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Posted at 11:07 AM ET, 12/30/2010

Why liberals think their politicians are all wimps

By Jonathan Bernstein

There's a good question floating around the intertubes today, framed by The Economist's E.G.:


There seems to be a certain temperamental difference between conservatives and Republicans on the one hand and liberals and the Democrats on the other. In broad strokes, Republicans, especially of the tea-party stripe, are typically proud, at least unapologetic, and sometimes belligerent about their beliefs. Democrats, in contrast, seem to adopt the defensive position by default.

Or, as boiled down by Kevin Drum, the issue becomes "why liberals compromise."

Drum believes the answer has to do with the two-to-one advantage conservatives have in self-identification over liberals in polling.  I disagree; I don't think that polling corresponds to actual attitudes about issues, or in fact to any actual political behavior.  Yes, it's possible that liberals are spooked and conservatives draw strength from their perceptions about those polls, but I think the effect is marginal, at best.  Drum says that "liberal Democrats can't win," but that's surely not true -- Barack Obama is a mainstream liberal, and mainstream liberals win statewide all the time, even in states far less liberal than Rhode Island.  It's true that Obama and, say, Michael Bennet aren't going to brag about being liberals the way that John McCain and Sarah Palin are going to brag about being conservative, but it's not really clear to me that any of that matters a whole lot.

I think the main thing here is what I think of as an Iron Law of Politics: activists always believe that the other side is better organized, tougher in negotiations, and more cutthroat than they are.  Democrats find it hard to believe, but conservative activists think that Republicans are the ones always caving, that Democrats are more apt to find tricky ways to use rules to their advantage, and so on.  The Iron Law doesn't mean that in fact the two sides are always exactly equal in these things, but it does explain most of the perceived differences (from both sides).

I will, however, speculate about a couple of possibilities that neither Drum nor E.G. mentions that might explain a Democratic propensity to compromise (if such a thing exists).  For one, liberals, to generalize, are trying to construct things, and that may lend itself to compromise. If you want a new health-care system, you might be willing to settle for half of what you want (because it's better than the status quo), while if you like the status quo, then perhaps you don't care much whether things get a little or a lot worse.

A more likely (albeit still speculative) possibility has to do with the size of the agenda.  Democrats have traditionally been the more diverse party.  That probably translates into a longer agenda, since different groups have different policy goals.  Republicans, as the more homogeneous party, can unite behind a relatively focused, small, set of priorities.  It seems quite likely to me that the larger the agenda, the more groups within the party are going to wind up frustrated, and the more the party might try to cut deals to limit that damage.

So if there's a real difference between parties in willingness to compromise, my guess is it stems from the internal structure of those parties.  But the explanation for why liberals believe that their side isn't tough enough is mostly contained in the Iron Law.

Jonathan Bernstein writes about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Jonathan Bernstein  | December 30, 2010; 11:07 AM ET
Categories:  House Dems, Senate Dems  
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Comments

"Republicans, as the more homogeneous party, can unite behind a relatively focused, small, set of priorities."

1) Crush Democrats
2) Make the rich richer

Posted by: shrink2 | December 30, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

"...liberals, to generalize, are trying to construct things..."

You skipped what conservatives in general are trying to do, but of course, it isn't a secret: crush liberals and make the rich richer. No room for compromise.

Posted by: shrink2 | December 30, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

"...activists always believe that the other side is better organized..."

Not this time, the Republican Party is a smoking train wreck heading into a Presidential election cycle. Now, I am no fan of Tim Kaine, but every week that goes by from now on, the more the Rs focus on their lower House antics and ignore their laughable list of 24 Presidential hopefuls...the more organized the Ds will become.

Posted by: shrink2 | December 30, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Nonsense. Sorry, but it is. Democratic Pols are wimps and it sin't our imaginations. Dem Pols are wimps b/c they think the rest of the country agrees with the Cons and many of the Dem Pols do as well. Except at the frilly margins, Dem Pols think the Republicans are correct and they are generally embarrassed to be on the wrong team. It isn't being beaten, it isn't failure, it isn't even surrender. It is not fighting. Which makes for something of a rigged game when there are just two players. But that, of course, is the whole point. The failed Obama Presidency is the most recent manifestation of the decline of the Democratic Party, though it may well prove to be the fatal one.

Posted by: wbgonne | December 30, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Liberals actually care about how government action (or inaction) impacts people. Conservatives could care less, other than about those in the highest income bracket. So that's why you see compromises from liberals, such as on the Bush tax cuts. They know real people are going to suffer.

Posted by: mthand111 | December 30, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I would suggest to wbgonne that he/she take Mark Twain to heart. The frequency of such reports is matched only by their inanity.

you slip is showing...

Posted by: ChuckinDenton | December 30, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I am on the margin and I am not frilly.

Posted by: shrink2 | December 30, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

When talking about the Republicans, I think it's critical to distinguish between the corporations and wealthy individuals that fund the Republican party and the (usually non-wealthy) grassroots that populate the voter rolls and Tea Party gatherings.

The upper crust has a real agenda: it's to minimize taxes and regulation.

The lower crust has agenda items, like abortion and the deficit, which come and go, but for the Republican grassroots as a whole (not necessarily all Republicans as invididuals, of course): their REAL agenda is simply: to be reactionary.

Lots of poor, uneducated, and otherwise marginalized citizens view Liberals and Democrats not simply in political terms but also in cultural terms. They see people that got to go to college, that make more money than they do, that live on the coasts as somehow telling them in Texas or Wyoming what to do, not unlike an annoying know-it-all sibling.

Their natural proclivity is to say, "f you," and oppose whatever the Ds propose, more out of compulsion and defensiveness than out of any considered and rational view of how D policies might affect them.

The issue isn't always the policies. It's who's pushing the policies.

Posted by: paul65 | December 30, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse


Liberals are much like George Bailey.

Conservatives are much like Henry Potter.

Posted by: Liam-still | December 30, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I forgot to add in my post above the obvious point that Republican party upper crust (corporations and wealth inviduals) utilize lower crust reactionary sentiment to pit citizens against the Democratic party and pursue their anti-tax, anti-regulation agenda.

And that Republican party lower crust depend on the upper crust for funding to oppose change -- any change -- at every step and, thereby, feel good about themselves.

It's a marriage made in heaven for both sides.

And it explains why a Republican party that cared so much about abortion just a few years ago now is dominated by Tea Partiers who don't even mention abortion, why a Mitt Romney who proposed and enacted ObamaCare in Massachusetts before Obama even was elected President now is opposed to ObamaCare (but not reduced taxes and regulation).

Posted by: paul65 | December 30, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

paul:

Excellent analysis. When I hear people say that Immigration or Gay Rights or some other issue will "permanently doom the GOP to minority status" I just shake my head. The Real GOP -- the Upper Crust you describe -- doesn't really care about the lower tier issues so they will simply adopt new ones as they inevitably emerge. The Real Cons, as you say, only care about Big Money -- lower taxes, less government regulation, more power for corporations, and the social issues, the culture wars, whatever you want to call them are simply generic wedge issues that can be be moved around or deleted as needed. Follow the money.

Posted by: wbgonne | December 30, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Liberals tend to fight for the deprived underdogs.

Conservatives tend to fight for the privileged overdogs.

Posted by: Liam-still | December 30, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

mthand:

"Conservatives could care less..."

This is quite correct, although the exact opposite of what you probably think.

(Why do people have such a difficult time using this phrase correctly?)

Posted by: ScottC3 | December 30, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

"Liberals tend to fight for the deprived underdogs.

Conservatives tend to fight for the privileged overdogs.

Posted by: Liam-still "

This is a large part of it. No one gives a dialysis patient a cable talk show. If Glen Beck were to lose his corporate health care due to a hangnail he had as a kid, universal health care would become the new Conservative Thing.

Posted by: DDAWD | December 30, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

You are correct sir. Conservatives could not care less, but that never stops them from striving to do so.

They stand a good chance to soon make a breakthrough on that front, now that they have developed their anti-empathy serum.

Posted by: Liam-still | December 30, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it's because, deep down, liberal know that their ideas are all STUPID!

I.e.

- People who are dumb and/or lazy deserve the same quality of life as people who are smart and/or hard working.

- Diversity is our strength.

- Every child can be a genius if you just pay the teachers enough.

- War is never the answer.

- The reason we have a government is to solve all our personal problems.

- We can substitute switchgrass and sunlight for coal and oil.

- Religion is bad.

- Love is all you need.

Posted by: pmendez | December 30, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

@Shrink2:

"Republican Party is a smoking train wreck heading into a Presidential election cycle. Now, I am no fan of Tim Kaine, but every week that goes by from now on, the more the Rs focus on their lower House antics and ignore their laughable list of 24 Presidential hopefuls...the more organized the Ds will become."

**************************

You have it exactly backwards.

The Democrat Party is a strange coalition of mutually antagonistic groups. Blacks, Latinos, Jews, blue collar ethnic whites, rich white elites, enviros, gays, single mothers. The only thing that unites them now is their hatred of straight, white, anglo-saxon Christians.

As WASPs become the minority, their increased oppression by the Minority Occupational Government will forge greater cohesion.

As the "minorities" become the majority, their internecine squabbling over the spoils of their success will splinter the Democrat Party.

2008 will be the high-water mark of the Democrat Party as we know it. Already, blue collar white ethnics are fleeing it. Soon, Jews will do the same.

Posted by: pmendez | December 30, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

They stand a good chance to soon make a breakthrough on that front, now that they have developed their anti-empathy serum.

Cool! Where can I get some!!!

Posted by: TrollMcWingnut | December 30, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

TrollMcWhinger,

You do not need any. You were born with a gene mutation, that prevents you from ever feeling empathy for the downtrodden. You are even immune from being swayed by a WWJD bracelet.

You were born an Immaculate Conservative.

Posted by: Liam-still | December 30, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

@wbgonne: Though I would agree, most Dems are wimps, I believe they are products of our times. We have many more elderly people, probably more than any other time in recent history (The Baby Boomers). I think people tend to become more conservative as they age. Maybe they become afraid, maybe tired, I don't know. I only know that many people I knew in high school/college in the late sixties, early seventies that were purely liberal have suddenly decided that "family values" or a certain "morality" has taken over. I guess they didn't have those mores installed in their prior liberal lives, who knows? Many have become religious, or parents falling into a trap of becoming Ozzie & Harriet. Not actually following who they are, but who they think they "should be". Very superficial, I agree, but not that far-fetched. I can't think of any other explanation for it.

Posted by: DinOH | December 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Your point on the homogenous nature of RW ideals vs the diverse nature of Democratic ideals is spot on.

But note; in general both Democratic AND Republican Congressional members are wimps. The difference is that the RW has a HUGE media apparatus solely dedicated to pushing the RW message 24/7/365. This RW media apparatus provides cover for RW Congressional members and also focuses them on the narrow RW message of the day. Meanwhile Democrats have no such structured and consistent media messaging power. Most times Democratic Congressional members and even the President is left to basically fend for themselves when trying to push their agenda. It doesn’t help that Dems don’t really rally around each other consistently.

So while it may look like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are courageously driving the RW message on repealing health care; they also has the benefit of FNC, Hannity, Beck, Rush, RW talk radio all pushing the same simple message day after day after day

Posted by: mobfunk | December 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

It's all the different groups & coalitions that any leader of the Dems have to appease in their own party. Unless it's something cut and dry like repeal of DADT, there will be all types of negotiating in our own party. It's ridiculous at times. I follow a lot of different Dems on twitter & it's shocking sometimes how differently policy is interpreted by different groups. An education.

Posted by: carolerae48 | December 30, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

"TrollMcWhinger,

You do not need any. You were born with a gene mutation, that prevents you from ever feeling empathy for the downtrodden. You are even immune from being swayed by a WWJD bracelet.

You were born an Immaculate Conservative.

Posted by: Liam-still"

Hey, hey. With all the energy he expends protecting the top half a percent from a small tax increase (remember, this isn't about what is best for the country. It's about punishing the rich!) how can you expect him to give a crap when someone besides Glen Beck is undergoing medical difficulties??

Posted by: DDAWD | December 30, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Jonathan, you haven't actually proved that:
"the explanation for why liberals believe that their side isn't tough enough is mostly contained in the Iron Law."

You cite reasons (excuses) for Dem leaders not to be "tough." So if those reasons/excuses are true then aren't Dem leaders, er, less tough? You're arguing against yourself.

And, empirically, there is no shortage of examples for this toughness as you define it. But the rank and file complaints are about more than toughness, such as Dems and the President being better public advocates for our policies and not accepting defeat. We want our leaders to win, or at least engage,the public debate.

For example, it would be nice if they pounded the point home that trickle down tax cuts are failed policies, no matter how it's dressed up. Instead they threw in the towel and cut a deal.

Posted by: ANDYO1 | December 30, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Also,I am surprised that no-on
pointed out that your "Iron Law" is little more than the usual "they all do it" false equivalence.

Posted by: ANDYO1 | December 30, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

"Maybe it's because, deep down, liberal know that their ideas are all STUPID!

I.e.

"- Diversity is our strength."

The Democrat Party is a strange coalition of mutually antagonistic groups. Blacks, Latinos, Jews, blue collar ethnic whites, rich white elites, enviros, gays, single mothers. The only thing that unites them now is their hatred of straight, white, anglo-saxon Christians.

As WASPs become the minority, their increased oppression by the Minority Occupational Government will forge greater cohesion.

2008 will be the high-water mark of the Democrat Party as we know it. Already, blue collar white ethnics are fleeing it. Soon, Jews will do the same. "


Wow. pmendez seems to be a seething cauldron of racist hatred. Somebody get him some help. The thing that unites the Democrats is the idea of better and fairer and more efficient government. You are projecting your hatred heavily, and it is nauseating.

Posted by: fiona5 | December 30, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

fiona-

Meh. I bet it was all performance art by pmendez. I hope.

Posted by: ChuckinDenton | December 30, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I think I can simply this a little: Republicans and Democrats seem to represent two fundamentally different personality types. The former seem often to be the "me-first" grabbers and fear-mongerers while the latter, to my mind, tend to comprise a more caring lot. This doesn't strike me as all that different than elementary school: some kids are jerks or WANT to be in with the jerks, while others, generally more sensitive, tend to get their asses kicked (smart kids, sensitive kids, thoughtful kids). It takes a lot of heart to stick up for these guys if you're not getting bullied yourself, which perhaps explains why most people identify as conservative in polls: they don't want to be seen as part of the "out" group. Unfortunately, liberals, however successful their policies, are likely always to be this "out" group. Not too many schools, I imagine, operate without this pattern of inclusion/exclusion, and neither does our politics. It's not so much that liberals can't win but that they don't, as a rule, find fighting compatible with being a kind and thoughtful person. Republicans, by nature, could care less about this tension and operate with little conscience.

I realize that's reductionist, and a broad brush, but to my experience it holds true.

Posted by: kalvesta | December 30, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

"I realize that's reductionist, and a broad brush, but to my experience it holds true."

You should probably try to get some help.

Posted by: quarterback1 | December 30, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

"TrollMcWhinger,

You do not need any. You were born with a gene mutation, that prevents you from ever feeling empathy for the downtrodden. You are even immune from being swayed by a WWJD bracelet.

You were born an Immaculate Conservative."

Than how come I felt a twinge of remorse that not everyone can experience the pleasure of clubbing baby seals and torturing scarey brown people, hmmmmmmmmmm?

Posted by: TrollMcWingnut | December 30, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

The Libs compromise too much? Yeah they compromised so much they were out of jobs in 2010. Health care reform? Yeah, there was a lot of compromise there, which resulted in one-sided legislation and more overreach. I hope the libs keep on thinking that way, especially their self-image that they know what is best for all. That mindset will assure a change in the Oval Office in 2012 and the job of whittling government down to more rational size can begin.

Posted by: stvcar | January 1, 2011 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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