What's the Liberal Equivalent of a Gun?

What is empirically possible to show is that, save rites and rituals, political parties are central to U.S. politics today; virtually everything that happens goes through them. 
Where are political parties in popular culture? Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Paul Waldman argued last week that "Conservatives Have All the Best Talismans":

Liberals really lack any talismanic physical objects they can display to their supporters to demonstrate their ideological bona fides. If a Democrat went before a liberal audience and wanted to offer a quick, easily understood visual to demonstrate to the crowd that she's one of them, what could she hoist over her head in defiance of the people they all hate?

Kevin Drum tried to make the case for liberals, but admitted it was a pretty weak one. Is there a difference? I don't know; I suspect it depends on what counts. Waldman was thinking (based on Mitch McConnell's gun-brandishing CPAC appearance) of physical objects, and that's certainly interesting, but while Drum mentions Bruce Springsteen, the truth is of course that liberals have plenty of people from and products of show business that they can use. I'd also note that liberals have a much broader group of political actors they genuflect to: at least three Kennedys, King, FDR, and a whole array of second-tier leaders. The only real certified non-RINO out there for conservatives is Ronald Reagan. No wonder they flirt with giving Calvin Coolidge icon status!

At any rate, while the comparing game is fun, the big thing I'd say is important about all this is that virtually all of these are liberal and conservative symbols, not Democratic and Republican symbols. At least, I think it's a big deal.

What is empirically possible to show is that on virtually every dimension save rites and rituals, political parties are extremely central to U.S. politics today; virtually everything that happens goes through the parties. Compare parties now to their postwar nadir, and whatever you look at - money, electioneering, formal organization, the reach of party into government - it's just no contest. But as far as I can tell, parties haven't benefited at all from this resurgence in terms of their place within popular culture. Nor have our new party networks fabricated new rituals that are closely tied to party, in the way that the old conventions were. "Proud to be an American" isn't a Republican Party anthem in the way that "Happy Days Are Here Again" was most definitely a Democratic anthem.

Perhaps this is why so many die-hard Democrats and Republicans (measured by behavior) think of themselves as independents. Or why other solid mainstream liberals and conservatives are convinced that their party is always selling them out. Or even why RINO makes sense in the first place - why just being an "R" isn't meaningful to so many Republicans. At least, perhaps it's somewhat related.

I don't really know. In fact, I have no idea why the parties have simultaneously grown much more important and, if anything, lost ground in the popular culture. Nor do I know if it actually does have any important consequences. But I suspect it does, and I definitely think it's a real phenomenon, and one that party scholars should pay attention to.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.