One of the very, very few practical perks of being a libertarian is that you will occasionally find yourself in conversations about what’s wrong with “our side” with groups of both liberals and conservatives. It very quickly becomes apparent that both groups are utterly convinced that “we” waste all our time in petty internecine squabbling, whereas “they,” being so doctrinaire and all, manage to present a united front, forcing any fellow travelers with private doubts to publicly toe the line. And there’s nothing very surprising about that, because people are naturally more attuned to their own internal debates (that’s what makes them “internal”) and less conscious of the nuances on the the other side.
In fact, I half suspect that this sort of optical illusion is not just a matter of greater familiarity, but a side-effect of the construction of a collective political identity. Every coalition contains odd bedfellows, more or less inevitably given that the structure of our electoral system essentially demands that people holding an enormous variety of different views lump themselves into one of two groups. And even a cursory glance at “movement” media should make clear how the warring camps have opted to deal with this unwieldy plurality: Each side defines itself primarily in negative terms, against the other. Watch a few hours of Fox News and count the number of times you hear a positive articulation of “conservative principles.” Then count the number of pejorative references to “liberals” or “the left.” You’ll find much the same, mutatis mutandis in lefty venues. Of course, this cannot totally obscure the internal differences on one’s own side. But in the process of attempting to build a shared identity despite those differences, it does rather effectively cast the other camp as a kind of monolith, reinforcing the impression of asymmetry.
All of which is to say, it’s scarcely surprising to see that conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby is convinced that the conservative movement is a hothouse of debate—the progressive movement, not so much. That appearance is probably especially magnified now, though. First, because the Bush administration really was unusually good at keeping the troops in lockstep for the first five years or so, throwing the current fractiousness into sharp relief. Second, because the immigration debate has brought to the fore an issue that has long split conservatives.
But some of Jacoby’s examples are pretty dubious. Iraq, in particular, is a truly weird choice of illustrations. Yes, you had The American Conservative opposing the war from the outset, but that was a very, very marginal position among Republicans until quite recently. Similarly, Democrats were pretty clearly more divided on the war in its early years. That hasn’t flipped because Republicans have suddenly become more pluralistic. It’s flipped because as it gets harder and harder to deny that the war is a hopeless clusterfuck—and more to the point, to get voters to join in your denial—the number of hardliners clinging to an untenable position is dwinding.
Neither does abortion seem like as clean cut as Jacoby makes it sound. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after all, is a pro-lifer whose NARAL approval rating in recent years has swung back and forth from a high of 100% to as low as 20%, and there are plenty of folks on the left urging, if not an outright ban, certainly a tack to the right on the issue. Sure, pro-choice Rudy may be polling well despite his stance on the issue (and his embarrassing penchant for loudly declaring how much he nevertheless “hates” abortion) but it seems like an awful stretch to infer from this that the right is generally more open to debate here. To the extent that Democrats have more effectively suppressed discussion of their internal differences here, I think it’s largely a function of the status quo being relatively satisfactory to pro-choicers. That is, leaving aside speculation about their relative zeal, choicers have an interest in not talking about the issue more than necessary; lifers want to bring it up constantly.
I think you can make this general prediction: Whichever party has most recently had its ass handed to it will seem more riven by internal dissent, since this is usually an occasion for considering what collective changes need to be made and an opportunity for each subgroup within the party to make a play to move the larger group in its preferred direction. Hence lots of Democratic soul searching and squabbling in ’04, more of the GOP flavor lately. Suggesting that each instance of this somehow reveals the quiddity of either party is either dishonest or obtuse.