THE BLOG
01/07/2011 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Democrats Compromise When Republicans Won't

The last few days have seen a confluence of articles and posts trying to answer the pressing question of why Democrats compromise so much more than Republicans do. See Erica Grieder at Economist.com, Thomas 'What's The Matter With Kansas?' Frank in Harper's (subscription required), and Kevin Drum at MotherJones.com.

Now for many on the left, the explanation is simple. It's either:

  • A. Democrats are wimps, or
  • B. Democrats have been bought off, by the same corporations that own the GOP.

But in my experience, especially in politics, any statement that begins "The answer is simple..." is probably flawed. Of the recent explanations for Democratic compromises, I find Drum's to be the most bracingly pragmatic:

...about 40% of the American population self-IDs as conservative, compared to only 20% who self-ID as liberal. You can argue all day long about what people really mean when they tell pollsters they're conservative, and you can argue all day long that liberals need to do something to change this instead of simply accepting it, but for any politician running for national office in the here and now, this is just the lay of the land. A hardcore conservative with hardcore conservative beliefs can count on a pretty big base of support right from the start, while a hardcore liberal candidate can count on bupkis. Conservative Republicans can win. Liberal Democrats generally can't unless they're running in very liberal congressional districts. If you're looking for a reason why liberal politicians tend to compromise more, you really don't have to look much further than this.

It's a critical point, and one that's often overlooked by those critics of President Obama who think he could have achieved more by being tougher (despite already being one of the most successful presidents in history). But I don't think it's a complete answer.

Drum notes in passing that there's disagreement about "what people really mean when they tell pollsters they're conservative" and that many feel "liberals need to do something to change this instead of simply accepting it". Granting that he's focusing on what can be done in "the here and now", I'd say those two points deserve more attention by those planning for upcoming elections.

First, what voters mean by calling themselves "conservative". There's a long-running debate about this, in which I think both sides have good points (e.g. see "The Center-Right Nation Exits Stage Left" by Tod Lindberg vs. "It's Not Easy Bein' Blue" by Jon Meacham). I agree with those who say that the American tradition, with its reverence for individual liberty and self-reliance, leans center-right.

But I also recognize that Americans support Democratic policies, like Social Security, Medicare, gay rights and abortion rights.

How to reconcile the apparent contradiction? By realizing that there's an important difference between ideas and identity. Americans may support liberal ideas, but they self-identify as members of a conservative tribe.

Look at American mythology. It is a fine thing to be a cowboy; it is not a fine thing to be a fancy-pants lawyer. Republicans, understanding the power of tribal identity, run as cowboys. But Democrats, the party of facts and logic, too often come across as lawyers. By exploiting this kind of association, Republicans were able to run a successful, negative re-branding campaign on the word "liberal".

This leads me to what Democrats can do "to change this instead of simply accepting it." Too many Democrats focus on ideas, without giving enough importance to identity. So another reason Democrats compromise is that they set out with winning policy positions and then find themselves losing on identity: "I may like your positions, but I don't like you." What they can do to change this -- and it's going to take work -- is to learn how to communicate better non-verbally, in symbols and gestures. Note the issue on which Democrats have had to concede defeat, at least for the time being: gun rights. Rationally speaking, there are lots of good reasons why our guns laws should be more sensible. But symbolically speaking, good luck taking away a cowboy's gun.

A third reason Democrats compromise: increasingly, they are a self-selecting group of people who don't like conflict. Grieder mentions this in her Economist.com post:

[Maybe] there are temperamental traits that draw a person to the Democratic or Republican parties, and those same traits, aggregated, are manifested by the parties themselves.

Porsche-driver, Subaru-driver, which one's the Democrat? That may not do justice to the full range of the Democrats' big tent constituency, but if you're the kind of person who likes to beat everyone else off a stop-light, the Democratic brand is not the first one to catch your eye. Given a long-term trend towards more Democratic technocrats and professionals, Democrats are more likely to be not wimps, necessarily, but more thinkers than fighters.

And finally, a fourth reason: money. No, the Democratic Party has not been bought off. But obviously money does distort our politics, and it favors Republicans, the party of big business. That means the GOP often has more capability to shape public opinion, as those who remember the fatal Harry and Louise ads know very well. Many liberals were angered by Obama's deal with the pharmaceutical industry at the beginning of his health care reform struggle. But getting part of the opposing force to cross the battlefield to our side helped make the difference between a less-than-perfect victory and yet another total defeat.

And so I give you not one, but...

Four Reasons Democrats Compromise:

  1. The (sort of) center-right electorate. As Kevin Drum notes, a 40% conservative base gets you most of the way to a majority. A 20% liberal base puts you at the beginning of a hard uphill climb.
  2. Misunderstanding ideas vs. identity. Much of that 40-20 split is based more on identity than ideas. Unfortunately, since many Democrats don't get this, they campaign on ideas and overlook identity. So, despite being right, they lose -- and have to compromise.
  3. Democrats attract a self-selecting group of negotiators. Honestly, I'm not sure there's much that can be done about this, or that needs to be done -- as long as we get number 2 right. In a world of increasing complexity, it's not bad to favor brains over brawling, and it doesn't have to mean you're a wimp. Quiet power can beat noisy bluster, as Obama has been demonstrating.
  4. Money, which favors Republicans. We need to reduce the influence of money, whoever benefits. The current administration has made a start with ethics and campaign finance reform efforts, but getting this done is going to take a long time.

In the short term, like it or not, much Democratic compromise is, as Drum argues, an unavoidable consequence of democracy: current politics dictate it.

But going forward, Democrats can change the politics by campaigning more effectively -- to not just be right, but feel right. Here's Obama, from back in 2004, shortly after he was elected to the Senate, in an interview with Charlie Rose:

Look, I shared a million votes with George Bush in Illinois... and I was opposed to the war, explicitly so. My positions on issues were much closer, obviously, to John Kerry's than to George Bush's... across the spectrum. And I can't tell you how many Republicans would come up to me and say, 'You know, I don't agree with you on a bunch of these issues, but my sense is that you understand where I'm coming from.'