Saturday, June 5, 2004

Partying On the Couch

David Brooks puts on his shrinking cap and takes a look at what exactly it is that makes people affiliate themselves with one political party or the other.

In a perfectly rational world, citizens would figure out which parties best represent their interests and their values, and they would provisionally attach themselves to those parties. If their situations changed or their interests changed, then their party affiliations would change.

But that is not how things work in real life. As Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler argue in their book, “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” most people either inherit their party affiliations from their parents, or they form an attachment to one party or another early in adulthood. Few people switch parties once they hit middle age. Even major historic events like the world wars and the Watergate scandal do not cause large numbers of people to switch.

Moreover, Green, Palmquist and Schickler continue, people do not choose parties by comparing platforms and then figuring out where the nation’s interests lie. Drawing on a vast range of data, these political scientists argue that party attachment is more like attachment to a religious denomination or a social club. People have stereotypes in their heads about what Democrats are like and what Republicans are like, and they gravitate toward the party made up of people like themselves.

Once they have formed an affiliation, people bend their philosophies and their perceptions of reality so they become more and more aligned with members of their political tribe.

In other words, it’s all about fulfilling that inner need to be with a group of people that are just like you and reaffirm that you’re right in feeling about life, the universe and everything the way you do. That’s a nice comfortable way to live, I suppose…if all you care about is “What’s In It For Me.”

Human nature being what it is, I can’t say that I disagree wholeheartedly with Brooks’ premise. However, it doesn’t explain how political parties have shown themselves capable – especially in the last fifty years – of completely reinventing themselves to pursue what they perceive to be the way to win majority status and therefore have a long reign of controlling power. The definition of what’s “Republican” or “Democrat” has changed dramatically – yet those of us who have aligned ourselves with some of those views have not. Or have we?

The last forty years has not altered my personal perceptions of what the two political parties stand for, even as the parties have changed. The Republicans have always advocated limited government and fiscal and personal responsibility; keep the government out of your bedroom, your gunrack, your wallet, don’t make excuses for your failings, preserve the class system, and don’t trust new-fangled ideas. Yet since the days of Richard Nixon we’ve seen the government grow at a record pace (only getting smaller under Demcratic administrations), the imposition and advocacy of invasions of personal choice (reproductive rights for women and marriage for gays), and a soaring debt. These are all the traits that Barry Goldwater told us were the legacy of the Democrats. The Democrats, on the other hand, once the party of Jim Crow and Reconstruction in the 19th century, became the party of social reform and progressiveness in the 20th, marching under the banner of FDR to save the nation and the world with the helping hand of the government. They believed that government could be a force for good and empowerment to the people and would protect the minority. But their forced efforts to reshape society met up with the natural human instinct to be suspicious of anything new and untested. The efforts to create a Great Society became a paradox of trying to free the people by force and regulation: bussing to achieve racial balance in the schools, reshaping welfare and thereby creating a culture of dependency, and hundreds of programs that intended one thing but inadvertently had the opposite effect. All well-intended, to be sure, but unwelcome and unwieldy. Those of us who became Democrats under JFK or Bobby Kennedy have had to change almost as much as those who became Republicans under Ike. Would either of them recognize their party today? But all motion is relative. Perhaps it isn’t so much that the parties have changed as the people in them have evolved, and not always in a way that we expected – or desired.

Mr. Brooks, a card-carrying Republican, is offering a psychological foundation for party affiliation. That sort of reasoning used to be what the Republicans would dismiss as “psychobabble.” Plus ce change…