The Democratic Party once maintained a reputation for persistent fractiousness and rebellious challenges to veteran party leaders, while the Republicans were traditionally held to be politically homogeneous and respectful of authority. Humorist Will Rogers quipped in the 1930s that "I don't belong to an organized political party — I'm a Democrat," while then-House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill observed a generation later that "we Democrats are all under one tent. In any other country, we'd be five splinter parties."
More recently, recurrent internal battles over legislation, strategy, and leadership posts have become a familiar characteristic of the congressional Republican Party, while the Democratic opposition appears placid and orderly by comparison.
In our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, we explain why the congressional parties have come to behave so differently. Because the Republican Party is defined by its adherence to the symbolic cause of conservatism, Republican officeholders pledge fidelity to a set of abstract values.
In eras when conservatives largely agree about how their ideological commitments are best advanced in practice, the party appears relatively unified and harmonious. When significant internal disputes arise — a regular occurrence during the Obama presidency — they tend to take the form of accusations from one faction of Republicans that their fellow partisans have betrayed conservative principles.
The Democratic Party, in contrast, has consistently maintained the character of a coalition of social groups more preoccupied with pragmatically seeking concrete benefits from government than with advancing a larger ideological cause. Disagreements among Democrats tend to divide the interests of one group or set of groups from another.
In previous decades, when the coalition included white Southerners and conservative Catholics as well as racial minorities and left-leaning intellectuals, forging compromise was a particularly difficult task for the Democratic leadership. Today, the constituent elements of the coalition are more mutually compatible in their policy preferences, although party leaders must still work to satisfy the policy priorities of each group without the ability to appeal to a common ideological commitment.
Why Republicans leaders fail to govern despite electoral success
The speakership of John Boehner was wildly successful in electoral terms — House Republicans gained 63 seats under Boehner's leadership in the 2010 midterm elections and held more seats in the chamber at the time of Boehner's departure last October than at any point since the 1920s — but ultimately fell prey to a bloc of disaffected purists within his party.
Most members of this hard-line faction have become associated with an organization known as the House Freedom Caucus, a name that reflects their claims of unswerving devotion to conservative principles. Boehner found it impossible to satisfy these critics while simultaneously pursuing the compromises required to move necessary legislation, such as spending bills and hikes in the federal debt ceiling, through Congress.
The pro- and anti-Boehner factions within the House Republican Party both identified as ideologically conservative and took similar positions on most public policy matters. But the divisions between them proved impossible for the former speaker to bridge.
An ideologically oriented party is inherently vulnerable to the accusation that its governing record has failed to honor its philosophical commitments, especially in a separation-of-powers system, which often requires occasional cooperation with the partisan opposition. Dealmaking is not a promising approach to the resolution of political disputes when one side is primarily occupied with preserving its record of ideological purity, especially when this uncompromising approach is encouraged by many activists and powerful media personalities within the party.
Some critics of Congress have suggested that the institution restore the practice of earmarks in order to grease the wheels of the legislative apparatus, but such a measure is unlikely to change the behavior of members who have dedicated themselves to the conspicuous pursuit of ideological principles over transactional politics.
Why the left fails to challenge congressional Democrats
In an era when congressional polarization is widely assumed to be the product of comparable trends on both sides of the partisan aisle, it is worth considering why no left-wing equivalent to the House Freedom Caucus — or counterparts in the Senate, like Ted Cruz of Texas — has emerged to demand regular displays of ideological purity and to launch internal challenges to the Democratic leadership.
Our analysis suggests that this asymmetry reflects the Democrats' foundational nature as a coalitional rather than an ideological party. The most influential constituencies within the Democratic electoral and activist base — such as labor unions, racial minorities, environmentalists, and the economically disadvantaged — maintain an extensive wish list of specific policy priorities, encouraging Democratic officeholders to work pragmatically to enact an ambitious legislative agenda rather than engaging in symbolic acts of philosophical devotion.
The coalitional nature of the Democrats does not always work to the party's advantage. As Boehner's Democratic predecessor Nancy Pelosi discovered, the concessions and compromises required to successfully steer major legislation through Congress can result in significant flaws —such as the well-documented imperfections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
But the relative lack of strict ideological litmus tests enforced by party members and activists both inside and outside Congress allows Democratic leaders greater freedom of movement to satisfy, even if incompletely, the demands of their party's most attentive supporters, preventing Democrats from succumbing to the same series of internal revolts and governing crises that have repeatedly befallen the GOP.
Some liberals were disappointed that the ACA did not contain a public option or establish a single-payer health care system, but even the most left-wing Democrats in Congress chose to support a bill that they viewed as a partial solution rather than declare it unacceptably inconsistent with their principles.
Expect little change in the behavior of the congressional parties
Conservative purists such as the members of the House Freedom Caucus are often derided by veteran Washingtonians of both parties as either cynical grandstanders or extremist "wacko birds," in the memorable phrase of critic John McCain. Yet their criticisms of Republican leaders for failing to uphold their own conservative commitments contain, at heart, an unavoidable grain of truth.
Even "establishment" Republicans like John Boehner have been fond of engaging in campaign rhetoric that advocates a dramatic, and even revolutionary, reduction of the size and scope of the federal government, as well as a return to traditional cultural norms and mores.
The repeated failure of Republicans to deliver on these ambitious promises when in power — in large part because popular enthusiasm for a smaller government largely dissipates once the debate shifts to the specific programs and benefits that would need to be cut in order to realize it — only further justifies the frustrations of conservative activists.
Though Boehner has surrendered the speaker's gavel, his departure does not resolve the tensions roiling a congressional party that often finds itself caught between its ideological commitments and its electoral fortunes. Unless Paul Ryan can devise a solution to this dilemma, he may become its next victim.
Matt Grossmann is the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. They are the authors of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.