committed to supporting the nominee chosen by Republican voters, and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee is now on the verge of clinching that nomination...Republicans are committed to preventing what would be a third term of Barack Obama and restoring economic and national security after eight years of a Democrat in the White House."

Notice that McConnell said nothing about conservatism, but instead emphasized party labels.

For those who follow politics closely, these different responses may not come as a surprise.

McConnell, after all, has always been an ideological shape shifter, making his highest priorities the issues he thinks can most help Republicans win office, like opposing campaign finance reform. (For a deeper dive on McConnell's partisan hack qualities, I highly recommend Alec MacGillis's short McConnell biography, The Cynic)

Ryan, by contrast, has always styled himself as a man of ideas and strong principles. Agree or disagree with him, you have to acknowledge that he has advanced some politically risky policies, like voucherizing Medicare, because he believes in them.

In the next weeks and months, we'll get to see more and more how many McConnells and how many Ryans there are in the GOP. That is, how many Republican leaders put party first, and how many put ideology first. We'll also get to see how many Ryans start out principled opponents of Trump but then become McConnells and endorse Trump.

Party identity and ideology are different things

Because almost all conservatives are now Republicans and almost all liberals are now Democrats, we tend to conflate ideology and party identity. But this was not always the case. For much of the 20th century, there were plenty of liberal Republicans and plenty of conservative Democrats. As Hans Noel has clearly shown in his excellent book Political Ideologies and Parties in America, party identity and political ideology are different things.

Thus, one way of making sense of increased partisan polarization over the past few decades was that it was really just a sorting of voters into their natural parties. Democrats had conservatives because the conservative South was solidly Democratic because of the Civil War. The Northeast had liberal Republicans for the same reason. This got sorted out in response to civil rights, and the parties became more ideologically homogeneous over the next several decades.

This increasing ideological homogeneity did two things.

One, it allowed party leaders in Congress to take more control of the party agenda, because rank-and-file members were willing to delegate more to their party leaders because they largely agreed with one another. This power then allowed party leaders to control the agenda better, effectively marginalizing issues that would divide the majority party while enforcing more party unity.

Two, it sent clearer signals to the voters about what it meant to be a Republican or what it meant to be a Democrat, which then fed back to the party leaders in terms of demands. Of course, this was limited to the 20 percent or so of voters who are actually engaged partisans. But these are the voters who mostly determine party nominations, so it matters.

At the same time, as Frances Lee has noted, the past few decades have been a period of unusually close two-party competition, which has produced a kind of zero-sum political trench warfare between the two parties.

Knowing that each election could deliver a congressional majority, both sides have attempted to tear down the other side. In Lee's telling, the partisan polarization we've observed has been as much, and probably more, about teamsmanship than it has been about ideology.

Lee has done impressive research showing how many procedural and seemingly non-ideological votes have become partisan, making a strong case for the partisan teamsmanship hypothesis. But, as she noted an an excellent overview of polarization in the 2015 Annual Review of Political Science, the main way that we measure polarization, vote scaling (most prominently, NOMINATE), "cannot distinguish partisan teamsmanship from ideology as influences on roll-call voting."

In recent years, there has been more and more evidence that partisan identity has been the driving engine of the new hyperpolarization.

Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph have argued that increased polarization is "not ideological in nature. ... 60 years of research suggests that most Americans do not think about politics ideologically. Instead, we uncover increasingly and deeply sour feelings that partisans now have about the other political party."

Related work by Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster has also highlighted the growing importance of "negative partisanship" — that is, that both Democrats and Republicans are not so much in love with their own party as much as they are absolutely horrified by the other party.

Certainly, the fact that a large number of Republican voters supported Trump in the primary would indicate that identity mattered more than ideology. Trump was a Republican because he ran as one and attacked Democrats, Paul Ryan's conservative litmus tests be damned.

Most, but not all, Republicans will probably endorse Trump

If partisan identity trumps ideology for most Republicans (as the above suggests), that means that most elected Republican leaders will come around to endorsing Trump in the weeks ahead, because the first rule of being a Republican is that even the craziest Republican is better than the most qualified Democrat.

This would indicate that political ideology is actually more flexible than many have assumed, and that much of what we've called ideological principle in recent years has actually just been partisan posturing. It would also suggest that as the election moves forward, Republican leaders will start defending Trump more and more, adjusting their issue stances to reduce the initial cognitive dissonance.

That's not to say that there won't still be many principled conservatives in the Republican Party. There will be. And there will be some real fights between the principled conservatives and the Trump supporters, whom the principled conservatives now call "Vichy Republicans."

If there is indeed a split in the Republican Party between those who put party first and those who care about ideological principles, this supports my earlier argument that we've hit "peak polarization," because it means that ideology and partisanship can again become separate dimensions in both parties. That will make both parties more internally diverse and therefore create space for new cross-party coalitions.

Moreover, if many (though not all) Republicans are as flexible as the early round of Trump endorsements indicates, we are also likely on the road to political realignment, which I'm also predicting.

At the very least, this election should tell us an awful lot about what was driving partisan polarization all these years. How much was it ideology? And how much was it just partisan identity and teamsmanship?

How much do conservatives hate Trump?