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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Geller, and with me is today's guest, Hans Noel. Hans is a political scientist at Georgetown University and his research focuses, among other things, on political ideology and political parties and the relationship between the two of them. So, for example, questions like our ideological principles, really the main motivating force behind the policy is that parties try to enact are they the main motivating force behind how voters vote and which parties voters align themselves with?
Or are there other things going on like self-interest or the desire for reelection and ideological principles are just kind of a fig leaf for those things. So that's an example of one of the questions that haunt studies. And we're going to talk about that cluster of questions, along with some broader questions about political science as a field and and what kinds of things political science knows with confidence. So we should really jump in. Hans, welcome to rationally speaking. Great.
Thanks for having me. One of the striking facts that you've touched on in your writing that I think a lot of people aren't quite aware of is how this relationship between ideologies like liberal or conservative and political parties like Democrat or Republican is, we sort of take for granted that those overlap. We in fact, we often conflate them in the way that we talk about politics. But as you've described, this was not always the case. This is a relatively recent phenomenon.
So how did we arrive at the current state of affairs in which Democrat is just synonymous with liberal and Republican is synonymous with conservative? How did that happen?
Well, it's it's a tough question. I have my answer. And I think there's a sort of a lively discussion in political science about the nuances. But the simple version is that, you know, political parties are coalitions. They're coalitions of people who presumably disagree with each other on some things. So if you're a Republican, you might be Republican because you really care about economic policy. You might be Republican because you are really concerned about traditional religious policy and you might care about different things, but you set aside the disagreements that you have to focus on the things that you can agree with.
And you let them get some things and you get some other things. That's what a political party is. And in a lot of ways, that's what ideology is to, except that unlike with a party and ideology, you actually believe all of the things. And so you might you might become a conservative because you care about economic stuff. But then if you really are conservative, you'll eventually come to believe the rest of the things that conservatives stand for.
But both parties, colleges and parties evolve and change. We're seeing that happen right now with the discussion of the ultraright and where is the conservative movement going in the future and that future movement and future changes?
Well, that's just like we've had changes from the past. And so in the US history, the sort of alignment organization of what parties told you were on your side and what ideologies told you are on your side, haven't really been in sync very often. We often have them and one is leading. The other one is out sort of, you know, out of sync with the with the other. And they eventually come together. And I think really we have in the late 80s, early 1990s, the first point where we've had modern liberal and conservative and as ideologies and modern Republicans and Democrats as parties in fairly strong alignment.
It's not that they've never been any kind of alignment before, but we've had a really strong alignment because they've sort of caught up to each other just to flesh out the the picture.
What are some principles or policies that people who are used to the ideological alignment of today's parties might be surprised to hear were espoused by the Democrats or Republicans of previous decades?
Well, the most obvious one that you still hear people talk about, but usually in a way that's misunderstands it, is that the Democratic Party in the 30s, 40s, 50s and even into the 60s was pretty racist. The Republican the Democratic Party was the party of segregation because it was the party of the South and it was the party of the most conservative segregationist elements of of politics. And those Southerners that were in the Democratic Party, they weren't just pro segregation.
They were also conservative on a lot of other things. Actually, they were the most intense in the sort of fighting communism and concerned about the threat of communism. They they're probably also the most vocal and concerned about changes in gender relations and the evolution of the women's movement with a lot of the women's movement had been something that had been very much at home in the Republican Party for a long time. And the Southern Democrats were the opposite of that. And so that group now, they were not all of the Democratic Party, but that was a big part of the Democratic Party.
And basically you had this agreement in the Democratic Party. You have to set aside disagreements and and focus on things you can get along with. The Democratic Party in the 1950s said, OK, in exchange for labor movement progress that a lot of Southern. Conservatives were skeptical of an exchange for that we will hold back on any progress or change on civil rights. And so the North got labor and the South got continued segregation. And that was a pretty stable coalition that existed in the United States for for a good chunk of time.
And did we see clusters of ideological principles that just got adopted by one party versus another? But but the cluster stayed the same? Or did we start to see different clustering of, like, certain ideological principles used to go together and now don't or didn't use to go together and now do? Well, I think like economic ideology versus social ideology, the kind of thing.
I think part of what is happening, at least in that example, is that, you know, the the way in which ideas were clustered together for ideological thinkers, for liberals and conservatives, it's a little bit separated from the party system. And the party system had a sort of stickiness. Southerners were not going to be comfortable with the Republican Party. The Republican Party was the party of the north and the party of the Union and party of Lincoln. And so Southerners were going to be we're going to be really comfortable with that for for sort of obvious reasons.
And so even though they had an ideology that maybe you can see for forging a connection with conservatives in Republican Party, they weren't going to do that. But conservatism as a philosophy didn't have to worry about that because it didn't need to win elections. And so conservative thinkers were able to start to put together a set of ideas that were what we now call conservatism. And a lot of that was in response to another set of thinkers who were putting together the ideas that we consider liberalism and the liberal thinkers.
In the early nineteen hundreds, they thought about a lot of things. They were like, well, what can we do? Can we apply the logic, the science of human nature to to try to make the country a better place? And they had a lot of good ideas, but they were kind of had a blind spot when it came to race. It wasn't something that was super important. And they often thought, well, yeah, we want to have a democracy.
We don't have a lot of people to be able to participate. But I don't know if, you know, if it will work for everyone. It'll work for white people like us. But I don't know. And and then there was a there was a tension, a fight, those ideas thrashed around amongst themselves. But in response to that idea that we could use government to make things better for people, maybe with some blind spots on race, Republicans and conservatives responded by saying, well, I you know, I don't know.
I think too often we use government, try to solve problems. It makes things worse. And so there was a tension there. Those ideas started coalescing in a way that was a little bit free of parties, because the idea the people who are advancing those ideas, people like William F. Buckley and before him, Herbert Crawley, but many, many other thinkers didn't need to win elections. So that wasn't important to them. But of course, once they start to put together a package, this is what we believe.
Well, then they wanted to influence politics and they want to elect like minded people and they eventually try to influence party leaders. And I think we can see some evidence that they were successful both in reshaping the Democratic Party first and then later reshaping the Republican Party to match up to the evolving ideas of what it means to be liberal and what it means to be conservative.
But surely ultimately politicians care about votes. And so what reason would they have to, you know, want to acquiesce to the ideological demands of these intellectual elites unless they thought that those ideological principles reflected what voters actually wanted? Like what role are the intellectual elites, the, you know, elite liberals and elite conservative thought leaders actually playing in this calculus?
Well, there are two things that could be happening. One is, as you suggest, well, maybe the voters are what ultimately matters. And so people eventually read the ideological arguments of liberals and conservatives and they eventually adopt all those things. And so people come around to believe that if you think that the government should help people out and make the make thing or solve problems and try to address inequality on an economic dimension, maybe we should also do that on race.
And so voters start to care about that. So then therefore politicians have to pay attention. I think maybe that happens a little bit, but it doesn't have to go all the way to voters for it to be really influential. And the reason it doesn't have to go all the way to voters is because parties there do their work through campaigns and other sorts of coordination efforts. And they need they need people to knock on doors. They need people to to make phone calls.
They need people to donate money. And so those people, they are more politically engaged and they're more likely to become ideological. So it doesn't it doesn't have to be that all of the voters believe what the liberals want in order for the Democratic Party to pay attention to what liberals want. It just has to be that the ones who are willing to volunteer for campaigns want that. And so then the political leaders are like, OK, I want to satisfy voters, but I also need to satisfy these people.
And meanwhile, voters really aren't paying that much attention. So I. They can get away with satisfying these activists as long as I don't go too far and I don't completely ignore something that I know voters are going to pay a lot of attention to. And so then there's this slow tension as as as the politicians start to see the advantage of appealing to the changing demands of political activists.
OK, so you've talked about the sort of these sort of small but especially passionate ideological minorities affecting party policy platforms via time and effort of volunteers. What about money? Is that are you able to disentangle the effect of those two on policies?
I think that there is an effect of money. Most of my work hasn't really dug into that. It's really hard to to figure out how much does it matter this dollar was given here. But certainly it certainly it matters. And so if the sort of high level examples, you can pull out something like, you know, the Koch brothers, they have an ideological agenda. If you want to have thing, think if you want to please the Koch brothers, well, you probably want to do some things that they are wanting to do and maybe you thinking, OK, here's a I could do a bunch of different possible things that I would would mobilize some activists on my behalf.
But if I do what the Koch brothers want, I get those activists. Plus I get the Koch brothers money. So I'll do that. And sure, that happens also on the left and it matters. You know, labor unions want something. And so you want to satisfy what that group is. And so the point is that lots of people come into politics with lots of different resources. And at least in my mind, the resources of money are really important.
But they're only one of the many things and lots of money. But you can't get activists to do the work that you need and you can't get people to be passionate and want to go to the polls and want to knock on doors for you and do all that work. Well, then the money isn't going to do do enough because you can't pay people enough money to create the kind of army of volunteers that you can create by saying being ideological.
OK, so to make sure I understand if I'm a political party and there are various passionate ideological interest groups, I don't know if that's the right word groups with with resources that they can contribute to, to my campaign to helping me get re-elected. I am sort of trying to weigh. Against each other, on the one hand, how much can they really help me? And on the other hand, how much is their ideology going to like? Is their ideology going to really alienate voters and make it harder for me to get re-elected in that sentence?
And so I'm looking for like a good deal of people that can like groups whose ideology groups with an accompanying ideology who can help me a lot and will be not too harmful in the way that I present myself to voters in terms of getting the votes I need. Yeah, yeah.
I think I think that's a good way to put it. The one thing that I would add to that that I think is often overlooked is that, you know, people themselves go into politics possibly because they actually care about stuff.
Know, I forgot about that theory is there I think I tend to discard that theory just because it doesn't it doesn't really match the data that I see. Maybe this is a whole other big question.
Yeah, well, I mean, I think it's certainly a lot of people are very flexible on on things. And there's a certain selection going on so that, you know, people who who care a lot about a particular issue but who care about it to the point that they won't be who don't want compromise when they need to win, they're not going to be as successful as someone who does. But even the most compromising politician, I think in the end, you know, they got into this instead of some other business because they kind of wanted to, you know, make the world a different place and ideally better in their way.
And even if they didn't, even if that's not totally what's driving them, they've spent all of their time with these activists and engaging in these ideas. Eventually they're going to come to believe some of this stuff. And so I think I mean, I think that's something we tend to undertake because we I think we a little bit cynical and say, you know, politicians that just want to get reelected, they just want to win win elections. And so they'll do whatever it takes to win elections.
And if that means they have to flip flop on their policy positions, well, so be it. And they certainly do flip flop on lots of policy positions, especially on things that aren't the thing they care the most about. But I think some to some degree, you're especially if you are, you know, raised in your poll, your political upbringing is in a conservative environment or is in a liberal environment. You're going to come to say these are all the things that we conservatives or we liberals believe.
And I'm going to try to do my best to satisfy those things because I believe them myself. At some point, you know, you you you buy, you drink your own, you know, you drink your own Kool-Aid or that's a terrible metaphor.
You know, at some point, you know, you buy your own story and you believe it yourself. And I think that does happen. And I think that, you know, we have a tendency to be very cynical about politicians and I think for good reason, because I think a lot of politicians are self-interested and just interested in power and the like. But I also think that it matters that they want. You know, you could be successful as a Democrat or a Republican.
They made a choice and that choice probably because they kind of liked that direction of things.
I think the only evidence that would convince me of that model would be actions that politicians take that are sort of clearly, predictably bad for their chances of getting re-elected and therefore could sort of only be explained by some commitment to ideological principles. I wouldn't be convinced by by apparent passion or sort of someone, a politician seeming to care a lot in the way that he talks about an issue just because I mean, in my model, people can really believe that they're doing something for ideological reasons.
But it's actually just a very convincing rationalization, even in their own minds. And if you actually look at their voting, they're like what bills they vote for or know the policies that they promised to voters. All that data just lines up perfectly with the theory that they're just trying to get re-elected, even if that's not how it feels to them internally. So do you think that there is that the data suggests that like in a significant minority or even a majority of cases, politicians are doing things that can be better explained by principle than by self-interest that I'm not so sure of?
I mean, I think I agree that it's very hard to tell the difference. Right. Just that the sort of your impression. Yeah, but my impression is, though, that it's so it is hard to tell the difference and it's hard to tell the difference for for a reason, which is that if if you're the kind of person who is going to regularly do things that are for the interests of your principles that you care about, but that are against the ends of your getting re-elected, you're not going to get re-elected and then you're going to be out of a career of gone.
But and so we're not going to see very many of those folks. But the difference is the person who would choose to do something on principle or work a little harder on something because they care a lot about it, that doesn't cost them the election. But they could have spent their time on something else and they could have done something different. And that's very hard to distinguish. Right, because we don't know if they're doing that or you're just they're just choosing.
Well, I got to choose something. And this seems like it's going to be successful, so I'll do it. I don't really care. I do think, though, that people go into politics who you know, it sort of would be strange to be that the only people who are in politics who don't care about the issues are the actual politicians. Because so many other people really do care and the people who are working, certainly the people who are volunteering for campaigns, you know, they like the care at some level, maybe they just want to be close to the action and they're excited.
But a lot of them, like they care about something.
And I guess it wouldn't surprise me if politicians were the exception and being the only group active in politics that doesn't really care about the principles just because they're getting other things through their time and effort and, you know, considerable headaches to come along with being active in politics like they're getting prestige and influence and attention. And, you know, so, you know, I don't think it would be weird. I don't think there would be a mystery there. Like, why would this person spent all this time and effort if they didn't care about the issues?
Well, no. They're getting all these other things. No, that's true. That's true.
Yeah. No, I agree that it it's possible that I'm probably a lot of politicians do don't really care about that much. But I mean, there's also, you know, from the point of view of of saying take this back to political party's point of view of the party, who's choosing who their nominees are going to be. I suppose I've got two people here who are both qualified people. And I'd like to run, as you know, as a as a representative from my district.
And they both have will express the same preferences to me. But one of them, I believe, because I'm, you know, behind the scenes and I get to talk to these people, I believe he really he really wants that. Well, as a as a power broker behind the scenes, that's the person I'd rather rather send office because then I don't have to try to monitor them then I don't have to make sure that they do the right thing.
And I push. And so I think there's going to be some selection towards that. But I mean, I don't want to overstate the case either. I think the main thing is what we were talking about earlier, which is you care about the you have to satisfy your activists. You've got to satisfy the your donors. You've got to satisfy your voters and all of those things as ideology shapes set of beliefs that are here's what it means to be conservative.
Well, then you satisfy a lot of people by satisfying conservative and you don't have to believe it. I just think on top of that, probably a lot of them do. Is there I mean, given that both the Democrats and Republicans back in their earlier mid part of the nineteen hundreds were facing these the same kinds of trade offs that you were just describing, is there a reason why the Democrats became the party of what we call liberalism and the Republicans the party of conservatism?
Like why why didn't it shake out the other way?
That's that's a good question. And I think it's possible at least that it could have shook out a different way, or at least that it's possible that ideology could have shaped some different way.
Right. It could have come up to that that, you know, there was a lot for a while that was the case that the anti racist, you know, civil rights movement stuff where people who are also in favor of small government, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case is about a train company wanting the government to get off their back and let them have an integrated train cars. And, you know, it wasn't it wasn't the policy of, of course, to desegregate lunch counters.
It was the policy of the towns that they were in. And so you can imagine that going that direction. But it didn't. And, you know, there's a I think there's a lot of things that are going along that why they bundled the way that it did. And so when I say, oh, it could have gone anywhere else, well, it's kind of hard to imagine once you look at the at the where the who was advantaged and who was making the cases and who was being persuaded and the like, but it could have gone in lots of different bundles.
And so certainly it's possible that the Democratic Party say the South Southern Democrats win the conflict with the northern Democrats in what it means to be the Democratic Party. And in forty eight, Truman isn't nominated and someone else is. And so there's Southern Democrats don't feel the need to to walk out. And then again, the the southern Democrats get what they want in those fights. And then it's quite possible that the northern Democrats could have said, OK, well, I guess we're out of the party and we need to try to change our position in our law in a different way.
There's so many moving parts and there's so many moving parts that eventually got us to where we are now that it's hard to point out a particular this thing, if only it had been different. But you could imagine several things going in a different way and having a very different alignment. We certainly have had different alignments in US history. Yeah.
Earlier you were expressing some skepticism about the idea that intellectual ideological elites are causal, like directly affect the ideology of voters and that that's what's driving and that politicians are therefore responding to the voters. It does, however, seem like. Voter, Democratic voters and Republican voters have shifted who have changed their ideological stance quite significantly over the years. Do you think do you think that it's just like a different causal pattern where political parties change their ideologies to sort of get the resources of the activists and then the voters are like, well, I'm a Democrat.
And I guess now Democrats believe that, you know, we should have a trigger warnings on campus or like, well, I'm a Republican. I guess. Now, Republicans believe that Russia is good. And so now that's my ideology or something.
Yeah, I think that's I think that's exactly right, that the way it works for most voters is via the political parties or via other groups that they're attached to. And people you know, the intellectuals are sort of thinking about what direction should we do things. They might be part of a movement. I think a lot of ordinary voters. You've got a connection to some, you know, who am I? Part of my identity is I'm a Democrat or I'm a Republican.
And so that drives things. And as the Republicans change what they stand for, then I guess I must change to. One thing that does seem to be happening, though, is increasingly for some people, it's not just your identity is not just about being Republican or Democrat. They're ordinary voters. Do you have an identity that is about being a liberal or being a conservative? And so then that's more like a direct thing there, that your identity is just being conservative conservative once the conservatives want these things.
So I want them to. One of the interesting things, though, is among conservative identifiers and also among liberals, but it's stronger on the conservative side, people identify as conservative. They say they're conservative. They will talk about themselves as being conservative in a way that matches up with the Republican Party. But they don't actually believe in a lot of the same things that conservatives believe in on policy. So they'll be I'm a conservative, but I think that we should have better health care and more money, more government spending on on health care to solve that problem.
I'm a conservative, but, you know, I think we really ought to have some kind of, you know, restrictions on how management can treat labor. They might not use those like that language, but they don't agree with those policies. And there is this like group of conservative people who identify as conservative and identify as Republican but who and vote as Republican, but who don't agree with conservative principles. There's also a group of liberals like that. But it happens to be at least the people who study this stuff seem to suggest that it's a smaller group.
Is there any are there any theories for why it's somewhat asymmetric without being stronger for conservatives?
I think I mean, it's it's hard to say. I think part of it is that, you know, conservatism has done a lot of work to try to create itself as an identity in a way that liberalism hasn't. And so it tries to connect, tries to reach out and say, well, we are as conservative and that's what you are. So then you people buy that argument, they buy that label and they like it without getting the underground underpinnings.
Whereas liberalism as a label is actually people don't really love that label, but they might buy into the principles and an idea sort of philosophy of equality and that government can be used to help create egalitarianism and equality. And then the whole it turns out that means I must be liberal. And so the label kind of comes comes later. There are some other interesting works on this. There's a really great book that's coming out soon by by Eric Oliver and Tom Wood on the way in which voters are that they call it the power and the timing of this the title.
But the gist of it is there's something about magical thinking and they're there. Their argument is that there are a lot of people who think about politics in a sort of like, you know, magical thinking rather than in a rational way about what leads to things. And then those folks identify as conservative. And so they think of themselves in that way, but they don't like their attitudes or more are different and different about how to understand the evidence and the like.
And that leads them to be in this identity. But then their policy positions, one all kinds of policy things. I'm not sure that's a complete a complete answer, but they that is one theory.
And I just recently read a draft of that book, and it's going to be out soon. And I think it's good.
And I'll plug it. And meanwhile and Stimson are two people who have done this, a fair amount of work on this that have sort of shown that there is this this asymmetry. And I think their argument would be that the difference is that people identify as conservative. They they know that they're conservative because they're religiously or traditionally conservative. And they don't really think of that in the same political way that we think about it here. But then as they hear that word come along and they know that being conservative is good, that creates their identity.
And I know well, conservatives are supposed to like the Republican Party. Republican Party is conservative, but it really has come from a different way of thinking about what it means to be what the word conservative means. That's that, I think is I think that's the argument that they would make. But I really think this is a little bit of an open question. My sort of pet thinking about this is that one of the things that conservatism does is a lot of conservative policies kind of feel like they're they violate some things that we otherwise like.
So, you know, there's an idea that conservatism is just identity politics for white people, which is not true of a lot of. Conservatism, but it is for some, but no one wants to admit that, but if long as you keep it at the higher abstract level, then you don't have to confront the fact that conservative policies maybe are just really good for rich people and might not be good for you, whereas liberalism doesn't have that problem because it the policies seem like even if they aren't good for you, they seem like they're good for you.
Right. So it's easier to embrace them. I think so. I think there's might be something about the way in which the the ideology embraces labels to to avoid talking about some difficult topics. I'm not really sure if that's right, but it seems like that might be something going on, too.
I mean, it definitely seems to me and I think you've written about this as well, that that the principles espoused by the difference, by the different ideologies or by liberals versus conservatives are very selectively applied like like free speech. You know, conservatives will will promote free speech, except if if there's something that violates decency or insults Christianity or something. And similarly, liberals will also promote or espouse free speech except speech that's offensive to minority minority groups, say, or traditionalism like both both conservatives and liberals.
I guess conservatives are more officially about traditionalism, but not in the case of, say, big box stores taking over and putting mom and pop stores out of business. And and liberals might actually not espouse traditionalism, but there's a bunch of things they do like, you know, defend the historical character of a city against, you know, skyscrapers that actually do fit with the traditionalist label, even though they don't apply it to themselves. And so it really it just so hard for me at least to square the pattern of support that we actually see, like the in practice application of these principles to some theory of, you know, liberals and conservatives actually having coherent ideologies, internally, consistent ideologies that they actually believe.
You know, I definitely don't think that ideology is in any way sort of internally consistent on that level. Part of it is because we're very creative in understanding these nuances. So if we got someone in here who is a bona fide liberal, bona fide conservative and said, hey, look, you're being inconsistent, you're being you're being hypocritical when it comes to free speech, they would give us an argument for why no. Yes, I think freedom is important.
But look, these values, these things are also important and this kind of speech undermines that. So that's a problem. No, no speech. This speech is what's the problem? And they would they would have an argument that that's, you know, somewhat coherent and we're very creative about this. I think the policy preferences probably come first. And so this is why I like to think of ideology as also a coalition. Right. It's people who think that you might not necessarily agree with your fellow ideologues about, but then you eventually can come up with a narrative that says these things go together because we believe these principles and the way that we're going to apply them.
And a lot of it really has to do with who is benefiting and who is not benefiting. So policies that are good for racial and ethnic minorities in the United States tend to be things that liberals like, even if that policy doesn't seem to match up with other things that liberals like and policies that are good for business and successful don't help help businesses thrive tend to be things that conservatives like, even if they don't match up perfectly with other conservative principles.
And I don't even think it's fair to say that's not that's being dishonest or anything because the world is complicated and everything isn't one value. Right? Freedom is important, but so is equality and so is social order. And so is, you know, sort of a a comfortable life with other people that we can get along. All those things are valuable, too. And so how we work those things out is tricky. And if it were easy, then the whole of all disciplines of political theory and philosophy would be done with them by now.
And they aren't. And so it's hard. And I don't I don't I don't want to impugn people for being hypocritical and coming to answers that seem self-serving because we're all flawed at trying to come up with that. But what is interesting is there is a liberal answer and there is a conservative answer. And those ideas come from not just what is best for my team, but also and I think I believe in these principles and I need to try to apply them in some way in the principles.
They do bite occasionally in some ways, and they lead people to think about new things.
They bite in the sense that we can't explain the policies that people support solely with reference to whether they identify as a liberal or conservative or whether they identify as a Democrat or Republican.
Yeah, I think I mean, people the part of what it means, like there is a there's a part of liberal or conservative belief that that is informed by the complicatedly applied principles. Right.
So, like, why do we know why would your typical. Will be so in favor of gay marriage, right? Most liberals are not gay, they don't they don't need it doesn't benefit them directly. But there's an idea that, you know, whatever you want to do with your life is supposed to be OK. And that's part of why. And maybe I believe it because what I want to do with my life is nothing to do with sexual morality.
But people are still telling me I can't do it because they know it doesn't match some religious doctrine that I don't believe in. And so that's what I think. And so then that that belief that I've been taught, if I believe that for this position, I should believe in for these other things and being in favor of gay rights becomes a way of expressing that, that's maybe even safer than trying to defend my own policy needs.
Well, I mean, I certainly like that. I like that story. But and I think that the the facts about liberals or Democrats support for gay marriage, it does undermine this theory that voters are only voting in their self-interest and any principles they espouse are just fig leaves for their own self self interest. But it doesn't seem like the data. It doesn't seem like this data undermine the theory you espousing earlier about sort of small, passionate ideological groups and win over the Democrats.
And then the Democrats espouse this ideology and then the voters adopt the ideology just because they're Democrats. Couldn't that have been what happened with gay marriage and or any other sort of seemingly altruistic principles that current Democrats espouse? They're just like following what the party did and the party is just doing what is advantageous to them based on the resources promised to them by special interest groups.
Yeah, and I think and I think that's part of it. I do think, though, that increasingly is the case, that some kind of liberal identity is plays a more direct role than simply through the parties like the Democratic Party didn't took a long time to come around on gay marriage. And a lot of liberal activists were OK on gay marriage already before the Democratic Party got there. And I think I mean, even to the point of I think that, you know, when when Obama finally sort of flipped on this issue and he evolved, I think that he and a lot of other people who moved at that point, there was a big change in the party.
I think a lot of those politicians were believe themselves. If you were to really, really pin them down. Yeah, probably there should be gay rights. It's just too dangerous. And now suddenly it's not dangerous. They switched, but the activist base of the Democratic Party was way out ahead on that issue. And so it can't simply be that it was the Democratic platform because the Democratic platform was catching up with the activist base.
Mm hmm. You've done some interesting research and original data collection yourself to try to disentangle the difference like causal arrows here. Can you talk a little bit about how you like what kinds of data can help us distinguish between politicians following ideology versus ideology, following politicians?
Well, I mean, I guess it's a little bit generous to say that it was really disentangle these things. You know, it's a very tricky question and they help us disentangle.
So so what to do in the book was, as I said, OK, let's I think we think we can figure out pretty easily what parties stand for. We can look at platforms, which I don't much do, but you can look at them. But you can also look at voting patterns in Congress. And it's pretty easy to see that these are the things that Republicans are voting for and these are the things that Democrats are voting for. And we can also sort of look at how those those Republicans and Democrats are are voting in response, in alignment to some kind of, you know, liberal or conservative voting patterns in Congress.
It's easy to see the stuff in Congress because we asked them lots and lots of questions.
And so I said, well, I don't just do the same thing among political elites. And so define political elites in this, say the ideological elites as people who are writing in magazines and newspapers about politics. So the op ed in The New York Times and articles that are in The Weekly Standard or the National Review or The New Republic or the Nation. And so what I did was I took a base of all those things and I read through them and I actually had a lot of good research assistants at UCLA and then again here at Georgetown and actually some at Princeton as well who read through things with me.
And they were we would classify. All right. This is an article that's about slavery to data set goes all the way back to 1850. This is an article about slavery. And this person is in favor of abolishing slavery and so will say this is slavery, abolition of slavery. That's what this issue is. And then what's this next article? And so then we could treat those articles kind of like votes on a bill in Congress in the same way that we have all of that.
It's a little bit more difficult because on a vote on a bill in Congress, the bill comes up and everybody gets to vote on it. Whereas in the the conversation that's happening among intellectuals, a lot of people just don't bother to talk about some stuff. But still, across all of that, we could look for some patterns. And then what we could find is here the pat. Here are the things that are separating these pundits from those pundits and gee, it looks like these pundits are taking liberal positions and these things are to pundits are taking conservative positions on stuff, one of the actual issues that are separating them.
And then we go and look and see what the breakdown of those things were in in the legislature. And so what I found was that the intellectuals seems to divide into a liberal and conservative camp first at a time when the Republican and Democratic parties had not yet divided into those two camps. And then slowly, the Democrats or Republicans came to divide into the same camps that the intellectuals had staked out 20 or 40 years earlier.
And so the timing was distinct enough that we can say that it suggests the the intellectual elites were influencing the parties. And that's really around.
Yeah, it seems hard to believe that the one alternative you might think of as an intellectual leader, just trying to rationalize their party's platform because they want their party to win. And that doesn't seem to be happening because they're they're not just defending what their party wants. They're constructing a coalition, an alternative coalition that they are then trying to get the party to adopt. And so I use the language coalition merchants. They've got this coalition and they're trying to get the parties to to accept it.
And it seems that that's what's happening in the Democratic Party on change, on race and then on the Republican Party. In response to that. There's other possibilities that could be things that I'm not looking at that are driving everything. Maybe voters are changing.
And I was going to ask and the policy elites and policy and parties are both following that, that's entirely possible.
It doesn't seem like that's the case. At least the only if you look at Republican attitudes on, you know, on racial issues or on so many of things that we can track really closely, that doesn't seem to be the case. Really nice example. This is on abortion, where if you ask you survey people on abortion in 1970, they there's not very much polarization on that at all. And if there is, it's slightly the case that Republicans are more likely to be pro-choice and Democrats are slightly more likely to pro-life, mostly because pro-life activists are mostly Catholic and Catholics are in the Democratic Party.
And then that changes. We see it change in Congress and then we see a change among the voters later on. And so that's one case. But that pattern seems to be you see some other evidence of that. You see that on civil rights a little bit, too. And so it suggests to me that it is not being driven mainly by voters. Now, there are some possibilities, the data that I have, because it's very time consuming to collect all these positions.
I have data from 1910 and the 1930 of the 1950, and a lot happens in those gaps. And so Eric Sickler at Berkeley just has a book now out on the realignment of the Democratic Party on race. And he argues that there are voters that seem to be very much leading the path and that they their voters seem to be organizing and changing their positions on this ahead of Congress and possibly ahead of the intellectuals. But the real story is we can't really tell from my data because it seems that they're happening.
It's happening somewhere in the 1920s, 1930s. Well, I think that's also when it happened. And I just have it in 1910, 1930. It's rough. So, you know, if we really want to be at the bottom of the question, I'd want to go back and spend more time digging into what people are writing in that period. And of course, now I've moved on to other things.
Yeah, interesting. A related topic that I really wanted to make sure we get to before we have to end the conversation is polarization. So it's it's kind of a truism at this point that polarization, political polarization has increased. Is that supported by evidence or maybe a better way to phrase? The question is, is there a reasonable definition of the word polarization for which it is true that polarization has increased? Yeah, I think that's the right question.
And I'm mean, I'm writing I'm writing a thing right now, actually, where I tried to articulate this in the book that you your the political ideology of political parties. I talk a little bit about this, too. There's lots of different things that polarization could mean. And one of the problems is that journalists understandably don't spend a lot of time trying to unpack these different things.
Right. So if journalists were all analytic philosophers. Right, exactly. So, you know, it's hard to it's hard to fault that. But you know, what is what is happening? One thing we think of when we think of polarization is that the left is just moving far more left and the right is moving far more to the right. And I don't think there's a ton of evidence for that. On some issues, it seems like the right is moving to the right.
But at the same time, on other issues, the right is moving more to the center and vice versa. Right. So on. Yeah. On government intervention in the economy, the left has compromised a lot on race and on gay rights. The right has compromised a lot. It's not so clear that everything is flying off in directions. Another possibility that was just hollowing out of moderate positions. But what does it mean to be moderate? Exactly.
Anyway, the moderate positions generally are that people when we ask, we figure out someone is a moderate. What we do is we ask people, yeah, here's your position. A bunch of other issues, and then if you take the conservative position on everything, you're conservative, you take liberal positions on everything, you're liberal, and if you get to a mix, we call you a moderate. But that's not necessarily moderate. You could be far to the left on one thing and part of the right.
Nothing. You're just inconsistent. So there's been some really, really good work by David Brookman and Doug Holler at Brookings, at Stanford, and I think at Berkeley still. I'm not sure who have been digging into this and trying to unpack what's happening with that. And I think it's that's a good, important way of thinking about what is going on with polarization. So it might be that there's no moderates, but maybe there never were any moderates. It could be that there's increasing alignment.
So there's being liberal. Some people are more consistent that we do have evidence for. Yeah, yeah.
There is people who are liberal on one policy position, tend now to be liberal on more things and conservatives the same way. So that seems to happen. What is also seems to be happening is that the other thing that could be happening is that there could be polarization. Should we just be sorting of liberals to the Democratic Party and conservatives, the Republican Party? That's definitely happening.
So then that's not like it's not in that model. It wouldn't be the case that any individual voter is changing his or her opinions to be more consistently across the board liberal or consistently across the board conservative. It's just that voters themselves are sorting such that each group is more consistently across the board.
Well, that's right. That's right. And so we think I think that there's a lot of evidence that that's happening and that people are becoming more internally, consistently liberal, conservative. And then the other thing that I think is there's a fair amount of evidence on about polarization. That is probably the most important thing, actually, is the degree to which we now don't like people of the other side. Right. And so it's this what we call the sort of affective polarization or negative partisanship or something like that.
And so, you know, it's not that anybody's changed their positions and it's become more extreme, but maybe because we're now more internally consistent. So we now know who's on our side and so forth. We don't know people on the other side and we distrust them and we dislike them and that there is a ton of evidence for increasing animosity to our political enemies and that more on top of anything else. That alone could have really serious consequences for compromise.
And like you argued in one of your papers, Kevin wrote one, that polarization, maybe not in this sense, but in some sense might actually be good, and that in the past there were legitimate concerns that the Republican and Democrat parties were too similar to each other and that it might actually be good to have each party have a sort of a distinct, coherent ideology. I think the term you used, and I hope I'm citing it correctly, is responsible party government.
That's right. So the case for that. Sure. So the responsible part of government is is a concept that was coined by the American Political Science Association's Commission on Political Parties that had a report in 1950. So this is a long time ago now. And the report in 1950 had a lot of concerns about things. But one of the things that they said was it's really a problem that the parties don't have clear policy positions because when you go to vote, you don't know what you're voting for.
You can be really unhappy with the direction that the country is going and the Democrats are in power. So you want to vote out the Democrats, but actually your member does want what you want there, just unlike the leadership of the Democratic Party. And so you should be happy with your in person and you don't, but you don't know because you don't know what it is. Just because someone's a Democrat doesn't tell you anything about what they stand for.
And so this is a concern. It makes it difficult to hold parties accountable and it makes it difficult for parties to what they what the parties to do to be very transparent. It's hard for us to know what the parties are doing when you don't know what they stand for unless you're really, really attentive and know all of the nuances.
And so what they were advocating for was more ability for parties to control their their nominations and their choices and be able to to impose more discipline. That's not exactly what's happened. What's happened is then that the parties have become more ideological. A lot of the influence is now ideologues pushing their their preferences to holding the party leaders to to account for that. Right. So now you've got Republicans who are afraid to challenge Trump because they're afraid of a primary challenge.
Right. And so that's not that's not that the parties have more control over their nominations. It's exactly the opposite. Right. So the ideologues are holding things together, but we do have a clear, distinct choice now. And you know what you're getting. And if you go to the polls and say, oh, I don't know, Democrats or Republicans, they're the same. I mean, you just aren't paying attention because there are clear differences. And so that's maybe a good thing, like having a clear programmatic differences is probably a good thing.
The animosity that each side has for the other, maybe that's not such a good thing. The degree to which party leaders don't have control over their nominations and that the polarization is being driven by activists who have no interest in compromise. That's probably not a good thing. But the idea that you'd have programmatically different parties, that's probably a good thing, or at least it could be a good thing. It seems to me like we could get the goods of that without the downsides, if if we if we just tried for transparency, like let's say there were sort of 10 ideologies and then each politician could say, like, OK, here's where here here are my coordinates on the on this, like, multidimensional grid of ideologies.
Maybe that sounds too complicated, but imagine a simple version. Yeah. Here's where I am on the two dimensional grid or whatever authoritarianism. Then left, right. Then you could just like as long as you knew what the ideologies were, you could just pick the politicians that supported you and and whether the politicians who call themselves Democrats were especially clustered together on that grid wouldn't really matter because we would have transparency. And that was was all we needed.
Well, so you'd have transparency about who you sent to the legislature, but you wouldn't have transparency about what they're doing once they get there. And I think this is this actually is a variant of one of the complaints that people often have where they say, well, you know, we only have two parties. What if we had more parties? And then those parties, we know what they all say. You know, we I could vote for my party that wants this.
That that's more fine grained way to choose. Exactly. And so it would be much more fine grained way to choose. But then the end of the day, the people go to the legislature and they have to vote and they have to make decisions that where they are compromising with one another. And the thing about a party is it tells you who they're going to compromise with because that's what a party is. As people who decided this would be people I'm going to compromise with to try to be consistently win, because if this is my team and we work together, then I know that they'll have my back when I after I've had theirs.
And so if you don't know the party, if you don't know what the party is a collection stands for, you don't know what kind of log roll you've bought into. Here's an interesting thing. All right. So if I say suppose that you're the only thing you care about is abortion and you're pro-choice and you deficit or anything you care about. And I give you two candidates. One is a Republican who's pro-choice and one's a Democrat who is pro-life.
Who should you vote for? I submit that you should vote for the pro-life Democrat. The reason is, even though that person is pro-life and you would probably be better off with a pro-choice Democrat for sure. But that's not on the table. That's on the table. You want the pro-life Democrat and why? Because the pro-life Democrats are going to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker or as party leader and whatever, whether you win and win the majority or not.
And that person is going to coordinate with other Democrats. And part of the Democratic coalition is being pro pro-choice. And so what the part of the larger party coalition is, is a big deal. What what you're buying into sending a bunch of people to the legislature who agree with you. That's great. But sending a bunch of people who agree with you, who are capable of compromising on things you're also willing to compromise on, that's better. And so you need to pay attention to the compromise, because at the end of the day, we don't get a million different policies.
We get one policy, whatever the government chooses. And that policy is the result of lots of compromise. And lot of times it's the interest in compromise. Isn't compromise with the other side, it's compromise with your fellow partisans. Right. And so you need to know who those fellow partisans are, which is why I think it's important to know what the parties stand for.
Interesting. That's probably a good point on which to end, conditional on having to end it all. OK, but before I let you go, I want to invite you to introduce the rationally speaking pick of the episode. So this is a book or article or blog or something that has influenced your thinking in some way. Doesn't have to be reason, doesn't have to relate to the topic of the episode, just something that influenced your thinking.
Well, I meant something that does relate to actually what we've just been talking about. And so I'm going to recommend people go back and read Eyeshot Schneider's book Party Government is it's very old. And it was one of the people who was involved with the APSA commission that I mentioned earlier. And in Shoshana's book, he talks about how parties work and what they do. He makes a defense, a sort of normative defense of why parties are good. But the thing that was in his book that really influenced me and really changed my thinking is I was really interested in persuasion.
Why do people change their minds? Why do they become why become liberal and all these different things? And one thing that Schneider pointed out that once I read it was like, oh, this is obviously true and needs to be accounted for, is that persuasions often completely unnecessary? Because what politics is often about is just putting together a coalition of people who will vote together and they don't have to agree. They just have to be more of them to defeat the other side and more depends on the institution or whatever.
But once that became clear, it's like, well, that's really the story. And Shoshana's book is good for so many other reasons, too. And so it's it's out of date, right? It's back from a period when the parties weren't ideologically distinct from each other.
But that's interesting in its own right. Yes, that's right. Exactly. One of the points he makes, the point, he says, is, wow, it's really interesting that both parties are completely ideologically diverse. And we would never say that today.
And but it's I think it's a really good book. It's an older book. It's you know, it's not a you know, something. It is reissued. You can find it party government, Elmir, Eric Schneider. And that's what I would recommend people take a look at. Great.
We'll link to that on the podcast website, as well as two political ideologies and political parties in America, which is one of your recent books and your website. Hohns, thank you so much for being on the show. Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun. Yeah, likewise.
This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.