Republicans Are Normal, Democrats Are Not

The Democrats tend to be more fractious.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

My U.S. News column this week is on the roadblocks the Obama administration is encountering to its expansive budget and economic policies. Ours is not a parliamentary democracy like Britain's, where the majority party can push its program through the legislature without much trouble. Members of Congress are, to a considerable extent, independent operators, beholden not to the president but to their own constituents, and act accordingly. Obama's big plans on energy and taxes affect different states and congressional districts in different ways, ways that cut across party lines. So he's encountering roadblocks, and it's not clear whether he'll get around them.

In the New Republic, Jonathan Chait makes similar points. Writing from a liberal Democratic perspective, he bemoans the tendency of the Democratic Party to split more along regional and other lines than, in his view at least, the Republican Party did during the first term of George W. Bush. He's on to something here, and he provides some useful historical perspective: Democrats had majorities in Congress for years, but many of those Democrats (Southerners especially, but not exclusively) were elected from states and districts where liberal Democratic policies were not popular. Republicans, once they got majorities in both houses for the first time in 40 years, in 1994, were more disposed to accept party discipline.

This is similar but not identical to a point I've often made: that the Republican Party is the party of people who are considered, by themselves and by others, as normal Americans—Northern white Protestants in the 19th century, married white Christians more recently—while the Democratic Party is the party of the out groups who are in some sense seen, by themselves and by others, as not normal—white Southerners and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, blacks and white seculars more recently. Thus it's natural for the Democrats to be more fissiparous. Chait, in his anger that current Democrats are not going along with the Obama program, sees this more as a function of the selfishness of contemporary Democratic politicians. But politicians of all parties throughout the ages act out of some combination of calculation and conviction, in varying proportions. And the changes in policy that Bush sought were considerably less radical than those Obama is seeking.

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