What Does it Mean to Be a Democrat?


On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Matthew Dowd identified four factions that make up the Republican Party: the Tea Party, libertarians, social conservatives and establishment Republicans. Note that three of these groups are identified almost exclusively by how they think. Arguably the fourth is as well. The Republican Party definitely attracts people who take ideas seriously.

What about the Democratic Party? It’s tempting to say that Democrats are liberal. But did you know that the base of the party—those that are the most reliable supporters of Democratic candidates—are not particularly liberal at all?

According to Pew research, among self-identified Democrats the most liberal are the ones with high incomes and post graduate degrees—a tiny minority. But among blacks, among people who have no more than a high school education and among those who make less than $30,000 a year, a majority consider themselves neither “liberal” nor ”mostly liberal.” Among Hispanics it’s about fifty-fifty. And remember: this was a poll of people who call themselves Democrats.

Matt Vespa, writing at Townhall, quotes New York Times analyst Nate Cohn as saying:

The majority of Democrats and Democratic primary voters are self-described moderates or even conservatives, according to an Upshot analysis of Pew survey data from 2014 and exit polls from the 2008 Democratic primary.

Some of these self-described moderates hold fairly liberal views. But the “mostly liberal” Democrats barely outnumber Democrats with “mixed” or conservative policy views, according to the Pew data, which classified respondents based on how consistently they agreed with Democratic policy positions. Only about a quarter of Democratic-leaners hold the consistently liberal views that would potentially put them to the left of Mrs. Clinton.

Well if liberalism isn’t what unites Democrats, could it be something else, like concern for the least fortunate? You might think so if you are a regular reader of the columns of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. But the facts don’t bear that out either. A study by American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks finds that conservatives are consistently more charitable than liberals. As one reviewer put it:

Brooks finds that households with a conservative at the helm gave an average of 30 percent more money to charity in 2000 than liberal households (a difference of $1,600 to $1,227). The difference isn’t explained by income differential—in fact, liberal households make about 6 percent more per year. Poor, rich, and middle class conservatives all gave more than their liberal counterparts.

And it wasn’t just money. The conservatives gave more time, more blood, etc.

These findings are consistent with my own anecdotal experience. For many years I was an attentive viewer of C-Span’s morning show—where callers could call in on a “Democratic” or “Republican” line. Sometimes lines were labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” What I found striking was how rarely anyone on the Democratic or liberal line advocated a position I regarded as unambiguously liberal. I don’t recall a single caller saying we should all (including the caller) pay higher taxes so that we could have universal pre-school or universal long term care or so we could pay for some other government spending project. Instead, I heard teachers arguing for more pay for teachers, seniors wanting more out of Social Security and Medicare, union members wanting trade protection, blacks wanting more for blacks, etc. In other words, what I heard a lot of was selfishness. The Democratic line attracted a lot of people who want government to intervene for their benefit at everyone else’s expense.

Is it possible that raw economic self-interest is what attracts voters to the Democratic Party? Certainly that is one way to view the Franklin Roosevelt political coalition. At Roosevelt’s behest, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which attempted to regulate the entire economy, based on the Italian fascist model. In each industry, management and labor were allowed to collude to set prices, wages, output, etc. Every industry or trade was ordered to conspire to pursue its own interests at the expense of the public. The Supreme Court put an end to the NIRA, but it didn’t put an end to the ideas behind it.

If economic selfishness is what unites Democrats, could that model be in danger of falling apart? Trade unions, occupational licensing, and other attempts to monopolize trades and professions are very much in the Roosevelt tradition. But none of this attracts high income, highly educated liberals who back charter schools in their fight against the teachers’ unions and who back Uber in its fight against the taxi cab monopoly.

Even more stunning is the recent Obama administration broadside against occupational licensing. It points out that one of every four jobs in the country requires a government license and reflects the concern of economists that these laws protect the producers, not consumers, and that their effects are eerily similar to medieval guilds.

At the state and local level, Republicans appear to have been as bad as Democratsin yielding to these special interest pressures. For Republicans, this is inconsistent with their free market rhetoric. However, for Democrats, it’s consistent with the Roosevelt model.

There is a potential rupture within the Democratic Party that has been largely ignored by the pundits.

John C. Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, President of the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research, and author of the widely acclaimed Independent books, A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America, and the award-winning, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis. The Wall Street Journal and the National Journal, among other media, have called him the “Father of Health Savings Accounts.”

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