About a year ago, some political bloggers on the left started discussing why there isn’t a liberal version of the CPAC conference (a couple of people point out on Twitter that there’s this, though). One commenter suggested that the reason for this was that a liberal answer to CPAC would “feature a keynote from Noam Chomsky, a panel discussing the successes and failures of the Occupy movement, and maybe a drum circle or two, but it wouldn’t get a single prominent Democratic political figure to attend.”

As a substantive description of the asymmetry between the parties, the answer above seems partly true and party false. It’s true that there isn’t a single event that draws Democratic hopefuls to talk about a range of issues the way that CPAC does on the right. But the quote also seems to suggest that the problem is rooted in the nature of the ideologies, and that liberals are inherently more anti-establishment. Yet, it’s the right that has a political movement built around anti-establishment rhetoric.

A bit of history puts this in further perspective.The organization that runs CPAC, the American Conservative Union, reflected an interest in having a conservative version of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) a liberal group formed in the 1940s by some liberal activists you may have heard of, including Eleanor Roosevelt. The group counted among its members some office-holding Democrats and some pure activist types, and their priorities included civil rights and the expansion of New Deal-type programs. The ADA sought to influence the Democratic party and pull it to the left on a bunch of issues, including but not limited to civil rights. They still issue report cards for members of Congress and do some lobbying. But they don’t host an event like CPAC that attracts big names and presidential hopefuls – they’ve never become as deeply intertwined with the official party organization as CPAC has with the Republicans.[1]

This question offers a new angle on the debate over whether the parties have a “fundamental asymmetry,” as Grossmann and Hopkins argue in their recent piece in Perspectives on Politics. Is the absence of a liberal CPAC just a weird little factoid, or is it linked to another kind of asymmetry? We had a bit of back and forth on this blog last week over scholarly questions. But this is hardly just an academic question. Editorial writing is replete with stories about how “both sides do it,” often to the chagrin of scholarly analysts. How can we distinguish party asymmetry from party difference? The answer depends, in part, on how we define the core concept. Grossmann and Hopkins do a great job of coming up with a way to operationalize a party asymmetry, but as they develop the project, I’d push them to come up with a deeper conceptual definition of what asymmetry means, not just how it manifests.

I can think of three main ways to conceptualize asymmetry. The first is definitional – do the two parties have different visions of what party politics is or how politics is supposed to work? Grossmann and Hopkins hint at this when they note in their paper that Democrats and Republicans have different conceptions of party politics, and their main evidence of this is difference between responses about compromise vs. sticking to one’s principles. But this is a measurement of a particular attitude, which could signify different core attributes of the two parties.

Another possible definition is spatial: that the Republican Party is further right than the Democratic Party is left. Nolan McCarty made the case that Congressional polarization was asymmetric in 2012, and presumably this has not receded much, if at all, in the interim. But Grossman and Hopkins seem to intimate that there’s more to the story, and their data suggest that this is true. The compromise-principle gets at this, too. Are Republicans more conservative, or just less willing to compromise? An alternative interpretation of the data might be that Democrats are not less liberal – just more willing to move to the center if that’s what it takes to get some of their goals. Republican legislators, on the other hand, might rightly perceive a harsher penalty for compromising than for coming up short on legislative accomplishments. So which is it? We don’t know.

The final conceptual framework (that I came up with, anyway) is a functional one that brings activists into the picture. It also gets into one of the more uncomfortable interpretations of the recently published paper – that the Democratic Party is driven by particularistic interests (and, by extension, activists motivated by self-interest) and the Republican Party is driven by activists who are principled rather than self-interested. In his post last week, Hans Noel suggests that this is a false dichotomy anyway. And there are a lot of different ways we could gather evidence to suggest that interpretation is unfair or incorrect.

But the distinction, if it exists (and I think that it does), gets us to the role of ideological activists, and back to our ACU-ADA question. An additional conceptualization of party asymmetry might engage the role and importance of activists in the party who are motivated primarily by ideology. A phrase that comes up sometimes in this context is “purists vs. pragmatists.” The contemporary applications to the Republicans are obvious. But this tug-of-war isn’t new. Writing about the Republicans in the 1950s, Robert Mason describes this facet of the intra-party split between Eisenhower and Taft factions. Similarly, Phil Klinkner writes about the RNC’s concerns with pragmatism after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

We don’t hear as much about this on the Democratic side, which feeds the asymmetry perception. Again, this could be about effects or about levels. Liberal activists could, hypothetically, be weaker – fewer in number, less committed, less well-resourced (the last seems likely; the other two, less so). Or they could simply operate through other channels or otherwise keep themselves separate from the formal party organization.

These three conceptual definitions are all related – they could certainly all be core components of a robust concept of party asymmetry. The two that strike me as most likely to distinguish party asymmetry from party difference, though, are the first and the last. Hans suggests that both parties are ideological and group-based; they simply have different ideologies that lead them to emphasize different things.

But parties are organizations, not just coalitions of interests or identifiers in the electorate (this is where I respectfully depart somewhat from the perspective of some of my fellow Mischiefs). In this regard, party asymmetry might be more than just ideology vs. group benefits, or even a spatial conceptualization of left and right. It’s about distinct visions of what it means to be a political party, and about a dynamic relationship between the substance of beliefs and how they shape process attitudes like compromise.

As a result, I don’t think we can get very far talking about party asymmetry without talking about historical and organizational context. So, to return to our original question, why isn’t there a liberal version of the ACU-sponsored CPAC conference?

Part two will have my attempt at an answer.

[1] Both organizations have important links with the parties, such as leadership that draws from the ranks of former and current elected officials. But the relationships are still distinct…

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.