Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Defensive Democrats?: An Untested Theory for an Uncertain Observation

Blogging at The Economist, E.G. writes:
There seems to be a certain temperamental difference between conservatives and Republicans on the one hand and liberals and the Democrats on the other. In broad strokes, Republicans, especially of the tea-party stripe, are typically proud, at least unapologetic, and sometimes belligerent about their beliefs. Democrats, in contrast, seem to adopt the defensive position by default.
I see this a lot from left-leaning writers, though it doesn't really match my own observations about Democratic politicians' demeanor.  (Amusingly, you often read it from right-leaning writers discussing the lack of conviction and fortitude among Republican politicians, but c'est la vie.)   Obama, Pelosi, and Reid have a pretty reasonable record of confident self-righteousness, presuming our observations are not taken only from moments in which their party has recently suffered a massive electoral defeat.

Presuming the observation of partisan differences in style is correct, though, E.G. offers a couple of theories about their origins:
Democrats are constrained by their insecurities, a holdover from being made fun of by George W Bush and Fox News. Democrats are undermined by deeper, historical anxieties; with the Republicans having co-opted the rhetoric of being the "real America", Democrats feel that they have to explain themselves before they can proceed. Or, there's something cultural going on: there are temperamental traits that draw a person to the Democratic or Republican parties, and those same traits, aggregated, are manifested by the parties themselves. Commenters, what do you think? Or am I overstating the entire premise?
Again, I am a bit dubious about the scope of the phenomenon that needs explaining here, but, to drop my two cents, partisan differences in political behavior can often be traced to differences in the values orientations of the two major parties.  As Chris Ellis and I wrote in a recent paper for the last APSA meeting:
Though the space of contemporary American political values, ideologies, and belief systems is undoubtedly complex—embracing “freedom, equality, individualism, democracy, capitalism, and several others” (Feldman and Zaller 1992, p. 271)—and often develops idiosyncratically at the individual level (Lane 1962, 1973).  Yet, for many Americans, the competing values of individualism and egalitarianism dominate their engagement with the political world.  Individualism connotes support personal liberty and laissez-faire economic principles while egalitarianism includes equality and social welfare.  Within this framework, Republicans predominantly express the core value of individualism. Democrats generally articulate the core value of egalitarianism, although Democratic partisanship is characterized by more values-based ambivalence than that of Republicans, as Democrats also often espouse broadly individualistic attitudes as well (Feldman and Zaller 1992; see also Goren 2001). [Notes omitted.]
If Democrats are systematically more defensive than Republicans, part of the answer may lie that Democratic partisanship is inherently values ambivalent.  When Democrats advocate redistributive tax policies, say, they are serving their allegiance to egalitarianism, but they are sacrificing their commitment to individualism.  This underlying tension may lead them to be especially sensitive to criticism that their proposals are contrary to personal liberty, market principles, and the like.

Republicans, in contrast, are substantially less ambivalent.  Individualism is the whole ballgame.  This more pure, less complex political orientation may lend itself to a more unabashed political style.

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