Tea party activists at a rally on the grounds of the Capitol on June 19, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Immediately after Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, incoming majority leader Mitch McConnell pledged that “there will be no government shutdowns” on his watch. Yet the newly unified Republican Congress took less than two months to force a standoff with the Obama administration over appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security, due to Republican demands that funding be made contingent upon a reversal of Obama’s executive actions on immigrants.

In what has become a familiar series of events, a bloc of conservatives pushed the congressional Republican Party into a procedural confrontation despite the risk that this could produce a damaging backlash. The showdown ended after 75 House Republicans joined with Democrats on March 3 to approve a bill funding DHS without restrictions over the opposition of more than two-thirds of the majority party — another increasingly common outcome. With Congress facing the exhaustion of the Highway Trust Fund in May, the need to raise the federal debt ceiling by the fall and the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, more governing crises are possible, and maybe even probable.

The repeated pattern of threatened shutdowns is hardly accidental. Republican officeholders’ proclivity for confrontation reflects the distinct preferences of Republicans in the public. As the graph below illustrates, a consistent majority of Republicans in the mass electorate admire politicians “who stick to their principles” more than those “who make compromises,” while most Democrats hold the opposite view. This partisan gap prevailed even when Republicans held the White House.


In a new study published in Perspectives on Politics (ungated), we find that this difference is one manifestation of a broader and more enduring asymmetry between the parties. The Republican Party, we argue, is best understood as the agent of an ideological movement dedicated to advancing the cause of conservatism. Republican activists and voters are united by their devotion to limited government and consistently seek a more conservative and uncompromising party.

The Democratic Party, in contrast, is best understood as a coalition of social groups seeking various forms of government action. Most Democratic supporters in the mass public are attracted to the party for reasons of group interest or identity rather than a devotion to the principles of liberalism. Democratic leaders face a strong incentive to govern pragmatically in order to deliver concrete programs and benefits to their partisan constituencies. The extended network of Democratic Party elites is largely populated by single-issue activists and representatives of discrete groups, as compared to the more comprehensively ideological actors who lead the GOP.

When voters are asked what they like and dislike about the two major parties, Republicans often give ideologically-oriented answers to these open-ended questions — describing their own party, for example, as “conservative” or “for smaller government” while characterizing the opposition Democrats as “socialistic” or “wanting the government to run everything.” Democratic identifiers, in contrast, characteristically speak in terms of group interest, viewing their own party as “having concern for the middle class,” “working to help women” and so forth, in contrast with a Republican Party that “looks out for the rich” or  “stands for older white folks.” The graph below demonstrates the strong relationship between citizens’ own party identification and their propensity for either ideological or group-oriented conceptions of the parties.


This asymmetry is reinforced by the contours of American public opinion, which tends to be right-of-center in terms of how people self-reported their ideology and their support for limited government in the abstract — but simultaneously left-leaning on more specific issues such as spending on popular domestic programs. Republican politicians are therefore rewarded by both their partisan base and the public at large when they emphasize broad themes such as reducing the size and role of government in general. Democratic politicians are rewarded when they focus their attention on individual issues and policies designed to benefit particular mass constituencies.

Our research shows that these differences extend to the activist and donor bases of each party and are even reflected in party platforms and opinion columns. Republicans have been more ideologically unified and motivated than Democrats for at least 50 years. Given this foundational asymmetry, it is hardly surprising that the Republican Party is particularly susceptible to powerful internal movements pursuing greater ideological purity.

The asymmetric nature of the parties is likely to shape the 2016 presidential nomination contests. As long as presumptive favorite Hillary Clinton retains strong support among the social groups that constitute the Democratic electoral base — such as racial minorities, single women, union members and non-Christians — she has little reason to fear a serious intraparty challenge from the ideological left, despite the efforts of a few liberal activists to coax an alternative candidate, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, into the race. The Republican presidential field, in contrast, will likely be dominated by multiple candidates who each claim the mantle of true conservatism.

In the meantime, Republican leaders in the House and Senate will seek to satisfy the increasingly stringent demands of their party’s activist base through procedural warfare and vehement public expressions of opposition to Obama’s policies. Democratic supporters prize the substantive achievements of pragmatic lawmaking but the Republican base insists that party officials display repeated commitment to ideological principles. To satisfy these demands, Republicans in Congress have come to prefer confrontation, even when it ultimately results in defeat. Making sense of contemporary government requires understanding the distinct goals of each party base.

Matt Grossmann is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College.