Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

political-parties

(Photo: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

Different Parties, Different Cultures

• May 05, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

Fearing bias, and because the differences are difficult to measure with reliability, most—but not all—political scientists shy away from describing the cultural differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Judy Gruber, who, back in 1987, taught the first political science class I ever attended, opened her lecture about political parties with jokes. I only remember a few of them, but they went something like this:

  • Republicans close their bedroom curtains but rarely need to. Democrats keep their curtains open but really shouldn’t.
  • Republican men prefer to date Democratic women. Although they intend to marry Republican women, they feel they’re entitled to some fun first.

You get the picture. It was good stuff, but this material is a quarter-century old now. I wonder if Professor Gruber, who tragically passed away almost a decade ago, would still be telling the same jokes.

The year before I took Gruber’s class, Jo Freeman broached this subject by writing one of the best essays ever written on the cultural differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. This is a subject that many political scientists shy away from, partially because the differences are difficult to measure with reliability and partially because they are highly sensitive to accusations of bias. Nonetheless, Freeman’s remains a rich essay and, even given the passage of time, a great deal of it still rings quite true.

Here are a few samplings, with some commentary:

  • “In the Democratic party power flows upward and in the Republican party power flows downward.” Her claim here is that Democrats gain stature by representing group interests and advocating their needs to those higher up, while Republicans simply have less of a group orientation. Republicans gain stature based on who they are, rather than whom they represent. This still sounds pretty accurate.
  • “Republicans perceive themselves as insiders even when they are out of power, and Democrats perceive themselves as outsiders even when they are in power.” That rich quote may well be an artifact of the 1980s, a particularly bleak period for Democratic presidential aspirations. Nonetheless, it still captures an important attitudinal difference. Notably, this runs somewhat against Jonathan Bernstein’s claim that some Republican leaders are not only comfortable with Republicans being out of power but actually prefer that state—it’s easier (and sometimes more profitable) to gin up outrage than to govern.

I was particularly interested in Freeman’s description of common social identity as vital for Republican Party cohesion. As she writes:

[Republican] Party activists share membership in common social strata, with common rules of behavior and a common definition of who is acceptable…. A crowd of traditional Republicans can be identified by their common dress and their unspoken understanding that someone who dresses differently is not one of them. A crowd of Democrats cannot be identified by a common appearance; indeed they are so diverse that a few Republicans in their midst would not even be noticed.

She notes that the relatively new (for the time) Christian conservative movement seemed to be bringing a new class of activist into Republican circles and that it was causing visible class conflict. Freeman cites Molly Ivins’ description of female Republican activists, which Ivins divided into the “ultrasuedes” (traditional Republicans) and the “polyesters” (insurgent conservatives):

The ultrasuedes … look down on the polyesters…. Some ultrasuedes are feeling outnumbered by the polyesters this year as though their party has been taken over by people they would never allow to join the country club. Not the right sort…. As though someone had let some tacky girls into a Kappa chapter.

I guess it is a simple class distinction, but along with having more money, the ultrasuedes tend to be more sophisticated and also more liberal on social issues than the polyesters. They are frankly embarrassed, if not mortified, by the party’s Jerry Falwell connection, but only in a social sense.

This dynamic, if not exactly describing today’s divisions between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans, certainly seems to rhyme. Are there similar divisions today? You certainly won’t hear them described in explicitly class terms—the time when you could describe insurgents as somehow lacking stature or culture has long since passed. In American politics today, people on both sides of any disagreement (perhaps particularly within the Republican Party) will tend to describe themselves as representing middle-class values and even compete over who is more authentically non-elite.

Nonetheless, Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin, in a thorough profile of the Tea Party movement, describe its adherents as “older, white, and middle class.” These class differences may still be playing out within the Republican party much as they were in the 1980s.

My impression is that the parties may talk about themselves somewhat differently than they did when Freeman wrote her essay, but they haven’t necessarily changed their orientation all that much. If anything, given the polarization that has occurred since the 1980s—both ideological and geographical—the cultural differences are probably even more pronounced now than they used to be.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.