Archive | Political Parties

Can partisan media contribute to healthy politics?

On Monday at 5 pm, I’m participating in a South by Southwest panel entitled “How Partisan Media Contributes to Healthy Politics.”  I prefer to think of this as a question: can partisan media contribute to healthy politics?  For my contribution, I want to do two things.  The first is report on the available social science to show that partisan media might not be as powerful as is sometimes suggested.  I think that’s an important piece of context for this discussion.  The second is to raise some questions about whether and how partisanship—an often maligned notion—can play a valuable role in democracy.

The audience for partisan news is not as big as you might think.

What percentage of Americans watches cable news for 10 minutes or more per day?  Only about 10-15%, if you simply add up the audiences for Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.  This is based on calculations by political scientist Markus Prior, drawing on detailed data about what people actually watch and not what they report in a survey.  Survey reports of news consumption are often highly inaccurate.  Consider this comparison of a 2008 Pew survey to data on viewership from the Nielsen Company:

In the survey, almost a third of Americans believe they watch one of the three cable networks “regularly.”  It’s not quite clear what “regularly” means, of course.  This is one of the problems of using survey questions to measure media exposure.  But if we assume that a regular viewer should watch at least an hour per week, then in reality only about 6-7% of Americas meet that description.

And even those numbers may be too high, because they double-count anyone who watches more than one of those channels.  The seemingly inconceivable possibility that someone might watch both Fox and MSNBC leads to the next point.


Most people are news omnivores.

Most people’s “diet” of news isn’t all that skewed by their partisans.  There is actually a lot of overlap viewers of various cable news networks.  Markus Prior reports that people who watch at least 1 minute of Fox News each week devote about 7.5% of their news consumption to Fox but 3.7% to other cable news channels.  The same is true of CNN viewers.  This is consistent with the research of Michael LaCour, who tracked media usage via devices that participants carried with them and that regularly recorded the ambient sounds around them.  It is also consistent with the research of Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, who examined news consumption on-line and found that most consumers read ideologically diverse new outlets.

Unsurprisingly, if you isolate people who watch a lot of Fox News or a lot of MSNBC, their viewing habits reflect more skew.  But this is a small group of people.  The same is true of people who read political blogs: they are anything but omnivores, according to my research with Eric Lawrence and Henry Farrell, but they are also a small fraction of the public.

Prior has an excellent summary of these points:

Automatic tracking of television viewing using two different technologies reveals that most people avoid cable news almost entirely. A large segment watches cable news infrequently and nonselectively, mixing exposure to different cable news channels. In the small slice of heavy cable news viewers, however, partisan selective exposure is not uncommon.


Partisan news may not polarize partisans, but attract polarized partisans.

There is surprisingly little research that attempts to deal a fundamental issue.  Do people who watch partisan news become more polarized, or do people with polarized views simply like to watch partisan news?  In one experiment, political scientist Matthew Levendusky randomly assigned people to watch partisan news that either did or did not share their political outlook, or to a neutral news source.  He found that partisan news that reinforced subjects’ political outlook made their attitudes modestly more extreme.  This effect was stronger among those who said that they preferred to consume news that shared their political outlook—suggesting that even if the people who watch partisan news are already pretty partisan, partisan news will make them more so.

However, other research by Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson arrives at a different conclusion.  They conducted a set of experiments and allowed people to choose whether they watched their side’s partisan news, the other side’s news, or entertainment programming that had no news content.  They found that the news shows had no effects on attitudes as long as people were allowed to choose.  This suggests that, in the real world, partisan news doesn’t polarize.  If anything, it may be that polarization creates an audience for partisan news.

A few experiments isn’t much of an evidentiary base.  Much more needs to be done.  But it’s worth noting that we don’t really know that partisan news is polarizing us, and with more evidence, we may find that it isn’t.


Learning to love partisanship.

As you can tell from the title of the panel, it was deliberately framed as a provocation.  It’s sometimes (often? always?) hard to like partisan news and even partisanship itself.  But here is the trade-off I want to emphasize.  We want politics to involve calm, civil, rational deliberation about the common good.  Partisanship doesn’t necessarily facilitate that goal and can actively detract from it.  But we also want politics to be full of active, eager, and engaged citizens.  Partisanship does a very good job of facilitating engagement.  It’s one reason why voter turnout was so high in the late eighteenth century during the heyday of strong party organizations and a largely partisan press.

Indeed, if you look at partisans in the public, they look like ideal citizens in many respects.  In a December 2011 YouGov poll, 65% of people who identified as “strong” Democrats or Republicans said they were “very much interested” in politics.  Only 35% of those who identified as independents with no partisan leaning said that.  Partisans are more likely not only to follow politics but to participate in it.  Indeed, it is sort of odd to expect people to care deeply about something but then tell them they’re not allowed to have strong opinions.  It’s like saying, “You should love baseball, but please don’t actually root for a team.”

I’m not suggesting that partisanship is an unalloyed good.  Partisans can be misinformed if they are buying the spin their side is selling—spin that, by the way, they can usually hear in neutral news outlets doing “he said, she said” reporting, not simply in partisan news.  Partisanship militates against other democratic goals, like tolerance for opposing points of view.  Or compromise.

And, in any case, we’ve only got an hour in this panel, so we’re hardly going to resolve this.  I just think it’s worth exploring these tensions in the folk theories we have about politics.

If you’re at South by Southwest, please drop by the panel!  I’m joining Christina Bellantoni, the political editor of the PBS Newhour, and James Kirchick, a writer, blogger, and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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Obama’s Confrontation with Conservative Whites

Ron Brownstein:

With his suddenly aggressive second-term agenda, President Obama is recasting the Democratic Party around the priorities of the growing coalition that reelected him—and, in the process, reshaping the debate with the GOP in ways that will reverberate through 2016 and beyond.
On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them.

I can see some truth in this, but it’s worth noting that Obama may not be simply catering to the “coalition of the ascendant” and more to, well, a larger majority of Americans.  Let’s take the issues Brownstein cites:

  • Gay rights.  Large majorities of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in various areas—employment, the military.  Gay marriage is of course more divisive, but it is becoming less so.  This slideshow makes clear that support for gay marriage is increasing among nearly every group.  It has the support of a narrow majority of political independents, for example.
  • Immigration reform. Large majorities of Americans support most every dimension of immigration reform that Obama has proposed, including increased border security and a path to citizenship.  The path to citizenship attracts the support of most Democrats and liberals, the majority of independents and moderates, and large numbers (if not quite majorities) of Republicans and conservatives.
  • Gun control.  Large majorities also support many different gun control policies.  Indeed, the ones arguably most likely to be enacted into law—like enhanced background checks—are even supported by half of Republicans.  Even 40% of conservative Republicans say they support a ban on military-style assault weapons.
  • Withdrawing from Afghanistan. Majorities of Americans support this as well.  Pessimism about the war has been prevalent for some time, and has arguably increased.  For example, in a May 2011 Pew Poll, 49% said that the U.S. should remove its troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.  In an October 2012 poll, 60% said this.
  • Women in combat. A large majority of Americans supports women serving in combat roles.  This includes majorities of many subsets of Americans, including Republicans, seniors, and veterans.

Climate change is somewhat of an exception.  An increasing number of Americans believe that the earth is warming, but there is more disagreement as to whether human activity is the cause.

In short, it’s not clear to me whether Obama’s actions on these issues are really about catering to his Democratic base—and thereby rejecting these “right-leaning whites”—or just catering to broad numbers of Americans, including many outside his base. Part of the reason that my conclusion disagrees with Brownstein’s is that the public opinion data he presents in his piece—see the “Thinking Alike” box and graphs—speak only to broad opinions on these issues, such as whether it’s more important to control guns or protect the rights of gun owners or whether immigrants “threaten American customs and values.”  When you get down to the brass tacks of policy, there is much more consensus.

Brownstein also notes that Obama’s move may make it more difficult to “recapture culturally conservative whites.”  (Brownstein refers to these voters as “Reagan Democrats” at one point, but Reagan Democrats were not actually more blue-collar or more culturally conservative than other Democrats.  What they were was more disapproving of Jimmy Carter, especially with regard to the economy.)  Measuring “culturally conservative” over multiple elections isn’t easy.  But I will note that for many years Democrats haven’t won many votes from—or needed to win many votes from—“right-leaning whites” conceived broadly.  From 1984-2008, they won no more than 15% of whites who called themselves “conservative” according to the exit poll data compiled by Dimpled Chad. (Brownstein has a chart showing the same thing, though not isolating whites.) But even given the slippage between being “culturally conservative” and simply self-identifying as conservative, it doesn’t seem to me that Democrats have needed many of these votes for a long time.

To be sure, Obama’s emphasis on issues like gun control and climate change represents a departure from his first-term priorities.  But I don’t see it as a “confrontational course.”  Obama is confronting minorities of Americans on these issues—and minorities that really haven’t been Democratic votes for some time.

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So is Partisanship Really in our DNA?

The following is a guest post from New York University political scientist Christopher Dawes.


Former Vice President Al Gore recently mentioned on CNBC’s Morning Joe that “scientists now know that there is, in human nature, a divide between what we sometimes call ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’.”  Most of the scientists Gore was referring to are political scientists.

Inspired by earlier work done by Nick Martin, John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbing showed in their 2005 APSR paper, that genetic variation could explain a share of individual differences in political ideology.  Several subsequent studies, employing different samples and methodologies, have corroborated these findings.  In a forthcoming paper in Behavior Genetics, Pete Hatemi and colleagues analyzed data on over 12,000 twin pairs from Australia, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States.  The authors examined data collected at different time periods (1970-2010) as well as several different measures of ideology. Based on the combined sample, Hatemi et al. find that approximately 40% of the variation in ideology could be attributed to genetic factors (meaning the remaining 60% is explained by environmental factors).   Of course, twin studies of political ideology have been the object of criticism in the past.

Scholars have also begun to search for specific genetic variants that may be associated with political ideology.  In the same Behavior Genetics study, Hatemi et al. conduct a genome-wide association study on a sample of over 10,000 individuals from Australia and Sweden.  However, the authors did not find a significant association that could be replicated.  Benjamin et al. also failed to find a significant association for other measures of political ideology.  These two studies, along with what we know from other genetic studies of complex traits, suggest that political ideology is influenced by many genes that each have a very weak effect.  Therefore, much larger samples are likely necessary in order to achieve the power necessary to detect these small effects.

In addition to studying the link between genetics and ideology, political scientists have studied physiological and neurocognitive differences between liberals and conservatives.  In their highly publicized Science study, John Hibbing and colleagues demonstrated that conservatives exhibited a stronger response to threatening stimuli than liberals based on startle eyeblink and skin conductance response tests.  Follow-up work showed that liberals were more responsive to pleasing stimuli than conservatives.  John Jost and colleagues found a positive relationship between liberalism and activity in an area of the brain related to conflict monitoring, suggesting that ideology may be linked to how we process new information.  A group of neuroscientists also recently reported that brain structure is correlated with ideology.

Finally, political scientists have also explored links between biology and political participation, vote choice, trust, civic duty, interest, efficacy, sophistication, and partisanship.  While we are still in the early stages of understanding these relationships, it is nice to get a hat tip from the former Vice President.

Note: For an excellent review of genetics and politics, check out the Trends in Genetics piece by Pete Hatemi and Rose McDermott.

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Oh 113th Congress Hastert Rule, we hardly knew ye!

Is the Hastert Rule dead?  Speaker Denny Hastert coined his eponymous rule in 2003 when he declared that the “job of the Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of the majority.” (Hastert’s speech came at a conference honoring the 100th anniversary of the Cannon House Office Building.  Kinda ironic, I think, given that Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon—who was stripped of his key powers in 1910—could have learned a thing or two about catering to the views of his procedural majority.  But I digress.)

Some are calling last night’s House vote (extending fifty billion dollars for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Sandy) a harbinger of the Hastert Rule’s coming demise.  That bill involved what we might call a Hastert Rule violation, a roll call vote on which a majority of the majority party votes against a bill, but it passes.  On the vote to pass the Sandy relief bill, just 49 Republicans joined all but one Democrat to pass the bill.  In the parlance of many legislative scholars, the majority party was “rolled,” a strict no-no for a leadership said to be guided by Hastert’s rule.  Coming on the heels of the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff vote that passed with only 85 GOP votes, one might reasonably ask whether the days of the Hastert Rule are numbered.

It’s t00 early to know whether Speaker Boehner will continue to vi0late the Hastert rule.  Instead, I’ll offer some brief thoughts on the recent past and potential future of the Hastert Rule.

First, the logic of the Hastert Rule predates Denny Hastert.   The basic premise of the rule—that House leaders will use their leverage over the floor agenda to keep measures off the floor that might divide the majority party—has guided House majority party leaders at least since the early 1980s.  As Barbara Sinclair and Steve Smith documented some years ago, Democratic party leaders transformed the use of special rules in the 1980s and early 1990s to more aggressively structure votes on the House floor.  Sometimes “restrictive rules” protected bipartisan deals hatched in committee; other times, they immunized party priorities from challenges on the floor.  Judging from the number of Hastert Rule violations charted below (as identified by the New York Times’ congressional votes wiz in my twitter feed), it was extremely rare (even before Hastert became speaker in 1999) for the majority party to be rolled on a final passage vote.  (To put the number of violations into perspective, there are roughly under 200 final passage votes in most recent congresses, meaning that majority rolls typically constitute less than five percent of final passage votes.)  In other words, the Hastert Rule reflects a decades-long pattern in the House of more aggressive Democratic and Republican majority party leaders (denoted by the blue and red bars below) willing to exploit chamber rules on behalf of cohesive majorities.

A brief data digression … Cox and McCubbins’ count of majority party rolls on final passage differs in a few congresses from the NYT’s count.  I suspect this stems from the NYT’s more generous reading of “final passage” to include final House votes to concur on Senate amendments, from the NYT’s inclusion of a supermajority suspension vote, and so on.  Regardless, the N’s are very small here.  And that’s the point.  Still, these data might underestimate leaders’ fealty to Hastert’s rule, since the measure by necessity excludes measures pulled off the floor by leaders eager to avoid party-splitting votes.  (For a different critique of roll rates, see Krehbiel’s work here.)

Second, the Hastert Rule violation on the Hurricane Sandy bill was typical of many majority party rolls: A good portion of majority rolls occur on “must-pass” bills.  Some of these are must-pass because they are mandated by previous legislative decisions.  For example, a majority of the Republican majority in 1997 was rolled on a motion to reinstate funding for international family planning groups, a vote that was mandated by a previous year’s spending bill.  Other rolls, such as last night’s Sandy disaster relief vote, occur on appropriations bills.  (Even if House Republicans threaten to shut down the government this year, I’m still counting these as “must pass” bills!)   The remaining rolls tend to occur on salient, popular issues for which the majority party might pay a reputational cost for opposing.  Majority party rolls on campaign finance in 2002 and on stem cell research in 2005 come to mind. In other words, more seems to be at stake in these votes than the policy commitments of the majority party’s rank and file.  Instead, leaders seek to avoid blame for blocking what amount to must-pass measures.  Leaders’ perceived need to attend to their party’s brand name might compel them to facilitate votes in these cases, even at the cost of violating Hastert’s rule.  That motivation seemed to undergird Boehner’s 11th hour move to allow a vote on the Senate-passed fiscal cliff deal.  Such calculations also likely shaped Boehner’s about-face on the Sandy relief bill after Governor Chris Christie gave GOP leaders a tongue-lashing for killing the bill at the close of the last Congress.

Finally, keep in mind that on the fiscal cliff and Sandy rolls, the leadership brought the bills to the floor under restrictive rules endorsed by a majority of the majority party.   The party was not rolled on the pivotal procedural vote.  As Frances Lee and David Karol observed here, nearly every Republican voted in favor of bringing the Senate-passed fiscal cliff deal up for a vote.  And nearly every GOP voted to bring the Sandy spending bill to the floor.  This certainly suggests that despite the Hastert Rule violation, Speaker Boehner has not lost control of his conference.  Rank and file members seem to understand that on a narrow set of bills, their party leaders’ hands are tied: Killing a bill is understood to be unacceptable, and so instead legislators make the best of a bad hand by casting votes against the bill—knowing it will pass.   The trillion dollar (platinum, of course) question is what other bills (at the 11th hour) might be deemed “must-pass” by the GOP in the 113th Congress.  The bill to raise the debt ceiling? A move to avoid the sequester? The next omnibus spending bill?  Possibly all three.  And will other measures gain must-pass status as well, perhaps fueled by strong public sentiment even from some GOP quarters?  Immigration reform and scaled-back gun control are potential candidates.  How Boehner manages conflict between the party’s brand name and his rank and file’s policy priorities will shape the fate of the Hastert Rule (and Boehner speakership’s that lies in the balance).

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F-bombs and Political Polarization

That’s why Boehner’s choice words to Reid are more than just palace intrigue, to use the phrase of the week. When that kind of denigration is widely reported to the public, it may reinforce the social identity that characterizes partisan attachments. And that may ultimately contribute to the corrosive views of the out-party that Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes document.
Call it the “go f— yourself” model of polarization.

That’s the conclusion of Danny Hayes’s latest post at Wonkblog, drawing on new research from Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes.

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The Growing Political Polarization of Santa Claus

For Christmas Eve, we featured a guest post from  Dr. Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton, which noted a growing trend in the percentage of survey respondents ascribing a partisan preference to Santa Claus from 1998-2001.  Unfortunately, those two data points missed most of the Bush 43 years and all of the Obama years.  Today, for Christmas, we are happy to report that  Dr. Jennings has located new data from 2012!  I’ve put all three sets of polls together in the figure below, and the trend is clear: opinions regarding the partisanship of Santa – like much else in the United States – has become even more polarized over the past decade:

One important caveat in comparing these data is that the most recent poll – conducted by Public Policy Polling on December 5-7, 2012 – did not include an options for “independent” – respondents were asked if Santa was a Democratic, a Republican, or if they were Not Sure (which was given as an option). So part of the difference in the proportion of respondents ascribing a partisans proclivity to Santa may be due to the lack of an “independent” option, which was offered in the earlier surveys. That being said, in 2012 we continue to see substantially more people thinking the elderly, white, and apparently well-off Mr. Claus as a Democrat than a Republican – perhaps he belongs to the Warren Buffet wing of the party?

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Santa’s (Political!) Party

The following is a guest post from  Dr. Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton.  A modified version is cross-posted on the Politics Upside Down blog.

Happy holidays from The Monkey Cage!


A question that has been sadly neglected by political scientists is Santa Claus’ partisan sympathies. We know a little, however, about whether Santa is seen as being on the left or the right of the political spectrum, or whether he transcends the partisan divide. In a Zogby poll of 1,043 adults in the US (in December 2001), respondents were asked:

In your opinion if Santa Claus was a registered voter, what political party would he most likely support?

Some 26% thought Santa would be a Democrat supporter (perhaps reflecting his ties to to social welfare), while just 15% thought Santa would be a Republican (keeping in mind Santa only brings presents for children have been good each year, suggesting a strict social conservatism behind his charitable facade). Far more, 43%, thought Sanda would be an independent, standing above the partisan rancour of politics (with some 16% unsure). We still don’t know, however, whether Santa’s schedule for this year includes a stop-off in Congress to solve the partisan impasse over the ‘fiscal cliff’, with hard-line elements of the Republican Party stubbornly refusing a compromise.

Santa has sadly not been immune to the growing polarization of US politics in recent years. In December 1998, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked a similar  question “Do you think Santa Claus would be a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?”. In contrast, just 9% of people thought Santa would be a Democrat and 6% a Republican, with 62% suggesting he would be an independent. In just three years a quarter of the US public had taken a more polarized stance on poor Santa. It is only a matter of time before polarization occurs in judging who has been naughty and who has been nice.

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Money and the 2012 elections

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen write:

Only hours after polls closed on Election Day, a revisionist wave began building that downplayed the role of big money. Analysts asked if the costly Republican failure to retake the White House and a handful of Senate reverses meant that all the handwringing about the torrent of political money was misplaced . . .

Even the Sunlight Foundation, which, along with the Center for Responsible Politics, has probably done as much as any institution to deepen awareness of how money corrupts American democracy, joined the parade. Its assessment of “How Much Did Money Really Matter in 2012?” investigated “the emerging post-campaign narratives” according to which “all the outside money (more than $1.3 billion) that poured into the 2012 election didn’t buy much in the way of victories.” Its conclusion was that “the story holds up: we can find no statistically observable relationship between the outside spending and the likelihood of victory.”

But Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen argue otherwise:

Let’s take the House elections first . . . examine spending differences between Democrats and Republicans in two types of races that should have had better than average chances of being winnable by both parties in 2012. The first involves districts in which a new Republican candidate won for the first time in the 2010 landslide; the other is the smaller subset of those races in which the GOP winner either ousted an incumbent Democrat or defeated a Democrat running in an “open seat” race. Both kinds of districts show heavy Republican advantages in average total spending compared to their Democratic opponents. . . . Typically a party that takes losses on the scale the Democrats did in the House elections of 2010 bounces back fairly strongly in the next election. We think money goes a long way to explain why that didn’t happen this time.

They show some graphs indicating that Republicans spent almost twice as much as Democrats in those swing seats. I’d be interested in comparable comparisons for earlier years, since they’re claiming that 2012 is different. Also I’d like to see comparable graphs for Democrats who are running for reelection, as I’d assume that incumbents generally have more money than challengers. Such comparisons would strengthen their argument (or dilute it, depending on how the data turn out).

They continue:

What about the presidential race? . . . the Romney camp spent perhaps $1.51 billion, while Obama’s campaign just a shade less—$1.45 billion . . . across the entire roster of contributions reported to the FEC (i.e., those summing to $200 or more), contributions adding up to less than $250 supplied barely 1 percent of the [Obama] campaign’s funds.

Their conclusion on the presidential campaign:

There is nothing paradoxical about the Republican loss. One campaign funded largely by the super-rich lost to another just about as affluently funded. . . . Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors.

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Polarization in Party Networks

Previous research has documented that the institutional behaviors (e.g., lobbying, campaign contributions) of political organizations reflect the polarization of these organizations along party lines. However, little is known about how these groups are connected at the level of individual party activists. Using data from a survey of 738 delegates at the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions, we use network regression analysis to demonstrate that co-membership networks of national party convention delegates are highly polarized by party, even after controlling for homophily due to ideology, sex/gender, race/ethnicity, age, educational attainment, income, and religious participation. Among delegates belonging to the same organization, only 1.78% of these co-memberships between delegates crossed party lines, and only 2.74% of the ties between organizations sharing common delegates were bipartisan in nature. We argue that segregation of organizational ties on the basis of party adds to the difficulty of finding common political ground between the parties.

From a new paper by Michael Heaney, Seth Masket, Joanne Miller, and Dara Strolovich.  See also Seth’s post for a graph.

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Joel Kotkin thinks the Republicans can win by moving to the left of the Democrats on economic issues. Somehow I don’t think this makes much sense.

Joel Kotkin writes that the Republican party can win by moving to the left of the Democrats on economic issues:

This aspirational element should be the centerpiece of the Republican message in this age of growing class bifurcation. . . . Without some unforeseen economic rebound, class issues will dominate our politics in the future even more than they do today. To recover, Republicans . . . need to outmaneuver the Democrats on their ability to provide opportunity and upward mobility to a broad range of Americans. . . .

Romney, himself an economic royalist, could not bring himself to denounce the administration’s policies that have worked out wonderfully for large banks now enjoying record profits while pummeling the middle class. . . . The [Republican] party’s hodgepodge of corporate managerialism, social regressiveness, and, above all, protection of the plutocratic class is demonstrably not compelling to most Americans. . . . Outrage against looming tax hikes would be justifiable, if the true motivation were not so plainly to preserve the privileges of the haute bourgeoisie. . . .

Instead of making silly attacks on President Obama as a “socialist,” he would be more accurately portrayed as the tribune of both the crony capitalists on Wall Street or Silicon Valley and of big labor, particularly public-employee unions.

What’s the positive message that Kotkin recommends?

Republicans can offer their own vision of what growth-inducing services such as new roads—as opposed to the increased regulation and transfer payments and pension bloat peddled by Democrats—government can and should provide. This could appeal to Hispanics, Asians, and younger people who would be the prime beneficiaries of tangible investments.

I don’t know if this would work: it’s not clear to me that the votes are there for a policy of spending on roads rather than education or health care. After all, the main tactic used by Republicans to oppose Obama’s health plan was to argue that it would lead to a cut in Medicare. Nor to I see the political success that would be gained by picking a fight with teachers unions in order to cut salaries and spend the money on new streets and highways. This might be what Kotkin wants but is it really the way to win elections?

Setting that last bit aside, I can see how liberal Democrats would like Kotkin’s plan: the Democratic party gets to stay where it is, while the Republicans would have a few differences (less regulation, some cuts in pension obligation) while being opposed to rich plutocrats. I’d expect that many liberals would accept that trade—and even the ones who didn’t would enjoy seeing Obama, Schumer, etc., opposed by Republicans who are slamming Wall Street rather than fighting to cut the estate tax.

But I don’t imagine that many Republicans will take Kotkin up on his offer to “embrace class warfare on today’s gentry.” Is he kidding? It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who cut income tax on the rich, cut the estate tax on the rich, and started the bank bailouts. Since Bush left office, Republicans have opposed financial regulation, supported the Citizens United ruling (which empowers super-rich people to throw millions at campaigns, as was indeed done during the Republican primaries), and of course they opposed the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as would-be bankbuster Elizabeth Warren. Now, as far as Kotkin is concerned, that might be fine: many conservatives have offered arguments for supporting unlimited campaign donations and opposing financial regulation. Nonetheless, I don’t see how you can possibly get from there to “embracing class warfare on today’s gentry.”

I’m reminded of Louis Menand’s desire for a Republican party that is “permissive on social issues and at ease with big government, yet ever faithful to the gods of business and finance.” There’s no need for Republicans to be that party; Obama and the Democrats are already there.

Kotkin’s desire for a Republican party that’s actively anti-plutocrat seems even more unrealistic, no matter how pleasant it might sound to liberals.

To put it another way, what exactly does Kotkin mean by wanting Republicans to “embrace class warfare on today’s gentry”? Would he raise the capital gains tax and the estate tax? Add a new millionaire’s bracket for the income tax? Cap the home mortgage deduction? Crack down on the rules by which private planes get preferential treatment at airports? Patent reform? A Tobin tax on financial transactions? Crack down on offshore tax havens? Fiscal and monetary policies that encourage inflation (which is, among other things, a way to dilute the assets of rich people who are just sitting on their money)? I can’t picture the modern Republican party getting behind any of these ideas. Kotkin’s goal of class warfare would place him on the left wing of the Democratic party, I think, so it seems a bit odd for him to imagine that the Republican party will follow him there.

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