Party Animals: Asymmetric Ideological Constraint among Democratic and Republican Party Activists

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18znlU8U1Ipd6v/input 718960PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917718960Political Research QuarterlyLupton et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 889 –904
Party Animals: Asymmetric Ideological
© 2017 University of Utah
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Constraint among Democratic and
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917718960
Republican Party Activists
Robert N. Lupton1, William M. Myers2, and Judd R. Thornton3
Existing literature shows that Republicans in the mass public demonstrate greater ideological inconsistency and
value conflict than Democrats. That is, despite a commitment to the conservative label and abstract belief in limited
government, Republican identifiers’ substantive policy attitudes are nonetheless divided. Conversely, Democrats,
despite registering lower levels of ideological thinking, maintain relatively consistent liberal issue attitudes. Based
on theories of coalition formation and elite opinion leadership, we argue that these differences should extend to
Democratic and Republican Party activists. Examining surveys of convention delegates from the years 2000 and 2004,
we show that Democratic activists’ attitudes are more ideologically constrained than are those of Republican activists.
The results support our hypothesis and highlight that some of the inconsistent attitudes evident among mass public
party identifiers can be traced to the internal divisions of the major party coalitions themselves.
elite attitude structures, ideological constraint, partisan asymmetry
The two major American political parties occupy distinct
1995; Jewitt and Goren 2015; Lupton, Myers, and
and increasingly distant points along the liberal–conser-
Thornton 2015; Luskin 1987). That is, despite the fact
vative ideological continuum. Divergent beliefs among
that value orientations shape some mass public attitudes
Democrats and Republicans about the proper size and
(e.g., Brewer 2003; Feldman 1988; Feldman and
scope of government, primarily involvement in the econ-
Steenbergen 2001; Feldman and Zaller 1992; Jacoby
omy but also incorporating racial issues and regulation of
2006, 2014; Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009; Keele and
social affairs, underlie party competition (e.g., Poole and
Wolak 2006), they do not appear to function as “capping
Rosenthal 2007). The two party coalitions are defined by
abstractions” of belief systems for the majority of the
opposing commitments to enduring American cultural
mass public (Converse 1964). As a result, citizens’ ideo-
values of equality, freedom, limited government, and tra-
logical identifications as “liberals” or “conservatives” do
ditional morality (Jacoby 2014; McCloskey and Zaller
not always, or even mostly, correspond to their issue
1984). The values that each party espouses in turn shape
its ideological composition. Namely, “liberal” Democrats
One particularly curious aspect of the canon of public
embrace broad notions of social change and favor gov-
opinion research suggesting that citizens are largely “inno-
ernment programs designed to alleviate social inequality,
cent” of ideology (e.g., Campbell et al. 1960; Converse
whereas “conservative” Republicans prefer a smaller,
1964; Kinder 1983) is that the phenomenon of inconsistent
less active government and laissez-faire economic policy,
ideological identifications and policy attitudes is most
as well as traditional social arrangements. The parties
prevalent among self-identified conservatives (Ellis and
then package agendas and sell their respective “brands”
to voters based upon these organizing principles as the
two coalitions contest elections at all levels of govern-
University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA
ment (e.g., Aldrich 1995).
The University of Tampa, FL, USA
3Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
This canonical understanding of ideological party
competition continues to be an object of scholarly interest
Corresponding Author:
partially because it decidedly does not provide a similar
Judd R. Thornton, Department of Political Science, Georgia State
University, 38 Peachtree Center Ave. SE, Suite 1013, Atlanta, GA
basis for mass public attitudes (e.g., Campbell et al. 1960;
30303-2514, USA.
Goren 2012; S. J.Hill and Tausanovitch 2015; Jacoby

Political Research Quarterly 70(4)
Stimson 2012).1 In addition, in an analysis of the structure
ideologically constrained than those of their Republican
of citizens’ core values, Jacoby (2014, 766) notes that
counterparts, whose individual policy preferences should
although “the conventional understanding holds that liber-
exhibit greater ideological diversity. Below, we outline
als are much more likely to experience value conflict than
our theory relating the ideological consistency of party
conservatives,” evidence reveals that a greater value con-
activists to elite communication and the structure of mass
sensus exists among liberals and Democrats compared
public opinion through the lens of a group-centric con-
with conservatives and Republicans. Indeed, although con-
ception of political parties.
cern about the size of the state remains a central tenet of
modern conservatism, this adherence to the value of lim-
A Theory of the Ideological
ited government is more nuanced than it first appears: in a
study of Tea Party activists, for example, Williamson,
Consistency of Party Activists
Skocpol, and Coggin (2011, 26) find that
The mismatch between symbolic orientations and policy
preferences reported in previous studies can be explained
the anger of grassroots Tea Partiers about new federal social
by the nature of elite communication about each of the
programs such as the Affordable Care Act coexists with
two major parties. In particular, the defining characteris-
considerable acceptance, even warmth, toward long-
tics of Republican identification are more often presented
standing federal social programs like Social Security and
to the public as abstract principles and symbols, as
Medicare, to which Tea Partiers feel legitimately entitled.
opposed to specific issue positions. For example, Ellis
Other evidence indicates that although Republicans con-
and Stimson (2012) document that relative to “liberal,”
ceptualize politics in ideological terms more than the media use the word “conservative” more often and
Democrats (Campbell et al. 1960; Ellis and Stimson
more positively. Grossmann and Hopkins (2015a), using
2012; Grossmann and Hopkins 2015a, 2016; Hagner and
newspaper opinion data collected by Noel (2013a), simi-
Pierce 1982; Lelkes and Sniderman 2016), Democrats
larly conclude that conservative commentators typically
and liberals nonetheless express more consistent issue
write about politics and ideology philosophically in terms
attitudes (Feldman and Johnston 2014; Stimson 2004;
of the size and scope of government, whereas liberal
Treier and Hillygus 2009). Thus, whether measured in
commentators are more likely to issue explicit policy
terms of citizens’ ideological self-identifications, core
appeals. In other words, the media—including opinion
values, or issue attitudes, studies report that the American
writers who serve as important instruments for guiding
and maintaining party and ideological coalitions (Noel
right is more heterogeneous than the left.
2012, 2013a)—describe the modern American right sym-
The question remains, though, what accounts for these
bolically much more so than they do the left.
observed differences in ideological consistency across
These media portrayals of the parties square with other
parties? We argue in this paper that the significant and
evidence showing that Republican messaging across
persistent differences in Republicans’ and Democrats’
party platforms, presidential campaign speeches, cam-
degree of ideological consistency may arise from the
paign advertising, and claimed electoral mandates is
internal divisions of the party coalitions themselves,
more likely to express fealty to ideological principles
rather than a pathology unique to mass public identifiers.
than to emphasize particular policy positions, a relation-
We investigate this possibility by analyzing the attitudi-
ship that is reversed among Democrats (Azari 2014;
nal consistency of Democratic and Republican Party
Grossmann and Hopkins 2014, 2015a, 2015b, 2016;
activists, who have been recognized in previous research
Rhodes and Johnson 2015). As a consequence, given the
as the drivers of the major parties’ agendas (Layman et al.
role of elite cues for mass public attitude formation
2010; Noel 2012). Republicans represent individuals
(Arceneaux 2008; Carsey and Layman 2006; Claassen
devoted to movement conservatism characterized primar-
and Highton 2009; Druckman, Peterson, and Slothuus
ily by a principled belief in limited government and
2013; Layman and Carsey 2002; Rahn 1993; Zaller
unfettered commercial markets, but this devotion to small
1992), the observed attitudinal inconsistency of the mass
government in the abstract often conflicts with public likely reflects how elites present the parties and
Republicans’ promotion of particular government pro-
their associated ideologies to citizens.
grams. Moreover, the party’s adoption of both Christian
One reason why the two parties might talk about poli-
and economic...

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