Part 2 of a series on America’s Political Divide
America’s Divide Isn’t “Liberals vs. Conservatives.” It’s the Ghost in the Machine
Revisiting Purnell’s Iron Law of Politics
With the rapid acceleration of America’s political and cultural divisions, there’s been growing chatter that adopting a multiparty system allows more voices to be heard, and gives voters more choices among their representatives.
In my detailed response, “Should America Adopt a Multiparty System?,” I argue that America’s problems are not attributable to how many parties there are, but to the erosion of three critical institutions: Electoral frameworks (e.g., gerrymandering, etc.), lax media laws (where disinformation can run amok) and an increasingly partisan judicial body (the supermajority of ultraconservatives on the Supreme Court).
These systemic weaknesses have allowed bad actors within the political machine to abuse and depart from democratic norms, spilling over into the public consciousness. Having multiple parties would not escape the same outcome unless these systemic cracks are addressed.
But there’s another aspect to all political systems — regardless of the number of parties — that can be found at the root of human nature: Individuals themselves are both divided and pulled by two diametric conceptual models for how we build world views. Conservative and Liberal. Many research studies have found that, setting parties and partisanship aside, how Americans feel about issues themselves are remarkably similar, and this is because we all harbor a mix of liberal and conservative dispositions. The question is how each of these express themselves in our daily lives, which then leads to how other use these tendencies to advance political agendas, which then leads to increased levels of partisanship.
This article reviews a series of studies and articles published in noteworthy journals covering political science, sociology and psychology to present a more coherent explanation for America’s political divide. It’s not as intentional as people play it out to be. It’s more of a ghost in the machine.
Individuals are more nuanced than their own political parties
At the macro level, there are two generalized mental models for how people think about most anything. In the language of political science, these models are “conservative” and “liberal.” One can also consider these as world views.
Robert M. Sapolsky’s book “Behave” distills his decades of research into the genetic and physiological foundations between liberals and conservatives, which finds that conservatives prefer clear, simple, and unambiguous explanations for things, whereas liberals are open-ended, prefer ambiguity, and seek nuance.
Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory expands on these themes, and identifies three “channels’’ of moral concepts: in-group loyalty, authority and sanctity. His research of over 30,000 people across different ideologies and countries confirms Sapolsky’s theories and concludes that, societally, conservatives prefer absolutes, such as moral codes, social hierarchy, and rigid structures, all of which are created by — and for the benefit of — those who are “in the group.” That is, those who share similar racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
By contrast, liberals prefer more relaxed systems that favor individual choices within a framework that benefits the public good, all of which are created by — and for the benefit of — a much wider “in-group” of people, including those with varied backgrounds, races and ethnicities.
While Haidt’s and Sapolsky’s distinctions hold at a macro level — that is, people have a tendency to lean in one direction or the other — very few people are fully dedicated to them. Ie., they lean to varying degrees.
By contrast, parties don’t “lean” in a direction; they are fully dedicated. The result is a political environment where individuals aren’t as divided about actual issues as their political affiliation would suggest. I call this the psycho-political gap. The greater the gap between how people actually feel about issues versus that of their party, the greater the tension within society.
Consider abortion. Pew Research has consistently shown that “six-in-ten U.S. adults (59%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.” It’s that middle ground of “all or most” where the truth lies: Most people don’t really see it as all cases, whether for or against abortion. Americans recognize that both women and embryos have rights — the question is how and when to decide whose rights take precedent, under what circumstances, and when. It isn’t easy, but in the aggregate, most Americans support the result of Roe v. Wade, which makes abortion legal up until an embryo is viable outside the womb.
And yet, people conflate their feelings on both sides of the political realm using identical arguments, as explained by Jon A. Shields (professor of government at Claremont McKenna College) in his NYTimes op-ed piece:
“… the abortion conflict was never really a culture war. Instead, it’s a quarrel within what philosophers call the liberal tradition focused on individual rights, in this case, concerning the rights of women versus the rights of embryos. The pro-life movement endures precisely for the same reason that the pro-choice movement does — both are nurtured by our common, rights-oriented culture. It is a rare fight in American history in which people on both sides think of themselves as human rights activists, called to expand the frontiers of freedom and equality.”
“America’s rights-oriented culture” is the key phrase. It transcends both liberal and conservative ideologies, so it’s not a “rare” fight at all. The same can be found in gun rights, where Americans’ views have also remained unchanged, and similarly nuanced, but also out of step with their own political party. A Pew Research study in September, 2021 finds that half of Americans (48%) see gun violence as a very big problem in the country, and (53%) favor stricter gun laws, but, as with abortion, it depends on which laws. Mandatory background checks? Owning a gun in the home versus open carry? On campuses? In churches? The list goes on and on. Most Americans pick and choose a subsection of these choices to be “reasonable gun laws,” but very few Americans fully agree with their own party’s position on the issue, which widens the psycho-political gap.
Similar analysis has been done about racial and social justice, the coronavirus vaccine, mask mandates, freedom of speech, economic justice, climate change, and the role of government (versus institutions) in the administration of the public good: When pressed to decide on which rights, under which circumstances, and who gets to enjoy those rights, Americans are nuanced in ways that defy conventional assumptions about political biases.
The most amusing version of this is the way today’s liberals and conservatives both use the phrase “my body my choice” to support polar opposite positions on the government’s role in cultural issues: Liberals use the phrase to express their opposition to the government limiting women’s access to abortion, while conservatives use the same expression in their opposition to the government forcing them to wear masks and get vaccinated against COVID.
And this reveals the greatest irony: Both sides embrace the concept of “personal rights,” which is a highly liberal disposition, according to Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. The reason for the political divisions, therefore, is how each party characterizes whose rights dominate over others’ and under what circumstances.
Personal identity obscures personal preferences
From this perspective, we can see evidence of both parties’ influence by looking at Gallup Research’s polling that shows that more Americans Are Now Socially Liberal Than Conservative. But this doesn’t square with how they identify themselves politically.
When survey questions appear to be partisan — “are you liberal or conservative” — people answer according to their party affiliation: 34% of adults self-identify as socially liberal and 30% as socially conservative, with (35%) holding moderate views, roughly in line with party affiliation (with roughly 50% of Americans identifying as Independent). This shows that people’s self-identity ties very closely with their political parties. And yet, an analysis of Gallup’s data by Forbes shows people’s survey responses to be more nuanced, parting from their party’s views:
“While younger Americans are far more likely to identify as socially liberal than older adults, all age groups have become increasingly socially liberal over the past 20 years. Adults ages 18–34 were largely split on social issues in 2001 and are now “substantially” more liberal in 2021, Gallup reports, while 35- to 54-year-olds have gone from “modestly conservative” to “slightly more liberal than conservative.”
Conservatives between 18–24 are more supportive of cultural issues such as gay marriage, climate change, social justice and racial equity, even though these survey respondents still claim to be conservative.
This demonstrates the very clear and unambiguous success of how parties use media to sway voters’ views, not just in terms of facts and emotions, but in how they view themselves as individuals. The difference is stark, and highly contrary to the conventional wisdom of partisanship.
Summing it up, it’s erroneous to associate one’s own position on any cultural issue as being either Democrat versus Republican, or even liberal versus conservative. It’s only been the posturing by political parties that’s gotten Americans to think of each of these issues in partisan terms, and it’s this disconnect from their personal views that drives the political and cultural divide.
One might then wonder why parties don’t change certain elements within their strategies to broaden their reach and to compete with the other party. Republicans/Conservatives could embrace policies that are more popular with the majority of Americans, and Democrats/liberals could be better at articulating their messages and organizing their political strategies. But neither party budges; if anything, they seem to entrench themselves further in the strategies they’ve adopted, even when it’s not in their own best interests.
Understanding the causes of this principle begins with the difference between “ideology” and “strategy,” a byproduct of how political parties are run, which brings us to Jerry Purnell.
Purnell’s Iron Law of Politics
A Political party is one example of how humans organize themselves into structured, hierarchical systems, according to Jerry Purnell, a scientist in the area of operations research and human factors. He describes this phenomenon in his 1963 political science Ph.D. dissertation, which he defines as Purnell’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:
“In any bureaucracy, there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. […] In all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions, while those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”
Purnell cites a number of organizations as examples, such as unions (teachers, police, fire fighters, etc.), and of course, political parties. When considering Democrats and Republicans, we usually look at that first group of people who shape the ideologies, values and ambitions — the party platform. They run for office and are publicly visible, but as the party progresses, it becomes reliant on that “second group” of operatives whose job is to advance the party and promote — and protect — its members. They help representatives get elected, shape their messaging strategies, organize volunteers, draft press releases, and help with legal matters from writing legislation to defending members from litigation or impeachment. To accomplish those tasks, that second group eventually asserts its power, and takes control of the party, forcing that “first group” to either adapt or be expelled.
The general public doesn’t often pay attention to those from the second group, but they have the most influence on all political actors. Understanding how this group forms and interact with one another — all of which happens in the background where only ardent political scientists dare to seat themselves — is instrumental in understanding how and why politics works.
The “second group” doesn’t just form arbitrarily. They are themselves bifurcated in a similar fashion of competing interests and skill sets. Some are better at messaging and organizing, while others are better at legal maneuvering and back-room dealmaking. Whichever subgroup within that “second group” is more successful at promoting and preserving the party, that subgroup becomes the dominant influencer, pushing aside the other subgroup, which may have otherwise been successful as well (but can’t because the two agendas oppose one another). How the party then behaves depends on the core competencies of whichever of the two subgroups within that “second group” takes over.
And it’s there where the parties differentiate themselves between one another. If one party’s “second group” is successful at attaining political power, it will be because it pushed aside the other group that would have attained cultural power. A single party cannot have both, unless guardrails are placed into the system to restrain bad actors from manipulating the system, which would invariably force the two warring factions within each party to collaborate.
This alludes to my statement that all political parties have an internal struggle between ideologues and strategists. The net result is a party that achieves either political or cultural power, subsequently ceding power in the other domain to the opposing party. It doesn’t matter how many parties there are, as their net coalitions will have resulted in a similar pattern as a two-party system. (My first article explains why a two-party system is more efficient at this process.)
As each party goes through its own machinations, the interplay between the second groups within each of the parties is the ghost in the machine. All this explains America’s dysfunction of the moment: Democrats and Liberals have achieved cultural power in America, but in so doing, they have failed to achieve political power. Their political failure has consequently left open gaps that Republicans and conservatives have exploited to achieve political power. And in their so doing, they have failed to achieve cultural power.
Looking at each party separately will help illuminate the phenomenon, while leading to potential solutions to this stalemate.
The Republican Party’s “Second Group”
For the Republican party, the core competency of its internal players has become more focused on the hands-on mechanics of achieving political power, best described by Clare Malone’s in-depth article, “The Republican Choice: How a party spent decades making itself white.” She summarizes her piece by saying that the GOP simply found it “easier” to achieve political power through messaging strategies and technocratic manipulation of the media, election laws and the judicial system. This was easy to do, largely because they could exploit loopholes within the system that Democrats didn’t adequately oversee. These operatives became the “second group” within the GOP, pushing aside the original ideologues who favored traditional conservative ideas.
One of the most influential strategists of the modern Republican party was Roger Ailes, who was once the communications director for Nixon’s White House, and later the head of Fox News. In his 1970 memo to Richard Nixon, Ailes wanted to run a conservative news outlet directly from the White House, but was unable to because of provisions in the Fairness Doctrine of the 1937 Communications Act. This key provision of law “required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.”
With the Fairness Provision being the only thing in his way, Ailes joined an early group of libertarian influencers to convince Ronald Regan to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which immediately led to the rise of right-wing conservative talk radio in the 80s, Fox News in the 90s, and the consolidation of local newspapers and television stations across the country (which are now mostly owned by conservative media conglomerates).
Another in the Republican “second group” was Lee Atwater, who said in 1981 “Being overtly racist backfires, so instead you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.” Of course, this depersonalization technique is well studied in psychology, also called “othering,” where it’s easier to demonize the opposition by using abstractions and vague assertions. Here in 2021, an example of this is Critical Race Theory, an abstract subsection of legal theory taught in law schools, which is now being used by the GOP to frighten white voters by claiming that Democrats want to teach it in K-12 schools.
The GOP’s inside strategists have leveraged this style of media messaging to give rise and support to conservative organizations, such as the Federalist Society, which has taken control of the party’s judicial appointments. These structures have in turn enabled the party to exploit partisan gerrymandering that has given the GOP a significantly disproportionate representation in congress, relative to the number of Republican voters (or the population).
Combined, this ecosystem of media, electoral manipulation and judicial activism explains how the GOP achieved, and subsequently retained its power: By isolating a small, but critical mass of Americans into carefully gerrymandered districts, who live in alternative factual realities, and re-elect Republican representatives.
While the party’s political power grows unbounded, the GOP has had to sideline all others who had shaped the party’s original platform of a small centralized government, fiscal responsibility, global trade and economics, and military support for allies, among many other things.
As has been written about copiously since Trump took office in 2016, the GOP of today marks very little resemblance to traditional conservative views, let alone Republicans themselves from 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. The GOP’s official party platform at its 2020 convention was “The party would not adopt a new platform [other than] the party’s continued support for Trump’s America First agenda.” Those party members that adapted, such as Elise Stefanik and Kevin McCarthy, rise in power and influence, while those who have not, such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have been pushed aside.
And yet, the GOP’s lock on political power is clear, as reported by political analysts at FiveThirtyEight:
“Republicans currently hold half of the seats in that chamber even though they represent just 43 percent of the U.S. And it’s not just the Senate — the Electoral College, the House of Representatives and state legislatures are all tilted in favor of the GOP. As a result, it’s possible for Republicans to wield levers of government without winning a plurality of the vote. More than possible, in fact — it’s already happened, over and over and over again.”
While the GOP’s success at manipulating the political system has gained them political power, it has also boxed them into a corner on the culture war because changing their social positions would alienate the tiny percentage of voters who follow an alternate reality of disinformation, such as the 2020 election being stolen, anti-vaccine sentiment, and a host of conspiracy theories.
This strategy has created a one-way street for the GOP, making it all but impossible to shift course, much less to tap on the brakes. Despite younger Republicans being more liberal than their elders, the GOP’s “second group” continues to drive the party’s direction and strategy, precisely as Purnell’s Iron Law dictates.
The Democratic Party’s “Second Group”
By contrast, the Democratic party is a coalition of minorities, LGBTQ+, lower and middle classes, and a diverse array of racial and social subgroups. As discussed in my earlier article on multiparty democracies, the Democrats are more like a coalition of three discrete parties that, for all intents and purposes, perform much the same as they would in a multiparty system. This is further supported by analysis from Gallup in their article, Democrats’ Big Political Tent Helps Explain D.C. Stalemate,
“Whereas Republicans nationwide are highly unified in their ideological outlook, with most (75%) identifying as conservative, Democrats are more fragmented. According to Gallup data collected thus far in 2021, the largest subgroup of Democrats are those who describe their political views as liberal, at 51%. The other half are mostly self-described moderates (37%), along with a small group of conservatives (12%).”
These separate constituencies are often at odds with one another, not because they oppose others’ policies, but to be sure their own interests get attention. This internal competition for attention makes it impossible for the party to have a single, consistent, top-down message and political strategy.
The result is a party whose operatives are highly skilled at keeping coalitions together and writing policies, from health and education to economic and social justice, which itself requires being tuned into the pulse of the nation. By Purnell’s Law, this “second group” of policy wonks is keeping the party relevant and alive, but it comes at the cost of gaining significant political power. That goal would require those skilled in winning elections, where sacrifices would have to be made on social and cultural issues, not to mention messaging strategies. Unlike the Republican party, which has built its own media machine and is able to keep all members in line (such as getting threats from Donald Trump), Democrats rely on external institutions for almost all of their basic operational matters, including regulatory agencies, non-partisan courts, and objective media organizations, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, PBS and NPR.
While nuance and analysis by independent journalists excite Democratic elites, their messaging strategies fail to gain a footing. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders always have a ‘detailed plan’ for addressing America’s ills, but as Mark Schmitt’s op-ed column in the NYTimes explains, Democrats lose at the ballot box using these very messaging techniques: “There are plenty of good arguments against running a presidential campaign the way Senator Elizabeth Warren is doing it, with a heavy emphasis on detailed policy proposals.”
By contrast, Republicans use very simple, absolute and unambiguous language that’s abstract and threatening: “Democrats just want to raise your taxes, take away your guns, and promote abortion.”
Democrats have tried to mimic the GOP playbook, but poorly. Barack Obama famously said during the 2008 campaign that “small-town Pennsylvania voters, bitter over their economic circumstances, cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” This backfired miserably, causing a great deal of ripples within the Democratic party, and jubilation within the GOP.
Indeed, Democrats are aware of their dysfunction, as evidenced by their own autopsy reports in 2017 and revised in 2018. Yet, that very diversity is why it’s hard to bring everyone onboard. The net result is that Democrats continue to win the culture war, but fail to achieve political power.
While Democrats do win elections in congress and the White House, these “wins” are mostly because of their overwhelming majority of voters in the population, which is not the same as wielding political power. Even after their 2020 achievements, they have had a hard time getting even the most basic legislation passed, including — and especially — blocking the restrictive voting laws passed by Republican state legislatures. Even though these very laws are designed to further reduce Democrats’ hopes of winning elections, the party is too decentralized to organize representatives to vote on legislation that would avert this outcome.
Both liberal and conservative ideas play an important role in society, and should be reflected in the policies that shape institutions. The political arena is most effective (albeit ugly) when compromises are made. In this competition for ideas, those actors in the “second group,” who will exist within all parties and ultimately control them, must have constraints imposed on their breadth and depth of their actions.
The solution, therefore, is to restore the boundaries of the three domains that the GOP has unduly exploited: Electoral integrity should not advantage a particular party, communications laws must limit the reach of misinformation and speech, and the courts must restore nonpartisan judges. Fixing these would force intraparty subgroups to collaborate, since neither single group could successfully attain unilateral power in the country.
While this would “fix” the system, getting congress to do this is a catch-22, because it requires Republican participation, which they would never do.
Many political observers do not see the current form of the Republican party as being sustainable; their quest to continue to gain more power will lead to an inevitable tipping point, where America will either become an authoritarian regime, or a sufficiently large number of moderate Republicans will leave the party and form a new one, likely alongside many disaffected conservative Democrats — the so-called “blue dogs.”
Seeds of such an event are already being sewn. In a NYTimes piece, “G.O.P. Donors Back Manchin and Sinema as They Reshape Biden’s Agenda,” cash has poured in for conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema from political action committees and donors linked to the finance and pharmaceutical industries. In a statement, the billionaire Wall Street investor Kenneth G. Langone, a longtime Republican megadonor, said, “My political contributions have always been in support of candidates who are willing to stand tall on principle, even when that means defying their own party or the press.”
Many may see these as merely efforts to support any candidate that protects their financial interests rather than being those who “stand up on principle,” but it doesn’t matter. As the GOP drifts further from having any kind of platform or policy agenda, that gap will be filled by those like Machin and Sinema, and potentially Liz Cheney and other Republicans looking to reshape the party, if only because there is authentic opportunity to do so.
Whatever the outcome, changes are necessary to maintain a healthy democracy, and if such changes occur, each party will appear very different from what we see today. They will, nevertheless, still comprise the entire spectrum of the cultural diversity that is America.