Commentary: A Political Book Review

Jan 29, 2018

If you live in Columbia you may know Larry and Jan Grossman.  They are respected business people and their son Matt, who graduated from Rock Bridge, is a respected political scientist who teaches at a Big Ten university.  Matt is a prolific author of textbooks, including one I have used for years in my political parties classes at Columbia College.


I ran into Jan last summer and asked her how Matt was doing.  She mentioned that he had coauthored a new textbook on parties and elections.  I’m always looking for better textbooks for my students so I got a copy.  And I fell in love with it.  And I recommend it if you are a serious student of American electoral politics.

The book is entitled Asymmetric Politics and its subtitle -- Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats – gives away his thesis:

·         The Republican Party is the vehicle of an ideological movement that attracts support by pledging loyalty to broad values, while the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups that seeks concrete government action to appeal to these groups’ identities.

This description is not exactly breaking news, but Grossman breaks it down in fresh and intelligent ways:

·         Democrats and Republicans think differently about politics;

·         They rely on distinct sources of information, and:

·         They argue past one another.

Here’s a great example from the book:

·         There is an extensive conservative media ecosystem [90 percent of political talk radio plus Fox News on TV] . . . . Conservatives distrust claims of policy expertise that rely on traditional academic or intellectual credentials.  Democrats largely accept the authority of conventional news sources and academic institutions, thus limiting the popular appeal of an openly alternative media universe of their own [why Air America, for example, failed].  Democrats remain relatively unexposed to messages that encourage ideological self-identification or describe political conflict as reflecting the clash of two incompatible value systems. (131)

Democrats and Republican also pursue divergent goals in government. 

·         Many Republicans in Congress have long preferred taking principled stands to pursuing incremental policy achievements.  Elected Democrats tend to treat policymaking as an attempt to address a catalog of social problems, each requiring a corresponding government action, whereas Republicans view policy disputes as battlegrounds in a broader philosophical conflict [especially the size and scope of government]. (252)

Grossman has written a smart, solid and sophisticated analysis of party politics in America that should hold up for a while, subject only to President Trump’s wrecking ball, which of course could swing before – or during – his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.