A Grand Unified Theory of US Politics, Part One


Conservative or Liberal? Those seem to be the two ideological choices that face voters in the US these days. What if I'm neither? Then you are "moderate" or "independent". If I'm an anti-union, anti-tax businessman that favors abortion rights and votes for both parties, then I'm a moderate. What if my neighbor is an anti-abortion member of a private sector union that votes for both parties? Then she's a "moderate", too. But aren't we like, opposites?

You'd think Presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Bernie Sanders are political opposites. Huckabee is a socially-conservative Southerner and Bernie Sanders a socially liberal Northeasterner. But both have strong approvals from the NRA, both look fiercely protect Social Security and Medicare, both are protectionist on trade and loudly anti-Wall Street. Are they really opposites? 

Let me throw one more brain twister at you. Did you know that Vermont used to be the most reliably Republican state in the nation? And that South Carolina one of the most reliably Democratic? In what world did that make sense?

So enough with the questions. The point is that much commentary on US politics is overly simplistic and informed by inherent bias. As we head into the long presidential election season, I'd like the readers of the Dynamist to be armed with the right framework through which to analyze the different candidates and their positioning vis-à-vis the electorate.

Here are the four key laws in my Grand Unified Theory of US Politics:

  1. Ideology isn't a left-right line, it's a circle;
  2. Each voter is a member of an interest group, whether they like it or not;
  3. The ideology of the electorate is more stable than the ideology of the political parties; and
  4. Neither party is right and neither is wrong…they are more like yin and yang, bringing balance to each other. 

Let's start with law #1, ideology isn't a left-right line, it's a circle. In my first paragraph above, I contrast two theoretically moderate voters of archetypes that most would recognize: the "economically conservative, socially liberal" businessman and the "economically liberal, socially conservative" private sector blue collar worker. To use now nearly passe terms, the "country club Republican" and the "Reagan Democrat". Very different types of moderates, but both who largely voted for Reagan and Clinton, GW Bush and Obama. Of course it is also possible to be both socially and economically conservative or liberal as well. So here is how we should look at the ideological continuum:

Figure One: The four poles

(click to enlarge)


The lower right pole is "Socially Conservative", which is centered around conserving traditional values and the traditional economy. Also focused on security. The church. Farming, ranching, mining, oil and gas. Military and police. Anti-immigration. NRA. The traditional Right.

Its opposite is "Socially Progressive" in the upper left. These are folks concerned with looking out for marginalized social groups and the environment. Also those in newer professions like technology, media, higher education. Women's rights, LGBT rights, abortion rights, climate change, hackers, immigrant rights, trial lawyers, college professors.

The upper right pole is "Economically Libertarian". (I don't use "conservative" because they are actually in favor of dynamic economic change, not protectionist conservation.) These are folks that focus on making sure that businesses and the economy can function in an unimpeded manner, which they believe produces faster economic growth. Large and small businessmen. Anti-federal government activists. The Tea Party.

It's opposite is the lower-left, "Economically Communitarian" pole, which favors government or union intervention in the economy to provide regulations and a safety net. Unions, the working class, minority groups, the dependent elderly, public sector workers.

Law #2 is that each voter is a member of an interest group, whether they like it or not. Each of us has one or two issues that we actually vote on. I have a whole variety of nuanced views on a variety of subjects, but when push comes to shove my default vote is generally for the GOP because I am anti-tax and anti-Federal government. I have good friends that I agree with on 85-90% of issues, but they almost always vote Democratic because they tend to vote based on whether a candidate supports abortion rights. There are the people that seem like economically communitarian Democrats in every way, except they vote Republican because they vote on Second Amendment rights. The chart below takes a stab at further segmenting the ideological continuum based on voting interests.

Figure Two: The Interest Wheel

(click to enlarge)


In the above chart each of the quadrants is broken up into four interest groups. While I don't know how large each group is, the idea is that if you can build a coalition that includes more than half of the interest groups, you can win. The problem is, of course, that adding any group on the wheel to a coalition alienates that group that sits as its opposite. You can't please both the religious right and college professors on social issues. You can't please both blue collar unions and the corporate elite on economic issues. You can't please both the dependent elderly and small government libertarians on entitlement reform. The interest wheel is why no party seems to be able to build a "permanent majority". Temporary majorities fade when the relevant issues of the day change.

Understanding the GOP primary

Looking at the Interest Wheel helps us better understand the GOP primary. The oft-referenced "Republican Establishment" are the interests in the top middle to upper right. The Establishment-style candidates are Bush, Kasich, Christie and Fiorina and in 2012 it was Mitt Romney. The Establishment candidates usually prevail because they have the easiest time raising money and because they can win primaries in the populous "blue states" and swing states in the Northeast, Midwest and West coast.

From the upper right to middle right are States Rights Conservatives, traditional small government conservatives with traditional values. These types of voters are the original "Tea Party" supporters, although that term is now used (inaccurately in my view) to describe all non-Establishment conservatives. The Tea Party standard bearer is currently Ted Cruz (and to a lesser extent, Rand Paul) and in 2012 it was Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain. Marco Rubio started his career as a Tea Party candidate and has learned to straddle the Establishment and Tea Party blocs.

In the lower right you get the Social Conservatives and traditional rural/ small town voters. Right now they have coalesced around Ben Carson. Rick Santorum was this constituency's candidate last time around.

In the bottom middle to bottom right you have the Conservative Populists…Appalachian Jacksonians, blue collar social conservatives, police and military…that used to be the heart of the Democratic Party as recently as the early 1960s. This is where Donald Trump is getting his support, and is where Jim Webb was making his play on the Democratic side before he realized that that Democratic Party is long gone. While the 2012 election didn't have a strong GOP candidate for this constituency, you can think of Sarah Palin as a good example of this type of politician. Mike Huckabee tries to straddle the Conservative Populist and Social Conservative constituencies, but is currently getting overshadowed by Trump and Carson.

If you start at the bottom and move counter-clockwise, you can see the poll standings of the candidates…Trump, then Carson, then Cruz and Rubio, then the other establishment types splitting up that vote.

What about the Democrats?

The Democrats are a little easier to understand. From the upper middle to upper left is the Liberal Elite. White collar professionals, old money, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and many Wall Street folks that vote more based on social issues than economic issues. This was the constituency that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have successfully solidified into the Democratic Party but with whom Ronald Reagan had success.

Moving counter-clockwise from there you have the New Left…academics, environmentalists, minority rights groups, women's and LGBT rights groups. This group is the heart of the Democratic Party and it gets its money and support from the Liberal Elite. Hillary Clinton has her base of strength in the intertwining of these two groups…think the Clinton Foundation writ large.

In the lower left is the Old Left of unions, public sector workers, the dependent elderly and the working class. This constituency gets much less focus from the Democratic Party than it did in its heyday under FDR and LBJ, when the Old Left and the Conservative Populists were the core of the Democratic Party. This is where Bernie Sanders is making his strongest play and where Hillary Clinton is the most vulnerable. It has remained part of the Democratic coalition, because even though the Democrats have been more focused on the interests of the Liberal Elite, the GOP has been rigidly doctrinaire about protecting the interests of the Republican Establishment and the States Rights Conservatives, leaving the Old Left mostly out in the cold. That said, if the Democratic nominee was Sanders, the GOP would have an opportunity to make a play into the Liberal Elite, many of whom would vote their pocketbook as long as the GOP nominee was somewhat palatable.

Figure Three: The Party Factions

(click to enlarge)


Elites vs. populists

If we think about the groups that have been dominating politics over the past several decades, the New Left, the Liberal Elite, the Republican Establishment and the States Rights Conservatives, we notice that they fall along the top, or elite, side of the Interest Wheel. To the elites, the parties seem very different, vastly split on social issues. But together, they protect each other's core interests: progress on social issues and economic libertarianism. For the Old Left, Conservative Populist and Social Conservative voters along the bottom, or populist, side of the wheel, however, the parties seem largely the same, generally united on economic issues while letting the working class suffer a degradation in their livelihoods, communities and families.

This leads us to Laws #3 and #4, which will be covered in Part 2 and are about the strategy and tactics of coalition-building. Most of US history has been fought around 50-50, like what we have now. The Twentieth Century, however, had a few aberrant elections where the parties were able to build big tents with contradictory voters under the same roof. I'll talk about how this works and what it all might mean for the 2016 presidential election.


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