Despite the current façade of a grand ideological argument over the future of capitalism in America, the truth is that the right-wing of the Republican Party and the left-wing of the Democratic Party are only differ from each other on how to manage 3% of the national economy. Both sides agree that about 22% of the national economy should be devoted to public sector social investment spending (schools, roads, health care, pensions, etc), while about 75% of the national economy should be left to private enterprise / spending and other government functions (military, police, interest on the debt, etc). The disagreement is whether the remaining 3% should be devoted to public sector social spending, or toward private enterprise / spending and other government functions. Toss-in the degree of government regulation, and whether or not there should be private Social Security savings accounts, and you have the entire policy difference over the economy in mainstream American political discourse.
And yet, despite this remarkable similarity, differences between self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans have never been higher when it comes to answering abstract ideological questions in polls. The Pew Center for People and the Press documents this increasing division over abstract ideological questions in a major survey released today (more in the extended entry):
The overall gap between the two parties in opinions about political values - which increased in 2003 - has hit another new high, with widening differences emerging over the government's overall performance and its responsibilities to the poor. In the wake of the election, Republicans have swung to a much more critical view of government while more Democrats take a positive view than at any previous point in the 22-year history of this study.
Fully 75% of Republicans today say that government regulation of business does more harm than good, up from 57% two years ago. About the same number (74%) say when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful, up from 61% in 2007. In both cases, Republican skepticism of government is now as great or greater than in 1994, prior to the GOP takeover of Congress. By contrast, the proportions of Democrats who are critical of government regulation of business and see the government as usually inefficient and wasteful have fallen sharply since 2007.
My hypothesis is that a cause and effect taking place here. The shrinking policy differences are actually one of the causes for the widening differences over abstract ideological positioning. As the substance of our political disagreements declines, the political debate in this country is partially kept alive by increasing the shrillness of the name-calling. Really, the name-calling is increasingly the entire argument. After all, conflict and division sells pretty well for both news media outlets and political parties, so neither will benefit from pointing out the broad similarities.
The abstract questions Pew poses to voters are interesting, but I wish they would be more closely tied to actual policies. In addition to asking vague questions about the role of government, how about asking people if they want to change spending on Social Security, health care, or national defense? Those programs make up nearly 80% of federal spending, but most people will tell you that they don't want significant changes to the amount spent on any of them (except maybe health care). The widest gap of all is probably what most Americans say they believe about the role of government in the abstract, versus the actual changes they would propose to government spending.