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The Symbolic Politics of the Parties

 Doug Koopman presents a dilemma facing the GOP: “take new steps and adopt quite different trade and infrastructure ideas of the Trump agenda, or try to keep Trump voters attached to the party by more symbolic, and problematic, means.” The first horn of the dilemma entails ideological capitulation, at least in key areas of economic policy (both international and domestic). In recent decades (though not always), Republicans have championed free trade and muscular international engagement abroad and domestic spending cuts, deregulation, and deference to states. The problem for Republicans is that some of those commitments are in tension with President Trump’s asserted goals. The second horn of the dilemma moves from the ideological to the “symbolic,” by which I take Doug to mean the party’s use of cultural cues to distinguish “true” GOP stalwarts from RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). The idea of symbolic politics is that citizens join with others in political groups based on markers of identity (e.g., class, race, gender, religion), rather than substantive agreement over ideology or policy (though the symbolic and substantive may converge).

I agree with Doug that the GOP faces hard choices in the age of Trump, but I’d argue the alternatives he proposes are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. As I see it, the Party’s challenge is not a clear dilemma but a murky trilemma.

Doug’s alternatives are not exhaustive because there is a third option, namely, doubling down on a #NeverTrump strategy and confronting the president directly on both ideological and symbolic grounds. Certainly many Republicans and conservatives – including prominent Christian Republicans and/or conservatives – committed to that strategy during the campaign. Perhaps Doug doesn’t address this alternative because he’s surmised that it’s become non-starter within the halls of power. A very few elites notwithstanding (many of whom are now leaving office), Trump’s nomination and victory have either quieted never-Trump voices in government or turned them 180 degrees. For many, it’s a realist’s gamble: In the near term, half a loaf is better than no bread at all, and Trump is offering something more than a few crumbs. But I am curious what Doug might think about a Republicans-in-exile response to Trump that insists on greater ideological continuity and a moderated tone from the sitting president.

The alternatives Doug presents are also not mutually exclusive. The GOP could embrace both of them: the party could capitulate ideologically and play Trump’s brand of “symbolic” politics. I suspect Doug wouldn’t disagree with that point, and in fact he’d likely identify some ways that the embrace has already happened. But his post focuses much more on the former alternative (ideological change) than the latter (symbolic politics). Part of the reason for his focus, it seems, relates to Doug’s understanding of party politics. Like most political scientists (including me), he sees parties partly as organizations that seek to control government by winning elections. Moreover, for many political scientists (not necessarily including me), winning elections means linking party ideology and policy to the median voter’s preferences. In fact, the idea that parties are organizations that leverage ideology/policy among voters is the message of both posts from (chastened) party advocates: Like Doug, Jim Talen focuses largely on how he navigated the ideological and policy opportunities and pitfalls within the Democratic Party.

But Doug’s and Jim’s emphasis on ideology and policy leaves open the question of how they would address the symbolic side of partisan politics. One way of interpreting my original post to this conversation is that both parties play symbolic politics as a strategy of division and mobilization. In that sense partisanship moves beyond ideology and policy into the realm of identity. So I agree with Doug that a lot of focus on parties-as-organizations with coherent platforms that attract or repel voters is probably “myopic,” or perhaps more precisely misplaced. While it’s a complex argument, many political scientists find that ideologies and policy preferences are not that important to most ordinary voters. Some commentators have even suggested that the U.S. is “post-ideological.” So if we think that the goal of parties is to connect ideology to voters, and we then observe (as Doug does) how quickly Trump unended the GOP’s conservative platform – the “Reagan trinity” – then it certainly looks like the Republicans aren’t reaching their goal and may even be in decline.  But my earlier post suggests that there’s good evidence that partisan identity isn’t necessarily rooted in ideology or policy preferences. I also argue that that identity, in its current “symbolic” or “tribalist” form, looms relatively strong, even if the allure of ideology or policy has waned.

Angela Cowser poses the challenge of the symbolic in stark terms, especially with respect to the GOP. As she sees it, the longstanding “values” of the GOP are relentlessly identity-based: “the symbolic … suppression and oppression of minority citizens and immigrants around issues of race, ethnicity, citizenship, and gender; a close melding of the goals and aims of the Republican Party and most conservative Christian fellowships in the US…; [and] the militant and unrepentant elevation of … Whiteness and White norms…” (my emphasis). Now, I don’t share Angela’s experience, and I would frame some of these values in different ways. But she raises questions about the history of the Republican Party that are mostly left out of Doug’s thumbnail telling of it, from the Party’s protectionist and nationalist moments in the early 20th century to its more recent flirtations with forms of authoritarianism and populism that have often exploited identity-based tensions. It would be interesting to hear what Doug would say to the provocative argument that aspects of the GOP’s underlying “individualism” have morphed into an ethno-nationalist pose grounded in the symbolic politics of identity.

I wondered why Angela did not lay quite the same kind of challenge at the Democrats’ feet. She suggests instead that “symbolic” Democratic values are in effect the opposite of Republicans’; the Democratic Party tries to “elevate ethnic, racial, and gender diversity” and seems to be “assiduously neutral” on religion. Her critique of Democrats is about policy substance, not symbolism, i.e., “no legislative victories” for African Americans or the poor. But I would simply note that the Democratic Party has its own history with exclusivist symbolic strategies that identify who’s “in” by defining who’s “out.” The Party certainly has not been “neutral” on religion, for example. A lot of political science on party politics in the late 1960s and 1970s shows that the Democrats made some clear decisions to signal welcome to the various rights movements of the day, which had the predictable – and some argue intended – effect of pushing away religious groups over issues of abortion, family life, and education. That period left many religionists without a clear home in the parties. Catholics, for example, have since become the classic “cross-pressured” group, committed to combat both poverty and abortion through state intervention. Southern evangelicals bolted for the GOP (though, of course, the Republican Party so-called “Southern strategy” helped bring them into the fold).   

For my part, the greatest concern about the ways parties use the symbols of identity to divide and mobilize is that mediating forces have weakened. The institutions within civil society that have pushed against partisan tribalism, often by bringing citizens together in diverse groups, have eroded in their influence. Doug mentions that trust and confidence in institutions has declined, which comprises a crisis of authority of these institutions. The loss of the church’s moral authority is perhaps the most profound illustration. What’s more, as I noted in my early post, many of the institutions of civil society – unions, media, family, neighborhoods, and even churches themselves – are increasingly shaped by partisan forces, and so they are less likely to be countervailing. So it’s a double-whammy: At the same time the authority of civil society has declined, its partisan colonization has enlarged. I tend to think latter might help explain the former.    

I wonder what Doug and Jim might have to say about that double-whammy, particularly in light of their exchange on sphere sovereignty. I’d like Doug’s to unpack his “walls-of-the-home” metaphor a bit, because my understanding of the sphere-sovereignty concept is that is does not merely suggest that the state provides structure for the other spheres. But I’m more interested in some of his asides about the church. I agree that the church has “little special insight” into the nitty-gritty of governing and that should limit the church’s reach. But I’m puzzled by Doug’s claim that “the real moral activities of life [are] outside of the church.” I ended my earlier post by asserting that the church makes profoundly “real” moral claims, and that its practices – most importantly worship – shape our political lives, even when the church doesn’t take partisan sides. I would also argue that the church ought to play that role, especially in this age of political tribalism, which is basically a form of idolatry.

I have a post-in-waiting about the parties and federalism, which Doug and Jim both raise and discuss. But I trust there is enough here to keep that other post for the next round!

And a post-script to readers who might not know: Doug and I occupy offices fifteen feet apart. We haven’t talked about this exchange, but I promise, in the spirit of Respectful Conversations, that our differences will not spill into a hallway brawl.

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