A theory of the importance of Very Serious People in the Democratic Party

by Andrew Gelman on August 22, 2013 · 40 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Media

Ashok Rao writes:

Paul Krugman’s pet insult – “Very Serious Person” – is more important to understanding America’s policy failures than most people realize, and goes well beyond economic illiteracy. More than anything, without understanding VSPness (henceforth “vispy”) – one can never comprehend how the Democratic Party screwed up so much in the past five years. . . .

The Democrats are vertically infected with vispiness in a way the Republican party is not. While many often talk about the GOP as a more “hierarchal” party (considering the nature of their primary selection process) – Republicans are freer and more iconoclastic. . . . the only way to become a Republican champion is iconoclastic flair. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even Sarah Palin are hardly “establishment” in the sense of representing prestigious ideas.

Rao argues that leadership in the Republican party is attained via pursuing “fresh and different ideas: ranging all the way from Chris Christie’s loud personality to Paul Ryan’s nutty-nutty budget.”

Why?

For the purposes of argument, I will accept Rao’s assessment of the structures of the two parties. The question then arises: Why? After all, basic stereotypes would suggest that Republicans, not Democrats, would be the stodgy ones. One story is that the Democrats are working on “maintaining the ’90s status-quo” (in Rao’s words). But I think it goes back earlier than that. After all, Reagan was an extremist for his time, whereas Clinton was always a moderate.

My theory (which maybe I’ve blogged before, I can’t remember) revolves around the role of the news media. The media are a liberal, Democratic-leaning institution. This can be seen, for example, from surveys of journalists (the last one I saw showed Democratic reporters outnumbering Republicans 2-1) or political endorsements or various other studies. It is my impression that the news media lean left but the public-relation industry leans right.

Anyway, my point here is that the Republican party has a lot of resources, including much of big business, military officers, and organized religion. They don’t need the news media in the way that the Democrats do. And, I suspect one reason why Very Serious People are important for Democrats is that they are respected by the media. The Republicans can put together a budget that is mocked by major newspapers and nobody cares. But if the Democrats lose the support of the New York Times, they’re in trouble. Hence the asymmetry in seriousness. One might say that the Republicans are hurt by a similar asymmetry with regard to social issues, in that they can’t ignore the support of the religious right or talk radio. Although this is a bit different: the so-called Very Serious People pull the Democrats toward the center, while social issue groups pull the Republicans to the right.

To put it another way, each party has a coalition of financial interests and political activists that are important in staffing the party and shaping its goals. The Democratic party’s balance has changed: in recent decades, with the decline of labor unions, various segments of industry such as high-tech have become important, also there are doctors and lawyers and newspapers. These are all groups that will tend to favor centrist, status-quo, what Krugman might call “very serious” policies.

I think this could/should be studied more systematically (ideally in some sort of comparative analysis with data from many countries).

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