Gyroscopic Differences

by Robert Herold
In a recent syndicated column, George Will observed that Democrats (the "minority party," as he calls them) have fallen victim to their own excesses. Democrats, asserts Will, don't much like rich people, and have been reduced to what sociologist David Reisman identified as a "radar people" -- those who "steer according to signals bounced off others." Republicans, says Will, are the party of "gyroscope people" -- those who have "internal guidance systems." He tries to make the case that Republicans have emerged as the majority party for all the best reasons: The GOP values freedom. Democrats come down on the side of equality, which leads to lowbrow, and now out of favor, constituency politics. The former leads to the politics of principle -- that "gyroscope" thing.

Unfortunately, Will's tidy explanation of the national political scene lacks both empirical basis and analytical rigor. Had the presidential election gone by straight majority vote, today Will wouldn't be writing the Democrats' epitaph. The Republicans' margin of control isn't that big, and the nation's changing demographics are working against them. (This is why Republicans are furiously trying to change congressional districts, as in Texas, where the issue led to the walkout of the Democratic caucus in the state house in Austin.)

That Republican majority, as recently reported in The New Republic, has been magnified in the House by a repressive GOP leadership, largely in the person of former bug exterminator Tom Delay. In the Senate, the GOP controls only by the narrowest of margins. So Will slightly overstates the facts.

I'm more intrigued by his "freedom" versus "equality" thesis, which leads to his "gyroscope people" versus "radar people" conclusion. Through the lens of the debate over affirmative action, for example, "freedom" would dictate no policies showing preference at all, while "equality" would aim to level the unbalanced playing field somehow. No doubt the Democratic Party has served as the home of impulses toward equality. And I don't dispute that the Republicans have profited from the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of some of the resulting positions Democrats have taken. But does it follow that Republicans are the party of freedom? When it suits their rhetoric, sure, but in practice they are often perhaps more concerned with equality than even the Democrats are.

It isn't that Democrats are at war with inequality so much as they represent constituents who want a fair piece of the economic pie. As my late uncle, himself for years a member of the Airline Pilots Association, put it: "Bobby, you can divide up the pie in any of several ways." Democrats don't begrudge these huge executive salaries; they just ask that the system do what it can to ensure that compensation and performance bear some relationship. Republicans might want to believe the fairy tale that Dick Cheney got that posh job at Halliburton because of his talents. Democrats correctly understand that Dick Cheney got that job because, as former Secretary of Defense, he knew lots of powerful people. We are talking here about "corporate cronyism," and Will appears to be blind to the gut-level understanding many Americans have of how the system works.

But the more fundamental objection I have with his essay relates to the gyroscope nonsense. Will refers to the Democrats' belief "in omnipotent government," but says nothing about the data that show a high positive correlation between states that supported George W. Bush and federal largess. The truth is that the Bush states received more back in federal funds than they paid in taxes. Gore's states? Just the opposite.

Someday I'd like to take George Will on a driving tour through the Columbia Basin Project. There he would find a very high level of support for the GOP and also the most heavily subsidized region in America: I refer to the dams, the subsidized water, the farm price supports, the federal subsidization of the barge industry and on and on.

Gyroscope people? I don't think so.

And federal largess comes in many forms, doesn't it? Irony of ironies, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area took off economically not when the Democrats ran things, but when Ronald Reagan came to office. That's right, our ace government minimizer transformed Washington from a "gov'mint" town into a "chic" town. Now, no doubt Nancy had something to do with it (she was used to Rodeo Drive and wasn't about to live in a dump). But it was Ronnie's defense buildup, especially Star Wars, that transformed the region. The cause-and-effect relationship was impossible to miss. Back then, the state of Virginia, under Republican control, ran a television commercial that touted the economic dynamism of the state. The commercial sported an overlay of the Pentagon.

More than 30 years ago, political scientist Theodore Lowi made the case that the real difference between the parties wasn't ideology so much as it was constituency. Lowi argued -- and, I might add, Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, confirmed in his book The Triumph of Politics -- that both parties cater to "radar people." Republicans especially like farm subsidies, cheap water and defense spending. It can be argued that these are all "equalizers" designed to protect them from having to play on a field that may be unfair, as in having to compete with European farmers who enjoy hefty subsidies. How this is different than giving an African-American a similar "equalizer" (to get back to that affirmative action analogy) is never quite addressed.

Democrats, at least, are open about their concern for the plight of cities and our environment. So really, both parties are filled with "radar people" interested in "equality" on the issues that affect them most. Will suggests that the GOP is somehow immune to this basic feature of human nature due to some kind of moral superiority. That's simply preposterous.

Publication date: 06/26/03

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