A friend of mine just presented to me an insightful way of looking at the two major political parties in this country that, in large measure at least, seems correct and even explains a few things. The basic idea is that these large parties have a class structure much like society's class structure. At the top are the people who have the most power and influence, often the ones who get thing done. They don't often have ideological reasons to be in the party but more commonly are loyalists to the party for the sake of the party itself. Their positions are somewhat malleable and sometimes what you might think of as centrist, but they often pander to those lower in the party hierarchy so that they can keep getting votes.
Then there's the middle class of the party, the ones who hold the views that tend to dominate among party thinkers. These are the people who really do the work. The top people just make sure things happen, but the middle class analog does the heavy lifting. These people are often party loyalists but not for the sake of the party. They really believe in the particular views they associate with the party but don't often realize that the people really controlling things from the top don't have the same attitude. These thinkers then construct reasons for the policies that will end up attracting voters to the party. Many of the middle class people end up in elected office or politically appointed positions, but they hardly ever have any long-term influence, even if they do have short runs of being the driving force behind the party's public ideology.
Then you have the party lower class, the average voters who get pandered to. They see the public image of the party in election years doing and saying things they like, often without seeing if those are genuine features of the people they're voting for and often not caring about whether other issues are more important than the two or three they use to choose their candidates. They get the lip service of the party mouthpieces, but they're real concerns usually don't get addressed, and I think it's fair to say that the party movers and shakers care not a whit for them except to do as little as possible to maintain their votes.
No I did a Google search to see if I could find anything on this, but I didn't find much help there. My friend said this is a common enough idea, which he first read in a high school civics book. It was fairly new to me but helped categorize some things I'd long thought and brought other elements into newer perspective. What's interesting is who he said were in each group, and I think he's right. Be prepared to be offended.
At the top of the Democrats and Republicans are those who gets things done, whose vote or position will change based on the political climate, and who most of the time try to do their best to look like a party liner when it comes time for elections (while keeping some goodies for those on the fringes of the other party, of course). Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, and John Kerry are all in this group. John Edwards seems to be trying to make himself part of it, and I think Howard Dean and Wesley Clark would have been welcome additions had they not made as much fools of themselves as they did. These people didn't all start out this way, but their "no-rhyme-or-reason" switches on issues and false compromises seem very much along these lines. They're loyal to the party, but many Democratic ideologues could just as well see them as liberal Republicans whose votes would have gone differently had they been pandering to Republicans on the middle and lower levels rather than Democrats.
For Republicans, you have a similar picture. Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George Pataki are all great examples of movers-and-shakers without a cause. These are the Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. Eisenhower was a clear example. I think President Bush has some clear elements of this also.
Then at the middle level are the policy setters, the ones the people with real influence have to please in some way to keep getting party support. The neoconservatives and libertarians within the Republican party seem to be the largest groups on this level for Republicans, while the classic tax-and-spend Democrats hold the majority of their middle class, though right now I think the most vocal on this level are forwarding little more than a negative campaign against President Bush without as much of a positive direction. (If you want a good summary of some of these labels, see this glossary listing.)
Then the lowest level is the most interesting. These are the people who get little tidbits from the top but rarely are allowed to have their ideas gain too much influence. They get people representing their views at key positions, but those people's agenda gets little support or even tolerance in some cases. In many situations the dominant policies are contrary to what the party lower class wants (or at least what would be in their benefit). Who are these people? For the Democrats, the largest voting black in this group are blacks. For the Republicans, it's evangelicals and other social conservatives. That also strikes me as just plain true.
How should this affect how we vote? Should it affect whether we're in a party at all? I haven't really thought through all the consequences of this or whether the cases of being a black Democrat and being a Republican evangelical are parallel enough in the relevant ways that you'd have the say the same thing about both. Any thoughts?
Update: Here's a post from ChristWeb that seems to support at least some of this in terms of the current scene.