For most of my life the rule of thumb was that the GOP was the ideological party and the Democratic Party was the coalitional party.
This always was an overgeneralization. Democrats had an ideological perspective, and Republicans had coalitional interests. But from the New Deal to around the end of the Bush years, it was generally true. I used to think it had to do with the superiority of conservative ideas, but I’m coming around to the view that it has more to do with the way political power works.
There was obviously an ideological component to the New Deal and the Great Society. Stated plainly, the people at the helm of those projects believed in the power of the state or “big government” to steer the whole of the country in a positive direction. But if you look at the members of the FDR coalition, you’ll find a lot of diversity. There were intellectuals and populists, capitalists and socialists, racists and civil rights leaders, isolationists and interventionists, corrupt party bosses and the reformers who hated them, poor farmers, urban union leaders, Southern conservatives, blacks, whites, Jews and immigrants, all swirling about, often battling to win the president’s favor. That’s what you get with majority parties—a diverse coalition of interests all trying to get their place at the trough.
As the saying goes in Washington, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.