Do Political Parties Hold Established Values That Separate Them?

In my effort to understand Partisanism, I am trying to figure out what core political values are held differently by the two major parties. Take heed, I am not going ahead and saying they are identical. I am asking what makes them truly different in their political nature.

To me, I envisage a football game. Sides take offence and defence. The side that is better will retain greater possession. Each side has different strategies and different coaches. But the rules are the same and the field is always the same. People have teams they prefer based on their geographical proximity or other aesthetic reasons. Maybe they feel their team is better than the opponent so they cheer. Maybe people like to root for underdogs. Many have no opinion at all and do not attend games.

To bring it back to politics, what I see is a system where politicians court votes and reward constituents with public goods as a result. Voters want to back the person who will win so they can share in the spoils.

Is there a fundamental difference between these parties or are we just choosing between the Eagles and the Patriots?

I think that at any given point there are fundamental differences, but those differences are impermanent. During one cycle, essentially, one party will be right on certain issues and the other party will be right on other issues. Those issues might switch parties at some point, or there might be a consensus. There will always be issues that divide the parties, but the issues are shifting constantly.

I don’t even know if I’m making sense. It makes sense inside my noggin. Really!

So you agree that the answer is: no, there are no core values set up in the political process and so the parties are just teams out for individual gain?

No. I’m saying that the core values change all the time, but that they exist.

Just as my core values have changed over time. I have them, but they aren’t the same as they were when I was 12, or 18, or 25. The parties are very much like people in that respect.

Then they are just ephemeral, dare I say cosmetic values, right? Chosen to suit the moment and discarded at will if something more important comes along? It is understood that they are in opposition and aggregate with their Tory or Whig brethren to vote on their choice issues of the day.

This being the case, you own that the natures of the two parties are in fact the same, right?

When viewed in the most favorable light, Democrats value integrity, reason, and compassion. Republicans value loyalty, faith, and conviction. An enlightened government needs to keep all these values in balance rather than pit them in opposition. Most recently, Republicans have shown us how misguided it is to substitute loyalty for integrity, extoll faith over reason, and insist on conviction untempered by compassion. Democrats, for their part, have deluded themselves into believing their party can thrive in the absence of loyalty, faith, or conviction in any tangible values. What the country needs are leaders who can combine integrity with loyalty, reason with faith, and conviction with compassion.

Thank you for putting that so succinctly. That’s what I’ve been trying to say, so much less eloquently for YEARS.


This is without a doubt one of the best answers I’ve seen to this question ever, one I’ve been asking for a long time now [though I have only recently returned to this board].

Given the compromises of politics, and the way things have seemingly always gone, do you feel these values are truly more than talking points at present? I for one think they’re severely eroded on all sides and sound a little hollow when pronounced by our leaders.

Hi Jon.

There are indivisible issues. These issues form the bedrock of both major parties. Sometimes their policy positions flow consistently from these core positions, sometimes not.

Either you raise taxes or you don’t. Either you advocate for reproductive freedom or you oppose it. Etc.

Parties differ in whom they reward with public (and occasionally private) goods. The distribution of rewards can proceed from purely ideological/racial policy positions or they can be flow from strategic considerations. These should be sufficiently obvious.

This bedrock is prone to change. The fact that party core constituencies and even core values have changed does not mean that they are any less important at the time of the campaign or at the time when public goods are allocated after policy decisions are made.

This is a much more interesting process than the Patriots vs. whoever. We decided that watching two teams who play by certain rules is entertaining. The format for football was optimized based on what people wanted to play and what others wanted to watch. It is really quite arbitrary. A two team game with rules [X,Y,Z] is not an intrinsic property of any system or set of principles. We could just as easily imagine a game with fewer players where people bounce the ball on a wooden floor and toss it through a net. Imagine that.

Electoral rules proceed from our collective sense of fairness. Our two party system is not a cause but a consequence of these electoral rules. How these rules are then changed within a two-party first-past-the-post system is anything but arbitrary. Consequently, how goods are allocated and how policy positions are defined is anything by arbitrary: it is a dynamic feedback dance between the structure (electoral rules), the players, and the electorate, and everyone’s beliefs about the future.

To put it a little more bluntly, by definition political parties must have different “core values” and preferences over policy outcomes. If both parties were ultimately the same, voters would be indifferent to the outcome of the election and be unwilling to pay the cost of voting in the first place. Some people might vote anyway, or perhaps randomly, but it is unlikely that a system that can sustain identical parties can also sustain the high level of voter turnout that characterized the past two elections.

I am going to disagree with you guys and say that answers like this are extremely unhelpful. At best they confirm what we already believe, at worst they are just empty rhetoric.

“Conviction” and the like are utterly noncontroversial. No one is an enemy of “integrity” or “conviction”. These have little to do with values or allocation of goods and are only so much marketing and pablum.

These values have not really eroded because they never were there in the first place.

Maeglin: You seem to be arguing that we have an optimal system that works statistically rather than based upon the biases and prejudices of the populace. C

Certainly you can derive a statistic after the fact to measure any behavior that has already demonstrably happened, but prior to that it’s not so easy.

I think encouraging the ignorant to vote while having pundits campaigning 24/7 kind of destroys the objectivity of the people voting translating into a diminishment of any objectivity in the system. People are voting based upon what the talking box told them to do based upon their adherence to marketing demographics. Younger people probably voted more for Clinton because he was on MTV, and Bush Sr. was a curmudgeon. They laughed at Bush Sr. for disrespecting Bono, who is now one of the world’s most famous diplomats, and has an enormous sway over public opinion. Rage Against the Machine sold millions of Che Guevara shirts. People vote based upon unrelated market factors, and this diminishes the capabiilty of the system to function in the way you have described. People are voting based on groupthink rather than an examination of their opinion. This unthinking mass then participates in the process, increasing the noises to signal ratio, drowning out the signal of people who really studied the issues carefully and weighed their decision.

Last election, I went and spent a few hours reading about the candidates, largely from their own campaign websites in the case of local candidates, because my research skills were not that great. The thing I discovered was that I had done more research than most people that I know, and my peer group tends to be at least adequately educated. If this college educated peer group is not applying that gravity to the decision of voting, imagine what the populace of those who do not do this sort of research are doing? How many people are voting the way the Post/Daily News/Times tell them to?


Nah, I never said the two parties were the same though a majority of people do seem to be indifferent when it looks like barely a third of the population voted.

It seems to me the parties adopt different strategies at different times within the electoral and political rules of the establishment, which isn’t what I question. I am looking to see if actual core values are held and preserved by these sides or if they merely represent a fleeting aesthetic choice for voters.

The buyer’s remorse being reported on regarding Bush v. 2.2 seems to indicate that regardless of what claims were made during the campaign, the president has not successfully maintained the values expected of his government following his campaign efforts. Bush v. 1.1 raised taxes and although it may very well have set the stage for the prosperity of the 90s, it’s what seems to have foiled a Bush v. 1.2 from being voted up.

All this said, I don’t really think politicians or political parties are healthy little optimizers. I don’t think all the feedback loops are positive and in fact, these loops are why the values themselves are eroded, leaving us with so little faith we can rely on in choosing our politicians.

Hey, I myself asked if they were more than talking points. But at least it’s a place to begin, with somebody trying to pin something down. Otherwise there’s just answers like yours which demonstrate that politicians contort themselves within a system we’ve devised, and you assume these contortions preserve a notion of core values.

At least I can question whether a politican runs on and then exemplifies integrity. It’s nothing but a measure.

I oftentimes consider you one of the only true skeptics I’ve ever met in my life. You have a rigorous adherence to consistency that I have seldom, if ever seen matched. However, you are the extreme case.

The average person who is being target marketed to by the party which has their ear, is not reserving their judgement the way you might. Certainly they can say on face that integrity and loyalty are both virtues, but the debate can easily be framed so that one or the other is emphasized or deemphasized.

If Bush is loyal to his people, they are “cronies”. If Kerry re-examines his position after new information comes to light, he has “flip-flopped”.

The Bush administration has created a strong rhetoric based around the word “faith” that people will all to often buy into. Being the one to frame the debate is what Sun Tzu would call “Picking the battleground”. Once you pick the battleground you have a strategic advantage. If your enemy then comes at you engaging you using your terms of engagement, then they are relegated to reacting to your position. It’s why the Republicans have most of the Fundamentalist Christians, and the Democrats have most of the atheists, simply because those divisions DO exist. It’s about PRIMARY values. Emphasizing one value over another does not mean you do not value the other value, it’s a matter of the way that value rests implicitly in the framing of the conflict.


No. You keep jumping to wrong conclusions. I take from that a feeling that you want people to say one thing and will twist what they say to fit it.

When I was 18, I was against abortion rights. That was very important to me. It was a “core value.” Things have changed. I am now very much for abortion rights. It is a “core value.” This wasn’t a cosmetic change; it is very similar to the types of changes political parties undergo.

The parties are continually changing. The democrat party of the 60s is not the democrat party of today. They have different core values. That doesn’t mean that they are the same as republicans, or that the changes are cosmetic. It means that if you were to look at the democratic party for the whole of its history, you might be very hard pressed to find an absolutely consistent core value.

The parties are products of their times. This does not mean anything negative. I would expect parties to move and shift and redefine themselves all the time. This process is often reactive–a shift in one party forces a shift in another–but that’s because people are reactive.

Well, wouldn’t the official platforms of the different parties give us at least a general idea of what their values are? Here are summarized platform statements on a uniform set of issues, as broken out by

Democratic Party Platform 2004:

Republican Party Platform 2004:

Perhaps I was trying to direct the conversation more than I should but it’s possible also I haven’t been clear about what I meant in saying “core values.”

Of course people change. That does not mean parties should. It means that if parties are meaningful representations of a solid platform, then as people change, they can reasonably change parties and know what they’re getting.

Right. But I didn’t say the two parties were the same. They have different players, different coaches, and their endzones are in opposite directions. They each fight differently for possession. See, if we accept the parties as fluid and ever-changing, then to me what they have aren’t core values. Parties are not like people or, at least, it is my contention that they shouldn’t be. You should be able to change your view on an issue and find the party that suits you. The lack of stable core values makes this more and more difficult with each election.

My problem is that all we get is party squabbling, factionalism and not a process I can respect. Some would call it flip-flopping. Some, re-assessing. Some would say “lying”. And while this is all perfectly reasonable for individuals to do,

I don’t see the parties as anything but aggregates these individuals form for power, to advance their political self-interests.

What I am essentially saying is I would rather a political process where we chose our candidates based on how they adhere to our values, not how they adhere to their team, as that team will buck or buckle with any trend.

To me, those are positions taken in 2004 for an election. They are not stable values. Those positions will look vastly different in 2000, 1996, 1992 and so on back to when the Democrats were the Republicans, the Republicans were the Democrats, the Democrats were the Tories and the Whigs backed Caesar.

What I don’t have is a party that actually represents an ideology where I’d feel comfortable supporting their agenda regardless of its candidate. The question is not whether parties adopt positions [contrary or otherwise] but whether there is in fact a foundation to their establishment.

I am still finding that there is not. And to me, this makes party affiliation largely irrelevant in assessing a candidate’s values.

Much to reply to, little time to do it.


Thanks, Erek. If I am going to be a case of anything, I like to be extreme.

Why is this a bad thing? People fall into “marketing demographics” because people can be grouped by their preferences over outcomes. Playing to these preferences is exactly what an official ought to do in order to get elected.

Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable in this context.


Given the proportion of America that is actually ineligible to vote due to age or immigrant status, those are pretty good numbers. You really have to believe you are making a difference to give up a half hour of your lunch or stop at the local high school after working hours.


A “core value” is a necessary product of indivisible issues and our electoral rules. This does not mean that they are transient or aesthetic, or contrarily, made of bedrock. It means that these core values are an organic part of the entire system and are prone to change as the system changes. These are different than short term strategies, tactics, and policy positions. I suggested above that sometimes policy positions flow consistently from these core values, other times they don’t.

I disagree.

“Values” is a varnish for outcomes. Buyer’s remorse is because the golden goose stopped laying eggs, not because it took it in the ass from another goose. Bush has not been able to deliver the policy outcomes over which his constituents have preferences. This can be pretty different than sharing their values.

I am trying not to assume anything whatsoever. You have assumed a dichotomy between long-enduring foundational “core values” and an “aesthetic dance” of momentary preferences. I contend that this is simply not the case. There is a feedback between the two by which they create and destroy each other. Yesterday’s Southern Strategy has become today’s Moral Majority. It is not so simple as “o tempora o mores.”

At the end of the day, we have exactly the politicians we deserve.

Hey, I’m just calling a spade a fucking shovel. :wink:

It’s not objectively bad. It diminishes the value of ‘parties’ by defaulting people into categories. I am not against diminishing the value of parties, I’d like to see parties done away with personally. There are a lot of things about mass media and instant global communication that I feel have made the system we operate under obsolete, but that’s too big a topic to get into here I think.

It is the defaulting to a party that I take issue with. There is no real distinction of what a party stands for. People adhere vigorously to their parties, but if you call out their party on a particular issue, they get up your ass about casting a wide net, and that not everyone in their party is the same. If the parties are that different and mutable, what purpose do they serve other than to ensure that there will always be a rift in society?