Bryan Caplan  

How Dems and Reps Differ: Against the Conventional Wisdom

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A little while back, Greg Mankiw praised Peggy Noonan for "summarizing a key difference between the political parties." As Noonan puts it:

Neither party ever gets it quite right, the balance between the taxed and the needy, the suffering of one sort and the suffering of another. You might say that in this both parties are equally cold and equally warm, only to two different classes of citizens.
In my view, though, Noonan is only successful at summarizing popular misconceptions about the differences between the political parties.

The first big misconception is the parties' key differences are substantive. They aren't. Reps don't want to get rid of the welfare state. Almost all Reps support spending a big chunk of GDP on America's poor and old. And Dems don't want anything like socialism. Almost all Dems want America to remain a country where markets are the default and people can get rich if they play their cards right.

So what is the "key difference" between the parties? Rhetoric. When Republicans advocate a small contraction of the welfare state, Democrats claim that Republicans totally oppose the welfare state. And many Republicans oblige them by standing up for "liberty" and "responsibility." Similarly, when Democrats advocate a small expansion in the welfare state, Republican claim that Democrats oppose free markets. And many Democrats oblige them by saying things like "markets only benefit the rich."

This rhetorical illusion is so powerful that when a Democrat like Clinton adopts many pro-market reforms, Republicans still hate him as a 60s radical. And when Bush II sharply expands the welfare state, Democrats still hate him as a billionaire's lackey.

The second big misconception is that the parties' rhetoric makes sense on its own terms. It doesn't. If Dems really cared about poor human beings, they would quit worrying about the American old, most of whom aren't poor. In fact, they would quit worrying about the American "poor," because by world standards, they're doing fine. Instead, Dems would concentrate all their efforts on helping absolutely poor foreigners, presumably through a mixture of permitting massive immigration, and redirecting welfare to the world's bottom billions.

Similarly, if Reps really cared about "over-burdened" tax-payers, they would try to diminish the burden in the only sustainable way: Big cuts in spending. They would be crusading against the popular programs like Social Security and Medicare that absorb most of our tax dollars. While they're at it, they might want to do a little cost/benefit analysis of the War on Terror.

I understand, of course, that if either party tried to bring its substance in sync with its rhetoric, it would go down in flames. As the Median Voter Theorem explains, parties that refuse to move to the political center don't survive. What the MVT fails to predict, though, is the disconnect between partisan substance and partisan rhetoric. You'd think that rhetoric would be every bit as moderate as action - but it's not.

What's going on? My best guess is that the rhetoric is the bone each party throws its idealists - "If you vote for us, we'll pretend to want radical change." But perhaps even moderates enjoy the illusion of a partisan rift - or at least the illusion that they're on the side of principled moderation against rabid extremism.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)

I just finished the first draft of a tragic play that deals with this sort of thing. There is a person who actually believed in the ideals, and runs for office for the House of Representatives, while another runs for President only talking the talk. When the man wins the Presidency and doesn't follow through, the person who won the House race assassinates him. I invent a fictional war that is the main issue. I basically ask what happens when there is a conflict between the real politicians and a true believer.

Brent Buckner writes:

The MVT can cover the situation.

Within a party there are representative mechanisms. For someone to be elected to a party position, he or she should appeal to the MV within the relevant polity - the party. With that as a given, with a two party system on a one dimensional scale (0 to 1) politicians of one party should crowd to 0.25 and of the other party should crowd to 0.75. Thereafter, branding makes it hard to credibly move all the way to .49999 and .50001 respectively.

RobbL writes:

There is something in what you say, but issues like legal access to abortion and an end to torture are not exactly rhetoric. Economic issues are not the only issues even though many economists seem to think so....

ed writes:

But it's still true that George Bush decided to invade Iraq, and I think Al Gore or another democrat probably would not have. That is a large, discrete, and real difference.

Les writes:

I'd like to congratulate Bryan on this outstanding post. It is one of the best I have ever seen.

In my opinion it gives great insight into, and very well describes, the ritual Kabuki dance that for some strange reason we refer to as "elections"

Robin Hanson writes:

Excellent post.

Legal access to abortion and torture are rhetoric. The Republicans haven't done anything substantial in regards to abortion, and the court appointments have essentially said they are not ever going to overturn Roe. And the Democrats voted in favor of torture just as much as the Republicans did.

Barack Obama voted for subsidies for the oil companies. And he's talking about a "windfall profit tax" on oil companies. But only on profits above 10% THe one making the highest percentage of profits, Exxon, is making something like 9.5% profits. So, thankfully, his idea of a "windfall profit tax" is all rhetoric as well.

Chuck writes:
If Dems really cared about poor human beings, they would quit worrying about the American old, most of whom aren't poor.

If Dems stopped worrying about the American old, they may very well soon be poor:

According to the data in this Social Security Administration table, 66 percent — 66 percent — of Social Security beneficiaries 65 and older derive more than half their income from the program. A third of beneficiaries derive 90 percent or more of their income from the program.

Hat tip Krugman.

Eric writes:
If Dems stopped worrying about the American old, they may very well soon be poor:

According to the data in this Social Security Administration table, 66 percent — 66 percent — of Social Security beneficiaries 65 and older derive more than half their income from the program. A third of beneficiaries derive 90 percent or more of their income from the program.

Old people have their whole life to acquire wealth so they are not dependent on income, this explains the phenomenon known as "retirement".
AMcguinn writes:

I think ed's comment is actually a better demonstration of your point than the economic ones.

Al Gore said last night that the time had come for a "final reckoning" with Iraq, describing the country as a "virulent threat in a class by itself" and suggesting that the United States should consider ways to oust President Saddam Hussein.

NYT, 13 Feb 2002

David J. Balan writes:

Forgive me for saying this Bryan, but this is just shockingly wrong. There really is such a thing as a predatory plutocrat, and there really is such a thing as a homicidal sociopath, and there really is such a thing as a religious nut, and they really do exist, in no small numbers, in this country, and they really do control one of the main political parties much more than the other.

The Democrats? Marxism is a secular religion, you know.

parviziyi writes:

My thanks to AMcguinn for that juicy quote from Al Gore from Feb 2002. With regard to US foreign policy, I remember finding no difference between candidates Gore and Bush in the 2000 campaign, no difference between Kerry and Bush in 2004, and now in 2008 almost no difference between Obama and McCain on foreign policy. E.g., Obama says he would wilfully violate Pakistani sovereignty to assassinate Bin Laden; he refers to Syria as one of "our enemies"; he says a military attack on Iran is "not off the table"; he opposed the impending acquisition of certain US commercial ports operations in 2006 by the arab company Dubai World Ports; he condemned the Russian counter-offensive against Georgia last month; he supports putting more US taxpayer resources into the situation in Afghanistan with no timetable and no constructive outcome in sight; and he proposes to significantly increase the overall baseline US military budget from its current levels.

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