Hank Minor: Why don't Republicans pass conservative legislation

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 6:16pm

I hope I speak for a lot of people somewhat left of center when I say that the Republican Party’s capability for hypocrisy can be amazing — we’ve spent years listening to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY., grumble about spendthrift Democrats, and those of us from the South and Midwest have heard a thousand different ways the communist, Muslim, socialist, President Barack Obama was going to waste our tax money. And then — just last week — the White House published a budget that would add $984 billion to the deficit in 2019. What happened to the party of fiscal discipline?

The answer lies in the way the Democratic and Republican Parties are composed — we see them as mirror images of each other, with only ideology to distinguish them, but the real differences run deeper. What looks like hypocrisy to the Democratic Party can often be explained by differences in the Republican Party’s structure.

In the book “Asymmetric Politics,” Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins argue the modern Democratic Party is based on a coalition of people who are united in their identity as disadvantaged peoples or the allies thereof. The LGBT social movement allies with the feminist movement to vote Democrat, not because they necessarily agree on tax policy, but because Democrats represent them both as interest groups harmed by the status quo.

Similarly, Democrats unite the majority of Americans minorities, not because the composite groups necessarily agree about whether the minimum wage should be $12 or $15 an hour, but because they share an interest in protections for disenfranchised groups and the Republican Party doesn’t — not at the same level, at least.

The Republican Party, conversely, is based on ideological identity. It helps that the Republican electorate is somewhat homogenous — most of their voters are white, straight and over 35 — but the most important factor seems to be that Republicans are ideologically conservative.

An example from recent political history comes to mind: former Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., vanished for a week in 2011 to visit his mistress in Argentina,  and still managed to beat the Democratic candidate — Elizabeth Colbert Busch — in a 2013 race for the U.S. House of Representatives. Colbert Busch didn’t lose because she wasn’t a white heterosexual female — she was — she lost because Sanford could better demonstrate his conservative identity.

The Republican Party is, to condense the above, primarily rooted in the perception of oneself as a conservative: individual policies — more spending on defense, or defunding Planned Parenthood — don’t really matter so long as party politicians can clearly demonstrate their conservative ideology.

I’m not trying to make a value judgement. Democrats aren’t worse for their lack of a central ideology, and Republicans aren’t worse for their indifference over individual policy concerns. The divide, though, explains why liberals and conservatives can’t always see the coherence in their opponents’ actions.

This also explains the seeming paradox in which Americans tend to be liberal on an issue-by-issue basis but most describe themselves as overall moderates or conservatives. Whichever side of this dichotomy is more important to someone might be what determines their party alliance — and it would explain why someone like Trump can get away with suggesting both universal health care and legally penalizing women who seek abortions. Policy concerns aren’t necessarily what determine a voter’s behavior.

Other recent trends — like negative partisanship and polarization — interact with this disparity to, honestly, give a campaigning advantage to Republicans. Their core electorate is willing to go cycle after cycle (think the Obama years after 2010) without any real policy victories because their representatives are seen as fighting the good fight. The Democratic electorate, on the other hand, is far less forgiving of policy failures, such as the Democratic wobbling on whether or not the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy is worth a government shutdown has become divisive among potential 2020 presidential contenders.

When people on the left try to analyze the right wing, they should avoid using a Democratic mindset to interpret Republican behavior. Students who work for (or will eventually work for) campaigns and student activists have to remember that the way they think about politics is often shaped by what the party with which they identify.

I think it’s legitimate to make one’s case using reasons that are less than practical. I support DACA because Dreamers shouldn’t have their lives destabilized. I support a higher minimum wage because people deserve to support themselves if they work full time. I also think that there are times to avoid this, though; the goal is to actually translate your ideas into to legislation and have them signed into law.

When we evaluate our current environment and find it flawed, there has to be a step before action when practical reality is considered. How will this look to the opposition? Is this viable, given the way it will be evaluated? Can we, given the composition of our party, really pursue this strategy? In a political environment where partisan conflict has become one of the most important influencing factors, cross-party conversation has to be tailored to the way each side sees itself and its opposition.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.