The narcissism of the narcissism of small differences

by Andrew Gelman on October 1, 2012 · 10 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political science

In an otherwise reasonable article, Felix Salmon writes:

In America’s two-party system, you’re given a simple choice: this guy, or the other guy. If you find yourself in wholehearted agreement with one of the two, then the other one becomes the enemy, the obstacle standing in the path leading your guy to the White House. And under the rule of the narcissism of small differences, everything which separates your guy from the other guy becomes a monstrosity to be fought at every turn, and a grievance to be nursed and rehearsed ad nauseam. (Liberals, in truth, are even better than conservatives at this kind of thing: just remember what they thought of Reagan, whose policies were not particularly to the right of Obama.)

Huh? Ya gotta come up with a better example than that! Reagan wasn’t running against Obama, he was running against Carter and Mondale (and, in policy terms, against congressional Democrats such as Tip O’Neill). I think it’s safe to say that Reagan’s polices were to the right of Carter, Mondale, and Tip O’Neill.

This is not to say that all anti-Reagan sentiment was at the policy level, but the differences between Reagan and Mondale, or between Romney and Obama, are not so small. In a comparative study, my political science colleagues John Huber and Piero Stanig find the differences on economic policy between Democrats and Republicans to be relatively large (compared to left vs. right in other countries). And, indeed, the rich-poor gradient in vote preferences is larger in the U.S. than in most other countries too. (We also discuss this in chapter 7 of Red State Blue State.) And, sure, Carter was a moderately conservative Democrat, but Reagan was a far-right Republican for his time. So I don’t think “narcissism of small differences” is an appropriate description.


Vladimir October 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Reagan if I remember correctly opposed Medicare in 1964, Obama signed and probably would have been happy to support much more “liberal” health care legislation than the ACA. I’ve never heard anyone say that Reagan’s ideological position changed just his recognition of the political constraints he operated under. Indeed, I can recall Pat Moynihan pointing to the contradiction of then President Reagan’s speeches about his commitment to the family farmer (i.e. farm subsidies) and the contradiction with Reagan’s otherwise free market ideology. What some Republicans have forgotten about Reagan is his willingness to jettison ideology to win elections.

DavidT October 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Michael Lind argues in *Land of Promise* (p. 380) that “the great dismantling [of the New Deal order] began during the administration of Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan.” He cites deregulation of airlines, rail, and trucking. He also notes that the reversal in the post-Vietnam decline of American military spending started under Carter: “The Carter administration called for defense spending to rise even further by 1987 to 5.7 percent of GDP–only a little below the 6.2 percent at which it peaked in 1986.” (p. 391). He calls Carter the most conservative Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland . (He might have added the capital gains tax cut of 1978; also US aid to the Afghan Mujahadeen started under Carter, not Reagan.)

Andrew Gelman October 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm


Still, amidst all this, Reagan was still more conservative than Carter.

John October 2, 2012 at 9:42 am

Is there even a question that Carter was the most conservative Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland? Who would the other contenders be?

DavidT October 1, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Andrew, Yes, but the question is How much more conservative than the Carter administration was the *actual record of the Reagan administration*–not what Reagan may have *wanted* to do? He may have wanted to dismantle the Great Society but Congress wouldn’t let him–not even in 1981-2. At the end of eight years, the Department of Energy and the Department of Education were still there, Social Security had been “fixed” by a bipartisan commission, Medicare was still around in its traditional form, and while taxes had been cut (and one should remember that the Democrats were not totally opposed to tax cuts) TEFRA limited the cuts. The Voting Rights Act was extended for 25 years in 1982.

I’m not saying that you wouldn’t have gotten more liberal results if Carter had been re-elected, but just as you must discount things that Reagan wanted but could not get through, so you must discount things Carter (or Mondale) would want but which Republicans and conservative Democrats wouldn’t let him get through Congress.

Or if your argument is that we should look solely at what the president wants, then conservative Obamaphobes could reply that Obama “really” wanted single-payer but knew the votes for it just weren’t there in Congress.

I am dealing only with domestic affairs here, on foreign policy, I’ll just note that despite rhetoric about the Evil Empire, Reagan was cautious about using US troops (Lebanon was the unfortunate exception, and he cut the losses there rather than digging in; and the Grenadan Communist government was hardly a formidable foe) and as noted the defense buildup began under Carter.

LFC October 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm

I agree with A. Gelman’s post. To say, as Felix Salmon does, that Reagan’s policies “were not particularly to the right of Obama,” is absurd.

Not only were many of Reagan’s policies on the right (huge military build-up early in the admin, which began under Carter but Reagan accelerated it; putting of intermediate-range nukes in Europe [which he then much later agreed to remove w Gorbachev] etc.), but his rhetoric, in terms of what could be called its ideological imagery, was very different from that of his predecessors. I was looking quickly the other day at the opening chapter of Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, which appears to make this case brilliantly. This matters b.c, as is well known, giving speeches and setting an ideological ‘tone’ is a lot of what presidents do, and eventually, sooner or later, it tends to affect policy.

LFC October 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm

p.s. Salmon should stick to what he knows something about.

Jacob Hartog October 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

I think there’s two different ideas to unpack here; the first is the rhetorical positioning of politicians, the sense in which Rick Santorum was able to position himself to the “right” of Mitt Romney early in the 2012 Republican primaries. The second is the policy positioning of politicians, which as Andrew points out is relative to the baseline of current policy, rather than to some abstract desiderata of the ideally conservative or liberal society. The conflict between these two forms of ideological positioning is, I think, central to the mess the current Republican party is in; their primary system demands a maximal rhetorical positioning to the right, while the specific demography of their base, which is generally well served by current policy, gives little headroom for actual achievable policy positions. Thus, a Romney tax plan without proposed taxes and a plan for entitlement reform that amounts to “Get Your Government Hands off of my Medicare!”

Acilius October 2, 2012 at 10:00 am

I think Jacob Hartog makes a key distinction above. It certainly makes it easier to see the candidate you least prefer as “a monstrosity to be fought at every turn” if you spend more time speculating about what that candidate might do if given absolute power to make his or her every wish come true than trying to figure out what the same candidate might actually accomplish given the restraints to which the actual political environment will subject any office-holder.

Terron December 1, 2012 at 11:26 am

I don’t think there will ever be another Reagan, but we can hope. We’ve got Giuliani who is great on ficsal matters and national security, but a liberal on everything social. Then there is Huckabee who is a compassionate conservative on social issues, but a liberal on immigration enforcement, prison sentences, and he’s made some crazy statements about foreign policy.In comes Romney. If there is anyone that can bring together ficsal conservatives and social conservatives, it has to be Romney. Like Reagan, he changed his position on abortion, but I welcome all converts to the pro-life belief. He’s a successful businessman, and at a time when the future of the economy is uncertain, someone with his experience is invaluable. Is he a perfect candidate? Of course not, but those are rare. I’m looking for the best person for the job, and I think he’d do an awesome job.

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