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In America at least, there tends to be far less unity within liberal factions when compared to conservative ones. One just has to point to the last few presidential elections.

2008: There was a significantly tougher struggle between Obama and Clinton compared to McCain and other Republicans.

2012 The democratic party unites around Obama fairly effectively. (Although this is the outlier compared to the last few presidential elections.)

2016: Again, although there was a struggle between Trump and Republican party veterans, but the struggle between Clinton and Bernie was far, far worse.

2020: Trump faced practically no opposition while again the Democratic party was greatly divided via the Bernie vs Biden struggle.

Not even taking into account official elections, there just tends to be way more in-fighting within liberal groups socially compared to conservative ones. Conservatives always seem to be on a united front: Being Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Anit-Immigration, etc, are common among nearly all American conservatives. On the other hand, there are very few issues that all liberals agree on. Why is this the case?

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    I'm not at all convinced that the premise continues to be true, even if it was for a number of years. Witness the large number of votes it took to elect a speaker and the many viable candidates for the GOP Presidential candidate.
    – ohwilleke
    May 30, 2023 at 21:28
  • 11
    Just looking at Presidential elections hardly seems to be a good way to judge a party.
    – Barmar
    May 30, 2023 at 21:36
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    @TedWrigley: IMHO the question deserves to be closed as opinion-based (and/or the "promote/discredit" custom reason), not as "go read Federalist #10." Close votes are means of enforcing site policy (and Federalist #10 is not a site policy). You shouldn't just cast them for whatever reason you feel like. That's what downvotes are for.
    – Kevin
    May 31, 2023 at 6:22
  • 3
    I’m voting to close this question because it seems to be based on a flawed premise.
    – SQB
    Jun 1, 2023 at 8:40
  • 3
    @SmartBulbInc RE: close votes you have to understand that we get rants disguised as questions, leading questions that make it clear that the OP is looking for a specific answer they already have in mind, or questions that presume a partisan viewpoint all the time. You may not have intended it, and indeed I disagree with the close voters, but it smells a little fishy the way you've written it. Jun 1, 2023 at 14:07

7 Answers 7

70

Your premise is not correct.

First of all, the 2012 and 2020 elections don't count for your exercise because incumbent candidates almost never face any opposition from within their own party. This is true of most public offices, not just presidential elections.

That leaves 2008 and 2016 from your example. In 2016, Trump's primary race was hard-fought against fierce competition from 17(!) declared candidates -- more than any other presidential primary race in modern history -- vs just 6 on the Democrats' side. In fact, the 2016 election was widely considered to be a sh*tshow by Republicans at the time. Ted Cruz, in particular, remained in the race until it was mathematically impossible for him to receive the nomination, and John Kasich refused to concede long after it was obvious to everyone (except him, apparently) that he had no chance of winning.

In 2008, there were 11 Republican candidates vying for the nomination vs. 9 on the Democrats' side, with Rudy Guiliani being a serious contender due to the fame he earned for his handling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. Ron Paul was also a serious contender from the more libertarian wing of the Republican party due to internal divisions over international interventionism vs. the more hawkish foreign policy attitudes of the party's mainstream.

In the 2000 election, Al Gore ran virtually unopposed for the Democrat party nomination. His only opponent — Bill Bradley — did not win any primaries and Gore’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention was unanimous. George W. Bush on the Republican side faced 7 other challengers.

So just from a this evidence, it would appear to be the opposite of your premise. I personally don't believe either party is more or less prone to infighting than the other. Each party has their own factions and internal squabbles. It just often appears that one or the other has more unity, depending on how well the leadership within can hold the party line together more effectively at any given time.

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    True. Ever since the advent of the Tea Party and more recently the rise of right fringe and conspiracy extremists who do not share much common ground with anybody outside their conspiracy bubble, Republicans are one party only in name. The leadership has a harder time keeping the party together against the centrifugal forces than the Democrats. The current budget fight is another example. May 31, 2023 at 8:21
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    Also Trump was a huge ideological break from previous GOP candidates. He basically made a coup against the GOP leadership by embracing right-branded overt populism instead of any sort of coherent conservatism, constitutionalism, or classical liberalism a la American founding.
    – lazarusL
    May 31, 2023 at 20:46
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    @MichaelRichardson; OK, I read up on the 1992 election and it seems Bush 41 won the nomination handily with 73% of the vote. That's pretty much a cake walk. But he did still have to show up for a Republican debate, which is more than Al Gore had to do.
    – Wes Sayeed
    May 31, 2023 at 21:56
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    @nanoman; You are correct. Gore’s nomination was unanimous at the DNC, but none of Bradley’s delegates were allowed to vote for him because he didn’t win any primaries. There was one debate between them and I missed that. I’ve updated my answer to reflect it.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Jun 1, 2023 at 9:41
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    This is the correct answer. A large part of the reason Trump even got nominated in 2016 was precisely because there was so much division among the more mainstream Republican candidates. Several of Trump's early "wins" in the primaries were with significant minorities of the actual votes cast, just the others were split up between several other candidates (but especially Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz.) Trump won the 2016 primary with the lowest percentage of the primary votes of a GOP nominee in nearly half a century.
    – reirab
    Jun 1, 2023 at 21:55
33

Because there is only one observable 'past'. And a multitude of proposed 'futures'.

First, let me make a frame change. The question implies the standoff between the Liberalism and the Conservatism, while the two are orthogonal concepts that can co-exist.

I suggest comparing the Conservative vs. the Progressive¹.


By its very definition, Conservatism is a social vision that promotes the traditional values. The 'traditional' stands for the way it used to be in the past.
Broadly speaking, Conservatism is all about keeping things the way they used to be.

A person who follows the Conservative philosophy envisions the Past as great. And they would naturally wish to keep things the way they are.
In case if the current political institutions and practices do not match person's views, such person would would advocate for reinstating the old practices and make the observable reality Great Again.

Naturally, there is only one (or a very limited number of) "Great Past" in a particular place, so the broad variety of people (who may have different views on other aspects of life) would fight for similar political/social values.


The Progressivism, by definition, offers changes. These changes can be naturally different, be it Right- or Left-leaning, adding or lifting restrictions or rights, etc.

Which makes many Progressive ideas incompatible with each other. So people who follow the Progressive ideas debate over whose ideas are to prevail.

Which would lead us to observe far less unity among the Progressives.


¹) although they could co-exist as well, but it looks like a forced compromise, not as a political doctrine.

Reading

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    There might be just one past, but there are many different ways to interpret it
    – Justas
    May 31, 2023 at 11:24
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    @Justas, exactly. This is why the Conservatives "have more unity" yet not "are unanimous". May 31, 2023 at 12:22
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    @Justas and also, people might like some aspects of the past but not all, and might disagree on which aspects of the past are worth keeping and which should be changed.
    – Esther
    Jun 1, 2023 at 14:33
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    In the old USSR, there were many pasts, but only one future. Jun 1, 2023 at 15:23
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    The word 'liberal' has multiple definitions and the one the question is using is not the same as the one you're using. In America, what is considered 'liberal' in modern contexts is precisely what you describe as 'progressive' and 'progressive' tends to carry the connotation of being simply the more extreme wing of the left (e.g. the "Progressive Caucus.") Classical liberalism (which is more what you appear to be referring to) is not just different, but almost completely unrelated and, in many instances, the opposite of modern U.S. liberalism, especially in the realm of economics.
    – reirab
    Jun 1, 2023 at 21:27
23

This is kind of true even outside America.

The reason is that "liberals" tend to be less authoritarian and more democratic than conservatives.

So "liberal" parties in a democracy tend to allow more expression of diverse opinions inside and outside the party that also often generates heated open (public) debates. This may sometimes seem like in-fighting. And sometimes it does become so when people become too emotional about some issue. But this is seen as normal and healthy - the ability to be comfortable with different opinions and maintain a relationship with someone who may have some different views is considered an important attribute to have in a multi-cultural society and a democracy.

In fact, this kind of "in-fighting" is sometimes even seen in the legislative houses of democracies (especially in younger non-western democracies). Some examples:

Due to the nature of democracy to allow different opinions, such occasional flare-ups of emotions are actually considered normal.

Conservative parties on the other hand tend to be more authoritarian, and dissent or deviation from the party leaders public political stands is often seen as an attack on the party leadership itself. Thus, in conservative parties divergent views are actively discouraged or only shared and discussed in private.

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  • "dissent or deviation from the party leaders public political stands" Do you think this argument holds in times of cancel culture?
    – Shadow1024
    Jun 5, 2023 at 20:30
  • @Shadow1024 That's an interesting observation - the cancel culture has indeed made leaders of political parties across the political spectrum more sensitive to criticism and thus contributed to more authoritarian tendency. This seems more true in the US - we now see some US media outlets that leaned towards liberal and progressive politics now sometime take hard-line stance in favour of Democrats, ignoring neutrality, and becoming more "Fox" like. (Note though that doesn't all together negate what I said - conservative political philosophy is more naturally inclined to authoritarianism.)
    – sfxedit
    Jun 5, 2023 at 20:41
  • I've seen a few studies in which the highest tolerance for dissenting views was actually among moderate conservatives, (lowest chance of stopping talk to someone who expressed totally opposite views), while the least tolerant were far left. This shouldn't work in right-wing unity favor, except maybe getting disagreements look less serious. I wonder rather about different mechanism - which side is getting all people who dream about being revolutionaries and rejecting old establishment?
    – Shadow1024
    Jun 5, 2023 at 20:59
  • @Shadow1024 As someone else pointed, from an international perspective both the US Democrats and Republicans seem to be a party of moderate conservatives. As long as the party is dominated by moderates (or centrists as some prefer to be called), that's good for both the party and the nation. It's when the extremes - the far left or the far right - hijack the party and / or the political agenda that we see the kind tension we see currently in US politics. I believe that apart from the political ideology, how a party looks at dissent also depends on the party leaders personality.
    – sfxedit
    Jun 5, 2023 at 21:34
  • As someone having international perspective (Polish), Republicans are indeed a moderate conservatives with odd fetish towards guns and lack of health insurance, while Democrats (as long as big business donors are not harmed) are willing to go far left even by the most left leaning EU countries standards (defund the police, most draconian COVID-19 policies, late abortion, sex change treatment for kids, etc). At least paying lip service to such policies is likely to attract some revolutionaries, while compromising for median voter is likely to make those revolutionaries unhappy.
    – Shadow1024
    Jun 6, 2023 at 15:11
2

Throughout the 20th century, conservatives were as diverse and subject to infighting as liberals. Just in the last half of the century conservatives often split into Free Market activism, Libertarianism, small-town conservatism, religious conservatism, southern segregationists, militia separatists, military jingoists, and advocates of corporatism, all with their own idiosyncratic interests and agendas. Those groups still exist today, obviously, but any infighting between them seems to have dropped out of the public eye. So why did that happen?

The short answer is that beginning sometime in Clinton's second term Conservatives gave up on trying to balance different policy agendas — they gave up on expressing policy at all, in fact — and shifted to an entirely media-centered strategy. This involved Karl Rove style (i..e., ad hominem) attack ads, swiftboating strategies, scandal-hacking, fear-mongering and rabble-rousing, all backed by the (then new) FOX Network, with its strong conservative propaganda arm obscured under a pretense of straight news. They created an echo chamber of people who repeated the same talking points while steadfastly refusing to discuss anything of material substance, and who constantly shifted blame away from the party to others, all to present an image of power and unity. Anyone who broke ranks was ostracized and punished as disloyal; anyone vocal outside the group was demonized as bad, or traitorous, or dangerous.

They became a faction in Madison's sense — read Federalist 10 — with all the negative weight that term carries.

Don't think the apparent lack of infighting is real. As we saw in the Trump administration and in McCarthy's troubled speakership, as soon as conservatives gain power they all begin to privately squabble over their differences, rendering them almost incapable of governance. That factional emphasis on a facade of unity selects for the worst kind of candidates: those most shamelessly willing to publicly lie for the party's benefit while privately pushing selfish aims. It's not conducive to real leadership.

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    You make a good point - conservatives are a spectrum of thoughts too, but some are now unable to find any space for their voice to be heard by the public.
    – sfxedit
    Jun 1, 2023 at 22:18
-1

Why are American liberals more prone to in-fighting than conservatives?

I actually agree with the premise.

I believe it's because American liberals are more committed to certain ethical tenets that American conservatives are not committed to.

One of those ethical tenets is a commitment to facts and truth. Facts are things that are widely known or proved to be true. Truth is an accurate description of reality.

To rise above the lying and disinformation and bending the "truth" to fit one's ideology, which is something liberals accuse the conservatives of doing, liberals need to steer clear of that themselves. Especially when it's so easy to push a dishonest narrative that will be accepted unquestionably by our base.

So, the infighting among liberals is a consequence that we're more committed to truth than the other side. We're more willing to call out other liberals for mispresenting fact, even if we're both fighting for the same ends.

If more conservatives were like Liz Cheney or Adam Kitzinger, so that they had a real nasty fight among the GOP about T**** (I can't even utter the name) and T****ism and what it's doing to the party and to the nation, then you would not see as much of a difference in the degree of infighting between liberals and the GOP. But we're not seeing hardly any introspection in the GOP.

The used to call this the GOP 11th Commandment. The Dems didn't have such.

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Perhaps it is a psychological result of the situation in the last two decates, where the conservatives see themself as the weaker side, albeit still capable of scoring wins sometimes, and so they understand the importance of consolidation. Admitting that you are a weaker side also let (American) Right to adopt "Don't punch Right" approach. The rationale being, you are not 100% in agreement with another conservative who happen to be trending currently, but they are better than any liberal, and if you show in-fighting then liberals win, since they do that by default.

On the other hand, liberals also see themselves as a stronger side, so they aim to get the best piece of the pie which they see as already won, so the only question is who gets to eat it among fellow liberals. this may go such great lengths that they will occassionally lose to the weaker conservatives because of this. Perhaps this is not even seen as a problem because they feel they may score whenever they like it, so it may be better to yield to a conservative (and spend a term bashing them) than to a fellow, but a different flavor of, liberal.

The apparent difference is strength seems to be due to the fact that the great majority of media (news outlets, cinema, arts and music, video games) is now liberal-leaning, a lot of being virtually a loudspeaker for their programmes.

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    The balance of power between the Republican party and the Democratic party in the United States was rather equal in the past two decades. The leadership of senate and house of representatives shifted several times, and their majorities were always hair-thin.
    – Philipp
    May 31, 2023 at 8:20
  • This is where "see themselves" part comes into play.
    – alamar
    May 31, 2023 at 8:28
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    Even if, as you claim, that dissent is expressed behind closed doors to manage public perceptions, doesn't that make it less democratic, as that implies that only few people decide the politics of the conservatives? Doesn't this lack of openness impede the growth of the political ideology and increase authoritarianism?
    – sfxedit
    May 31, 2023 at 14:30
  • Sounds like a second question - consider asking it.
    – alamar
    May 31, 2023 at 15:55
-9

I'd argue that there is more fighting in the left-wing party, because that is where liberals face the most severe challenge to their politics, and where the liberal powers-that-be seek to cause the most upset in order to prevent socialist reform and rig the choices on the ballot.

Trump may be terrible, yes, but I guarantee most liberals would prefer him to Sanders.

The liberals in all major Western nations have a tactic of disabling the democratic system by seizing control of all major parties on the ballot.

Bankrolling the politicians they want on the ballot, and causing chaos and selectively smearing those they don't want, means that important political questions are decided before the ballot slips are printed and offered to the electorate.

Even with Trump they're trying the same tactics, after what they consider one dreadful round with him. What they can't understand is how criminals charges and smears are increasing his popularity rather than decreasing it.

I should also be clear about smears, especially as regards Trump. They aren't always untrue. It's the selective revelation of them to the public at a particular time, the slant and degree of media publicity, and the disciplinary effect they have on politicians who are more inclined to submit to rich interests with intelligence networks in exchange for quiet and successful careers, which is how such smears are used as a means of political control.

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  • What you are describing is political practices that are common today with every political party, and nothing unique only to the "liberals". Or do you claim that conservatives do not do these things due to their political ideology?
    – sfxedit
    May 31, 2023 at 13:14
  • 1
    @sfxedit, given that I'm arguing that the liberals seek to control all options on the ballot, why shouldn't it be common to every party? Your "conservatives" are frequently just ordinary liberals, provoking a fuss over some trivia amongst themselves (both to manufacture the appearance of choice, and to distract), whilst joining in violent rejection of anything like socialist reform.
    – Steve
    May 31, 2023 at 13:49
  • You sidestepped my question completely - do you claim that conservatives (whether ordinary liberals or otherwise) don't do these things too to capture power or preserve it?
    – sfxedit
    May 31, 2023 at 14:33
  • @sfxedit, I didn't sidestep the question, I attacked it head on by denying the validity of the distinction you're making between "conservatives" and liberals. If the resulting question was only whether the liberals really do what my answer already said they do - infest all major parties and attack the availability of any other option on the ballot - then my position hasn't changed.
    – Steve
    May 31, 2023 at 14:42

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