(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

In early February, reports surfaced that individuals who had served in the George W Bush administration left the Republican Party.  Although changes in party membership or registration can occur after elections, due to the reciprocal effect that electoral contexts have on party identification, the extent of movement by elites in the party is much less common.  Even more distinctive, a growing conversation is beginning to emerge about the possible formation of a new third party.  Countless analyses exist that focus on the prospects for the creation of new parties or questions of a realignment in existing ones (see the segment on our sister series From the Field).  Future developments will result from a complex set of variable factors.

Although the future is uncertain, the process of understanding why these events are currently happening is much more feasible.  For several decades, the Republican Party has incorporated multiple groups with different strands of thought.  That difference is not unusual in a two-party system but becomes a challenge for party durability when the strands cannot find common ground or the dominant strands are highly unrepresentative of voter sentiments.  The underlying ideologies of these groups, and the array of perspectives more broadly, reveal why maintaining the status quo is unlikely – though not impossible.

Ideologies serve as a value framework by which people evaluate political systems and other elements of society.  These views provide the substance behind the labels/names of political parties but are not the same as the parties.  For example, the Democratic and Republican parties have served as the two major parties, alternating in their electoral success and government leadership, since 1860.  However, extensive research on the evolution of these parties over time has shown that the parties do not stand for the same set of views as they did 160 years ago.   In addition to changing coalitions of voters, certain strands/interests within a party may become more prominent at different points in time.  (For more details on the evolution of the American party system, see Krasner’s The Two-Party System in the United States, or Sundquist’s Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States, a more detailed discussion of the first through fourth party systems.)

A basic example comparing stances on two issue domains illustrates the complexity of ideology.  Imagine a simplified political setting in which two sets of issues prevailed –social (aspects relating to individual beliefs and lifestyles) and economic (aspects relating to how goods and services are made, allotted and consumed).  In a simplified perspective, individuals have two stances that they may take within each domain.  Socially, they may believe that government should provide more regulation over individual lives or that government should act minimally; economically they may also believe in a greater or lesser degree of government action.  Considering just these two domains, a minimum of four different ideologies might result:

  • modern conservative (oppose the extension of individual liberties where they contradict traditional morality and government intervention in the economy)
  • libertarian (support the extension of individual freedom and oppose government intervention in the economy)
  • modern liberal (support extension of individual freedom and government intervention in the economy)
  • populist (oppose the extension of individual liberties and support government intervention in the economy)

Adding more domains of policy and variations in intensity within each domain, this list is far from exhaustive. (For a more thorough overview of political belief variation, see Andrew Heywood’s Political Ideologies: An Introduction.)

Acknowledging that more domains and positions along each domain spectrum exist, it becomes clear that simply framing in terms of liberal and conservative is insufficient.  And yet, this approach is the most common way to measure ideology.  Typically people are asked to place themselves and others (i.e. candidates) on a 7 point scale from extremely liberal to extremely conservative.  This chart from the American National Elections Study (ANES), a highly trusted resource for those analyzing political beliefs and behavior of the public, reveals a few important details.  First, a large plurality of Americans declines to place themselves in either category on this continuum. Second, extreme ideological perspectives compose a small portion of the population (though a larger proportion of registered voters and the politically engaged).  Ultimately, the liberal-conservative distinction does not provide an accurate sense of the political landscape.  (For more background on ideology more generally, take a look at this article by Time on the origins of the terminology for left and right.)

Some alternate approaches to measuring ideology provide more useful images of the American public’s political composition.  Many researchers who use the ANES data tend to examine more specific issue domain placement and the relationship of individual views across domains.  Not only does this approach allow for a more complex view of political beliefs, but also the contradiction between general and domain-specific views.  In Tides of Consent, political scientist James Stimson found that most people’s professed political identity (symbolic ideology) does not necessarily match preferences and actions that people present in concrete situations (operational ideology).  Moreover, individuals who symbolically identified as conservatives were much more likely to demonstrate operational support for liberal ideas than symbolic liberals were to show operational support for conservative ideas.  Pew Research provides just one helpful way to consider different ideological segments of the parties, based on individual placement on several issues; this approach allows for both intensity within and variation across issues.  Likewise, public opinion scholar Martin Wattenberg finds that examining policy stance and its consistency provides a much different picture of the public, with twice as many individuals demonstrating ideological tendencies compared with basic left-right definitions.

Within any system, parties themselves may be more or less ideologically coherent at different points in history.  In two-party predominant systems, parties ultimately need to appeal to voters a bit more broadly to win an election and to consistently do so to continue to win.  That approach not only tends towards more moderate positions but also appeals to shared values across multiple strains of ideologies.  To the extent that the party departs from consensus, or even has difficulty building it, parties experience difficulty in balancing the interests of one or more groups.   In the latter part of the 20th century, the Republican Party increased its popular support by pursuing policies that were supported by libertarians and modern conservatives, primarily focused on decreasing government regulation and other economic aspects.  As the party drew more attention to issues associated with social conservativism, it created tensions with the libertarian wing where those policies intruded on individual lifestyle and morality.  Once the Tea Party – a political group, but not a political party that fielded candidates under its label – came on the scene, it added a third element, one that reflected not only its stated anti-establishment goals but came to reflect the rise of populism on the right.  (Note: Populism is not inherently a left or right-leaning experience, but rather a technique in its own right.)  This recent evolution has led to significant challenges with more traditional economic and foreign policy stances of the party.

These strands have had mixed results in generating consistent policy alignment, more successful in mounting challenges when the opposing party is in power but finding it difficult to propose policy that aligns with all three strands.  Thus, it is not surprising that one or more of the groups are chafing at the current direction of the party.  None of the strands aligns with elements of the Democratic Party and its platform; absent a purely strategic decision to align with Democrats in the short term, the formation of a “bolter” party, would allow longer-term Republicans to refocus their platform in a way that perhaps connects with a broader portion of the public.  In terms of a longer-term strategy, this move might shift the political system from one of increasing overreach, to connect with the broader swath of Americans who see themselves as fairly centrist.  This attempt at forming a new party may or may not lead to a new party that effectively contests elections, but regardless, it would have long-term consequences for how it encourages the existing parties and their voters to adapt.


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