June 1, 2007

The Reason We Have Two Parties

Many people believe that the two major political parties offer so little difference as to be virtually identical. Certainly some of the politicians of either Democratic or Republican stripe focus more on power than policy, and in that sense and in those examples, they have a point. However, some may find themselves surprised by E.J. Dionne's latest column, as he somewhat inadvertently demonstrates why we have two political parties -- and what fundamentally separates them:

Our two political parties and their candidates are living in parallel universes. It's as if the candidates were running for president in two separate countries. Their televised debates next week will be productions as different from each other as "American Idol" is from "P.T.I."

The parties do have some things in common -- Iraq and the economy are concerns for both. But beyond these two issues, what matters most to Republican voters is hugely different from what matters most to Democrats. The polarization between the parties extends to the very definition of our country, its problems and the stakes in the next elections.

Consider a Pew Research Center survey in April whose findings the center kindly re-analyzed for me. Asked to name the issue that would most affect their choice for president, respondents from both parties put Iraq first -- but it was named by 40 percent of Democrats and only 29 percent of Republicans. If Democrats in Congress wonder why they got so many e-mails and phone calls on the recent war-funding vote, that's why.

On almost every other issue, the gaps between the parties are even more striking. Health care was the most important for 13 percent of Democrats but 2 percent of Republicans. On the other hand, 17 percent of Republicans said issues related to terrorism and security were paramount in their choices, compared with 5 percent of Democrats. Terrorism is actually the No. 2 issue for Republicans, behind Iraq and slightly ahead of the economy. (The economy is No. 2 for Democrats, after Iraq.) No wonder Republicans got into all that detail last month about "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Education was most important for 12 percent of Democrats and only 5 percent of Republicans; abortion for 8 percent of Republicans and just 1 percent of Democrats; immigration for 12 percent of Republicans and 1 percent of Democrats.

Now, in doing this analysis, E.J. wants to make an argument for the existence of an entrenched divide so profound that it defies rational debate. I don't want to quote too extensively, because I want you to read his entire column, but he even goes into a political version of Two Americas for an explanation. How can Democrats and Republicans talk to each other when neither side values the other's issues, Dionne asks, although he couches this more as a Republican problem than Democrat.

Dionne misses two points. First, we're in the primary, when parties select their own candidates. Sure, they want to engage moderates and independents if possible, but the voters in the primaries want candidates who represent their points of view and who adopt their priorities. Of course Republican candidates will debate their positions on the pressing concerns of Republican voters, giving shorter attention to lower-priority issues. The Democrats will do the same, and that's SOP for primary campaigns going back decades, if not longer. I'm not sure why Dionne finds that terribly surprising.

Second and more to Dionne's theme, the differences in priorities have to do with fundamental differences in political philosophies. Let's look at the issues that Dionne notes lower Republican interest for the national elections: education and health care. The key point is that Republicans don't believe the national government should be involved in either to any great degree. It's not a question of valuing education and health care -- Republicans for the most part reject federal government intervention in either.

Understanding that, let's look at the Democratic priorities. Health care and education is the most important issues for 13 and 12 percent of Democrats, while terrorism and border security barely register (5% and 1%). From that, we can deduce that Democrats have a vision of the federal government primarily as a benefits management system, where those tasks should receive more attention and resources than national security. Republicans see the federal government's role primarily as securing national security and the borders, and leaving benefits management to the private sector.

In other words, Republicans still believe in smaller government limited by the original text of the Constitution, where Democrats see the federal government as the appropriate mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of wealth and assistance. That's nothing new or terribly profound, and it demonstrates the political differences between two parties and millions of good, honest Americans. It's a choice that reflects real philosophical differences, and explains the existence of the two-party system.

In November 2008, the entire nation will make that choice on a number of levels of government. We'll have plenty of time between then and now to have debates across the electorate about those priorities. In the meantime, the parties will determine which candidates best express those philosophies for that larger debate -- and that seems just fine to me.


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Comments (14)

Posted by Tom Shipley | June 1, 2007 7:41 AM

The key to political dialogue is the phrase "reasonable minds can disagree." On most every issue, reasonable minds can disagree. Being able see the other side's point of view is an invaluable trait.

That's why I hate all this liberals are bad for America, and crazy wingnut talk.

Too many people are out to demonize the other side. That's why things are so polarized right now. And I really think it starts at the top. And I don't think I'm just being partisan here, because i've seen conservatives criticize Bush for his rigid, smug and attack style of politics.

Just look at today's Peggy Noonan column:


But, aside from that little Bush-bash, I always try to keep discussion about facts and the arguments myself and the other person is making. Once things go into name-calling and personal attacks, it's pointless.

Posted by Duke DeLand | June 1, 2007 7:58 AM

The hook in this Ed is the fact that Bush, vis-a-vis his immigration values, is scuttling one of the strongest items going for 2008 with the GOP.

While he is doing this as a maverick from the GOP, it will most certainly cut into any GOP chances. Several have already written about his immigration stand as the death knell for GOP 2008 chances.

I sincerely hope the GOP manages to scuttle this idiocy until such time as a border control action is complete....not just "planned".

Posted by syn | June 1, 2007 8:52 AM

I know what you mean Tom Shipley, it's hard to have a civilized discussion with someone who is screaming at you about the horrors of idiotic digital brownshirters following King George's march towards taking away all our rights with his theocratic bloodthirsty NeoCons who are sending our children to war for oil. I don't think Howard Dean's public announcement "I hate Republicans" helps anything either.

Posted by Mat | June 1, 2007 9:16 AM

Health care and education is the most important issues for 13 and 12 percent of Democrats, while terrorism and border security barely register (5% and 1%). From that, we can deduce that Democrats have a vision of the federal government primarily as a benefits management system, where those tasks should receive more attention and resources than national security.

That's completely the wrong interpretation of those statistics. I might be in favour of increasing the budget of the EPA, and that could be my 100% overriding concern, but that doesn't mean I think it should have a higher budget than the DoD. I'd probably be thrilled with a 5% increase: and if I got it, find something else to worry about. This data records in which direction people want to head, not how far they want to go. In general, you can assume that most people are opposed to radical change. But you seem to be interpreting these opinions as a blueprint for rebuilding society from the ground up. By misinterpreting directions as destinations, you yourself are guilty of over-hyping the political divide.

Personally, if the major parties are virtually indistinguishable, I take that as a healthy sign. It means they're both aiming for the popular positions that the people want. It's just the same as when you spot two stores selling a bottle of Coke for exactly the same price: it just shows that market forces are working smoothly. If the two major parties exhibit deep ideological divisions, most probably it means that both of them are out of step with the general public. That's when you've really gotta worry.

In the US, the parties are surprisingly different, given that in theory democracy should be driving them to the same middle ground. And I think the centrifugal force pulling them apart is exactly this primary system, which filters out candidates who don't adhere to one or the other ideological orthodoxy. America would be better off choosing candidates the way everyone else does it: a show of hands from party hacks in a secret back-room meeting somewhere. Paradoxically, that seems to lead to a healthier democracy at the final vote.

Posted by syn | June 1, 2007 10:44 AM

I'm not so convince that simply following the middle-of-the-road populists is a healthy sign, seems to me this approach ultimately leads to confusion on any one issue since populism is about popularity and not about character.

Case in point, GWB is much like Clinton in that they both believe they are speaking for the middle yet almost every policy advocated ended up creating division amongst the masses.

It seems to me Centrist politicians use the 'popular middle' in order to determine which way to go into the future rather than going into the future based upon a set of beliefs which defines the character of that politician.

It's easy to be a Centrist 'popular' politician in that you can say whatever pleases the audience you are standing before at any given time. it is difficult to be a leader who say things people don't want to hear before in any given audience.

The Art of Triangulation has simply pitted the voters against one another whereby creating the division we see in our culture and since politicians want to be popular none ever lead.

Posted by KauaiBoy | June 1, 2007 10:55 AM

Nice theory Captain et al.

However, the reality we face shows how corrupted the process really is. Both parties have hijacked the overriding concerns of the American people by pandering to their own special interests who each represent a minority of the American people. (eg: the current immigration debate)

If in fact we had a truly one vote per person system without any lobby influences we might see how democracy is supposed to work. How they have corrupted the interpretation of freedom of speech to allow untold contributions/kickbacks is amazing. No one individual or group should be allowed to have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of elections or the ability of normal people to participate in the political process.

To the extent we see the parties try to differentiate themselves it is only to feign the appearance of healthy competition but by picking no win/no compromise battlegrounds such as abortion they can keep up this appearance forever.

There is no difference between the individuals involved in politics---they are all greedy, power hungry individuals with inflated senses of self worth who all know better than the rest of us unwashed masses. Maybe its time to bring back the guillotine.

Posted by charlie | June 1, 2007 11:31 AM

First, you gotta tip your hat to the wisdom of our two-party (first-past-the-post) system. The amount of shift and upheaval it has contained over the 40 years I've been paying attention has been enormous.

Second, much of the shift has been Southern Dems and true liberals (those who, like me, want liberty around the world) going Republican. Dems meanwhile are left trying to manage an increasingly fractious melange of distinct interest groups. This shift has the two parties now more psychologically distinct than I've seen before.

My progressive friends, at their core, believe that, left to our own devices, mankind will certainly, on account of greed, ignorance and apathy, go astray. Conservatives retain confidence that civil society produces prudent progress. Conservatives therefore prefer all choice and accountability to stick with the individual. Pessimistic progressives want to turn choice and accountability over to "right thinking" elites who can in turn protect them from Risk with airbags and healthcare on someone else's dime. Because civil society is ambiguous and topsy-turvy (therefore risky), progressives want little to do with it any more, preferring the hard rulings of government.

Third, why pay any attention to E. J. Dionne?Along with Richard Cohen and, well, just about the entire WaPo editorial staff, he is about the most insipid editorialist going.

Posted by Daniel Byrns | June 1, 2007 12:23 PM

I think the political divide is more a matter of governing philosophy than any specific issues, and the philosophical difference boils down to how you view your fellow citizens.

Basically, liberals advocate a "Provider" model of government, in which an educated and enlightened elite restrain and control society. Conservatives, on the other hand, advocate a "Facilitator" model in which the governments job is to help people help themselves.

Liberals favor the Provider model because they view ordinary citizens as being mostly immoral and/or incompetent. Social Security is a classic Provider-type program, and the 401(k) is its Facilitator alternative.

Posted by Carol Herman | June 1, 2007 1:26 PM

The year: 1992


Larry King has Ross Perot on his cable network show. Ross "announces" a run as a 3rd party candidate. And, within each of 50 states, immediately emerging, are volunteers to collect signatures to get his name on 50 ballots.

SO the TV shows would have their news segments of truckloads of paper boxes, all with signatures, making their official route into capitols. For counting. And, whalla. Ross Perot's name goes up on the ballot.

Too bad, on another Larry King Live segment, Perot, quite paranoid, gives a "withdrawal" speech. And, then he retracts it.

Still, with only Bush, the elder, and Bill Clinton to choose from ... Bush loses his re-election bid.

We live in a free country. Where "anything" can happen.

Clinton, with all the hits he gets from the right; still managed to hold onto his popularity. People also felt, at least a large majority did, that he was competent.

Yes, 9/11 exposed our vulnerabilities. But it was Saudi designed. Saudi planned. And, the destruction could'a been much worse.

Still, on 9/11, with access to Bush, the Saudi's flew out of the USA, WHEN NOTHING WAS FLYING! About 140 Saud's. Who wanted to run before the FBI could question them.

Instead? On 9/12, Bandar shows up at the White HOuse. He's invited out on the porch (upstairs). And, Bush and he light up Cuban cigars. And, talk.

Afterwards? We know Bush pressed us into believing that Islam was a "religion of peace." And, then? Most Americans gave Bush the room they felt he would need, to do things that would fight back against the terrorists. Yet, we didn't go around the globe and just drop bombs on all their camps.

And, we play this silly game. Terrorists, on purpose, attack civilians. ANd, we feel it's bad if we go after terrorists, who hide among civilians. And, civilians die.

I've never heard of military tactics quite like the ones Bush cooked up. But then? He's the Realtor for the Saud's.

And, part of the Saudi plan was to GAIN MORE REAL ESTATE.

What's even "funnier?" In Saudi Arabia, where we're told the Saud's OWN the oil; guess who lives on top of the oil fields? Their Shi'a. Turns out, living on top of the oil fields doesn't make it your property!

Now, if you remember Gulf War #1, YOU WERE LIED TO! The Kuwaitis LIED! Saddam did nothing more than send his troops to the Iraqi BORDER; where the Kuwaitis were stealing Iraqi OIL. Where the Shi'a live. So notice, again, the Shia live on top of oil wells they cannot call their own.

And, the whole media went along with the Saudi perpetrated lies. Why? You really think the Iraqis went in and took babies out of bassinets? Nope. That "story" was delivered in our Congress by the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the USA.

It took about $40 billion in media payments to make that lie stick.

The whole thing you've been watching, since DAY ONE, is a Saudi PLAN to collect all the oil from the whole Mideast.

Iran's been battling "who owns the oil" ever since Bush's plans flopped.

And, Chavez? That, too, is about oil. And, the despots with the guns who surround the oil wells. And, we're left in a quandry.

The Bush family has become the richest family in America! How did they do that? Carlyle group. Halliburton. James Baker's Baker Botts. Lobbyists and lawyers to the very rich House of Saud.

Yeah. We allowed it to happen.

Posted by charlie | June 1, 2007 4:09 PM


Posted by unclesmrgol | June 1, 2007 5:45 PM

Small federal government?

The Constitution made the federal government big. What government is supposed to handle foreign relations? What government is supposed to handle inter-State relations? What government is supposed to determine what are the protections of the Constitution? What government is supposed to secure for its citizens those protections?

I see big government write all over the Constitution. Those who didn't lost the Civil War.

Posted by Rose | June 2, 2007 1:45 AM

If our process of Elections included the provision that the winner MUST have MORE than 50% of the vote, or there would automatically be a RUN-OFF between the TOP 2 candidates, then the VOTERS would have more power than the 2 parties - which would be more in line with our Founding Fathers' ideas of fighting off the stifling influences of CLIQUES and PARTY FACTIONS, and leave the power with The People.

Posted by MICHAEL DOOLEY | June 4, 2007 7:42 AM

Actually, Dionne's article reflects another facet of contemporary politics in America. Yes, there are two very different political philosophies. That has always been very clear to conservatives. (For one thing, liberals feel it is necessary on frequent occasion to tell us "not everybody believes like" we do.) But Dionne also illustrates an additional take in political issues. To Dionne, education, health care and "equality" are the real issues. They know it and they think we "know" it as well. For our part, liberals think we are making up "false and divisive" issues for cynical exploitation of an unknowing electorate. Conservative "pretend" issues further more "criminally" diverts the public's attention away from the weighty matters government is supposed to take care of.

Thus, the whole "gay marriage" debate was just a tool for Republicans to win election. After all, all decent and reasonable people see no reason why homosexuals can't get married like everyone else.

In the election of 1988, the "pledge of allegiance" dispute that worked to the first President Bush's favor was dumb and meaningless because everybody knows only xenophobes, know-nothings and chauvinists insist on its recitation. “We are above all that”. But the Republicans did their fancy footwork, drove Americans into a mass frenzy, and walked into a White House that should have belonged to Dukakis.

It is one thing to have two different parties who disagree. It is quite another for one to own all the "real" issues while claiming the other party only has "phony" causes. No wonder Dionne thinks this is a Republican problem.

Posted by MICHAEL DOOLEY | June 4, 2007 8:34 AM

Just a friendly word to all you who decry the influence of the lobbyists. It is precisely because government has grown to have so much power in so many areas of life that a single stroke of a pen can kill entire industries and erase a lifetime of investments and savings. Under those conditions with so much at stake, it is unsurprising that all sorts of interests seek to sway legislation in their favor. Moreover, is it really a surprise that many interests contribute money to both Democrats and Republicans at the same time in order to cover all the bases?

Our problem is that we have a government that seeks too much power for our own good. Our problem is we want someone else's money to solve our problems.