Hunkers and Clubbers and Barnburners, Oh, My!

GOPThumbby Timothy Lane
Many people have been working up lists of the disparate groups making up the Republican Party and its voters. Many of them especially see the great divide between Establishment and anti-Establishment types (which is one very reasonable way to divide them). Over the past couple of years, my own analyses have been based on a division into four general groups.

The first consists of those I call Hunkers, terminology I adopted from the New York Democrats 175 years ago. These were so named because they “hunker” after office. Back then, under the Spoils System, this could include offices such as running the New York City customs-house (a really plum position, and especially lucrative to grafters). Today we have civil service, though we also have bloated bureaucracies and staffs, so the number of important political positions is probably actually larger. But even more important today is lobbying (and the rent-seeking of many who hire lobbyists). Basically, Hunkers may be conservative, or may not be, but it doesn’t really matter to them. Office, power, perks, or specific lobbying goals – those matter far more than any minor details such as the national interest. The perfect example of a Hunker today is Trent Lott.

The next group is the Country-Club Republicans. These are upper- and upper-middle-class types, usually businessmen, and in most of the country they’re socially moderate to liberal, though they may be fiscal conservatives. (On the other hand, those involved in larger businesses often have no more use for free market capitalism than do liberals; both have a preference for crony capitalism). Again, however, issues don’t matter much to such times. I see them as consensus-seekers, since in their personal and professional lives they tend to be deal-makers. There are exceptions (such as Steve Forbes), but most are no more inclined than any other citizens to pay enough attention to politics to know (and care) what’s really happening.

The next group consists of the Barnburners, terminology I again take from New York Democrats 175 years ago. Their name comes from a willingness to burn down the barn (i.e., the party) if they don’t get their way. These are people passionately concerned with a single issue (such as banning abortion) or a connected group of issues (such as the Tea Partiers). Such people have little interest in the GOP as a party rather than as a vehicle for their views. (One might note that a substantial number of liberals have the same relationship with the Democrats, the difference being that they don’t generally have to pressure their own elites to reflect liberal Barnburner views.) Naturally, there’s a great deal of distrust between them and the party’s leaders and Establishment. The latter don’t mind the votes, but they don’t like the pressure, and seem to have a hard time figuring out that they often can’t get the votes without facing the pressure. But many, who feel their seats are safe enough, would rather accept whatever they can get even as a minority (there were many who thought that Bob Michel, who led Republicans in the House before the Gingrich revolution, was like that).

Finally, we have the large group of Grassroots voters. They mostly tend to be conservative, though they don’t have the passion of the Barnburners. But – and this is what the GOP Establishment can’t seem to grasp (since none of them seem to have any personal connections to Grassroots voters) – the Grassroots and generally sympathetic to the Barnburners. So as the party leaders revile the Barnburners (mostly the Tea Partiers today), they alienate notably them, but also the Grassroots. Until they learn better, there will be a GOP Civil War.

As for me, I’m probably mostly a Grassroots voter (I supported Trey Grayson over Rand Paul in the 2010 primary, though I later concluded that Paul had been much the better choice), but with VERY strong Barnburner sympathies. And so, I certainly have no trust (and little use) for the Hunkers (and no great fondness for the Country Clubbers these days). • (1901 views)

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13 Responses to Hunkers and Clubbers and Barnburners, Oh, My!

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Interesting distinctions, Tim. I would then put myself about right where you are. I’m a Grassroots Barnburner.

    I think there’s also some merit to the idea that it’s now two factions: the Political Class (and their paid-for entitlement serfs) and everyone else. But even this mix doesn’t do justice to the fact there are mixed allegiances.

    I ran across a guy in the checkout line yesterday. He was some old fart complaining to the cashier about the shutdown. And I basically said, “When we are going into debt one trillion dollars per year, in addition to the accumulated debt of 17 trillion, someone has to do something.”

    And this guy acknowledged this but just said it was too bad the children had to suffer. And I said, “Isn’t it the job of parent to look after their children?” And there were a few more friendly exchanges. I highly suspect that this guy is one of the legions of Hunkers. He receives something from the government (even if just Social Security) and thus his heart (driven surely by a guilty conscience) automatically bleeds for everyone else.

    And I ask him, “How can any of this get fixed if when anyone tries to cut anything or hold this massive government back that the first line is “But what about the children.”? He said he agreed with me, and we left on friendly terms. But here, I thought (not having the precise terminology) was a Hunker, justifying to himself his own place at the teat of Big Government.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I wouldn’t see an ordinary person as a Hunker. To me, the Hunkers are the top figures of the political class (which probably also includes the top level of the Country Clubbers). Someone who receives government money (as so many people do; I went to college on VA benefits because me father was killed in Vietnam) but doesn’t vote on that basis is simply just like most people. Those who do vote on the basis of receiving government money aren’t likely to be Republicans, though there are a few corporate welfare recipients and such in the mix, I suppose.
      There are also similar groups among the Democrats, and for that matter there are independents. The bulk of the latter are probably what Steve Shadegg, in an old book on political campaigns (he was Goldwater’s longtime campaign manager) referred to as Indifferents. Such people don’t really pay attention to politics because they don’t care enough about it to do so. Note that the editor of Time said they named Obama Man of the Year because he got the Indifferents to vote for him en masse.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I think it’s inevitable that people vote for the party that they perceive as the one providing them with benefits. You didn’t, and that’s to your credit. But I think most do. The more egregious cases are on the Left. But much of the Republican side of things is made up of people whose “conservatism” primarily exists to hold onto existing entitlements. It should not be forgotten that one of Paul Ryan’s major talking points in the last election was how Obamacare was going to hurt an existing entitlement (Medicare).

        This is where we are in this nation. It’s tempting to split it between the productive class and the non-productive class. But that doesn’t explain the large numbers of people who actually live conservative lives (they work, they’re married, they support their children, they might even own a business) and yet vote liberal.

        So in some instances you have people who are bought and paid for. Maybe you can call them the Lesser Hunkers (although there are far more of them than Hunkers). But there are others who seem to defy all logic. And I think part of this can be explained by the very successful campaign of demonizing the right. Again, I love your article, but I don’t think any characterization of politics or parties can ignore this. It is the elephant in the living room.

        We are also battling an entire change in morality, or what it means to be caring. What Americans have decided is that they are the most generous, kindest, tolerant people in the world. And they prove it by voting for the party that feeds this conceit, regardless of how people actually live their lives.

        This fits into a phenomenon that Dennis Prager often uses as an example. American kids rank something like 13th (or whatever) in math skills worldwide. But they rank #1 in how good they perceive their skills at math. Yes, it’s the self-esteem generation come home to haunt us.

        But it’s also this nationwide self-delusion game that we are playing. It’s rife with misinformation, Orwellianism, and just plain conceit. I think that adds a level of complexity to this whole issue of party politics. Or at least leads to the idea that one of the common denominators of the GOP or any party is that they, and much of their constituency, is morally askew. We think we are nice, but we are not good. And this is one reason things are such a muddle. To actually look into the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. America and say “You are a big part of the problem” is not politically tenable. So everyone dances around the subject, usually just blaming government which, of course, shares a huge portion of the blame.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          So in essence you’re positing that we have a fifth group, of ordinary people who are bought by Republicans instead of bought by Democrats (who are far more numerous). It could be. But there are large numbers of people who receive government benefits (especially Social Security and Medicare, which they paid for in advance to a certain extent) without being corrupted. Indeed, after a certain age this is actually required, and even before that it can be difficult to avoid. My housemate is on Social Security and Medicare, but she voted for Rand Paul in the 2010 primary anyway, so she’s actually a bit more libertarian than I am.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            But there are large numbers of people who receive government benefits (especially Social Security and Medicare, which they paid for in advance to a certain extent) without being corrupted.

            Timothy, I posit that it is the nature of socialism to corrupt people. When the state becomes your pseudo-parent because it provides retirement benefits (and now — gasp! — controls your very life via health chare), how could this not change the relationship between the citizen and the state?

            If we were talking about some kind of forced retirement account that you paid into that gained interest, that would be another thing. But what we have instead is a Ponzi scheme, and one that is set to break apart in a few years. It’s a dishonest scheme and one that tends to corrupt.

            I have yet to meet a person who didn’t say “But I paid into it and therefore deserve it.” It doesn’t matter if you tell them that in regards to Medicare, for instance, that they’ll take out of it in just four years more than they ever paid into it.

            That’s the corrupting nature of entitlements and socialism. It has people thinking they are owed something that they haven’t earned. And it has politicians promising ever more quantities of “free stuff” to get the citizenry hooked. And they don’t give a damn if this destroys the country. Corruption at the front end. Corruption at the back end. Corruption all around.

            Again, I come back to what I think is a seminal educational video by Bill Whittle, “The Vote Pump.” This probably best describes the dynamic at large in this country. The rest may perhaps be divided between a kind of “holding action” of the GOP and the endless appetite for socialism by the Left. The former sometimes dons the veneer of standing for something different by sprinkling around a few social issues. And the latter pretends that they care for “the little guy.”

            But in the end, both parties are now just different flavors of the ginormous Vote Pump, with the public energized to vote this way or that on issues that ultimate are for-show only, because the pump’s flow is never decreased substantially.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Speaking of Country Club Republicans…

    Last year (or was it two years ago?), pst4usa and I crashed a Republican fundraiser for Dino Rossi for governor of Washington State. And this fundraiser was actually held at a country club.

    Pat had heard at the last minute that there was a gathering (and he knew the Republican chairman well) so we both met there at the last minute. Everyone else was in suit and tie. Pat and I were just in our street clothes and clearly were the grassroots at this affair (along with the Republican county chair who seemed like a nice enough woman).

    The place was full of country club types. Rossi gave a country club speech. Really, it was such a rehearsed speech that it was bland and insincere. But Pat and I had a lot of fun there hobnobbing with the blue (or is that red?) bloods. We actually met a very nice Jewish couple and spent much of the time sitting at their table. Later we went and sat with the Republican chairman. She seemed like a very nice lady. She had her three-year-old child with her and it was somewhat of a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room.

    I had showed up a little early so I got to talk to Dino Rossi for a while. He seemed a nice fellow. And certainly at the country clubs is where you hope to find a few people who will open their checkbooks. And actually Pat did. He’s a sucker for good causes.

    Generally, the people at these events just seem to sit back and listen. This was an elderly crowd for the most part. They see what’s coming. I think part of them truly would like to leave a better America. And the other part just understands that these kids that are creating their Progressive utopia today are going to have to learn to live with the consequences. There isn’t a big enough check that anyone can write that takes the place of wisdom and experience.


    Tim – I applaud your effort at classification, because it’s always good if we have clarity of terminology when trying to discuss political issues. And reasonable people may not agree on exactly where the dividing lines should be, or how many divisions we need. My own view is the fewer the better, so let me take what you have and try to run a few more yards with it.

    I would divide the Establishment into (a) Party members, and (b) actual office-holders. The Establishment office-holders enjoy the perks and the status of holding office, either public office or Party office, and don’t care about the national interest, which in today’s political context means fighting the Democratic Left. This is pretty much your definition of “hunkers” whom I would describe as only a sub-category of the Establishment.

    The Establishment Party members are basically what you call the Country Club Republicans. That’s a good name for them, but I still think of them as pure Establishment, averse to any change – they are philosophical pragmatists, which means they don’t understand the importance of political ideology in determining this or any other nation’s course, which is why they “don’t care what’s happening” as you put it. I disagree that any of them are truly “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” as they like to say; by “fiscally conservative” they really mean “spend slightly less than the Democrats”, since all that social liberalism comes with a pretty hefty price tag, as I think Mark Steyn once observed. The “fiscal conservative/social liberal” is about as real as the unicorn, and generally of less use in a political struggle against the Left.

    Notice that both your “Grassroots” and “Barnburners” hold generally Conservative views by your own estimation. Therefore, I see no reason not to put them together and simply call them “Conservatives” with the understanding that of course there are some Conservatives in this country who choose not to identify with the Republican Party. And it is with your definition of the “Barnburners” that I really feel I must take issue: you describe them (really, us since I fall into that category and by your own admission, you sort of do as well) as petulant children who threaten to pack up their toys and go home if they don’t get their way – “Such people have little interest in the GOP as a party rather than as a vehicle for their views.”

    If a political party does not advance one’s political views, then why should anyone care about it? What exactly did George Bush and the Republican Congress do from 2001 – 2006 that would merit anyone’s support (except the Establishment)? Government power grew rather than shrank, problems were left festering rather than being solved through free-market reforms, setting the stage for the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008. And insofar as being single-issue, there really is only one political question, and that is whether man is to be free or a slave of the state. Yes, there are a few people who care only about abortion, for instance, but as long as they vote our way they’re not causing us any problems.

    We stand today on the threshold of losing the last of our liberties, exactly as we see happening in Western Europe. If the GOP won’t yell “STOP!” to this tendency, then what possible use is it? We “Barnburners” are correct: if the GOP won’t advance the cause of Liberty, best to destroy it and replace it with a party that will.

    There is one final group of Republicans I would add, the infamous “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only, for anyone not familiar with the term). I define them as office-holders (not merely citizens or Party members) who hold the exact same statist views as the Democratic Left, and who use the GOP to advance their personal ambitions without any intention of fighting the growth of statism. Obvious examples are Charlie Crist and Chris Christie (sorry for the similarity of the names, but they’re really the first ones who come to mind, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger). They are infiltrators and saboteurs, advancing the Left’s cause while giving Republicanism a bad reputation, and the sooner we can rid our ranks of them the better.

    In the end, I wound up with only one fewer category than you did – three – so I can’t claim much (if any) improvement, but I would like to think I’ve offered a little refinement.

    — Nik

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Very interesting. I don’t think I intended the term Barnburners to be as negative as you think I did. I can see your point about dividing up those who basically are conservative voters, but there is a difference between those who are conservatives first and Republicans second, and those who are the reverse., so I think my distinction remains useful. There are many different ways to divide the parties up.
      As for the social liberal/fiscal conservative, I note that a number of northeastern Republicans used to call themselves that, and actually seemed to live up to it for a while. But certainly or later, the likes of William Weld and George Pataki went all-the-way liberal, so I agree with you in placing little trust in such people. However, there can be people who are fairly moderate on social issues (particularly outside the northeast) and conservative on fiscal issues, such as former Senators Hank Brown and Paul Coverdell.
      As for the RINOs, I think they will generally turn out to be Hunkers, with some occasional Country Clubbers.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Everything I Needed to Learn about Life I Got from Jesus Christ Superstar:

    Try not to get worried try not to turn on to
    Problems that upset you oh don’t you know
    Everything’s alright yes everything’s fine

    Along with Clubbers (Country Club Republicans) there is a new strain, or at least a sub-strain, of Establishment or Country Club Republicans. And that is the Anti-Apocalyptic Republicans.

    We all know the stereotype of the chap who sits on the corner and says “The end is near.” Well, there is an equal and opposite expression of that. James Pethokoukis, in his recent article, “The Folly of Doomsday Economics,” basically says that our debt is over-rated as a threat; that to not increase the debt limit is worse than cutting spending; And (I hope you are all sitting down for this) that Obamacare isn’t such a bad thing, especially since Avik Roy (one of the all-time goofballs at NRO) says that it can easily be turned into a free-market healthcare solution.

    In this anti-apocalyptic cult I put the good Jonah Goldberg who, really, is not so good anymore, at least concerning his opinions.

    Really, who knows where all this is heading? But I give kudos to Mark Steyn for pointing out that it is heading somewhere bad. Why so many Republicans (or their mouthpieces) wish to paint a rosy picture is interesting. But let me point out a voice of sanity at NRO (they still do exist). said:

    $17 trillion debt – no big deal. $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities – no big deal. Adding another $1 trillion more to the debt each year – no big deal. ObamaCare – no big deal. Actually, ObamaCare might even turn out to be a free-market program if we just tweak it a little. WOW, who knew? I’m nearly speechless after reading this IDIOTIC column!

    Dennis Prager often quotes the bible passage, “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of all Wisdom.” That may truly be, especially considering that many of these non-religious “secular” conservatives are off their rocker and out of touch with reality. But perhaps we need not go so biblical. If only these people would abide by “The Fear of Adam Smith is the Beginning of All Wisdom.” That is, there are economic and social realities that will not go away just because we wish them to.

    Someone tell me how socialized medicine, run by the types of people who hold government over our heads like a weapon (as we see happening in the state’s response to the shutdown), is a good thing. Someone tell me how running up one trillion dollars of debt is a good thing. Someone tell me why putting a halt to this insane practice is a bad thing.

    My fellow brothers and sisters, Christians or otherwise, the corruption runs deep in this country. And much of that corruption stems from the statist nature of our country. And it shows in these goofballs at NRO who pretend to be thinkers.

  5. CCWriter CCWriter says:

    I don’t think I fit in any of these categories.

    The problem with Barnburners to me is not that they want the party to advance their principles, but that they aren’t interested in coming up with a mix that can get majority support. They don’t seem to care what happens after they express themselves.


      It isn’t clear that Conservatives can’t get majority support; the problem is that the Establishment has prevented us from even trying to do so, hence candidates like Bush 41, Bush 43, McCain, Dole, and even Romney (arguably the best of this bunch). I see no reason to assume a priori that a Republican platform based on the idea of reducing the size of government, say modest spending cuts, massive de-regulation, and turning over the questions of gay “marriage” and abortion over to the states (i.e. overturning Roe v. Wade and standing by the Defense of Marriage Act) could not win at the Federal level if only it were tried. There is no guarantee; it may be that we’re already past the tipping point and the Democrats will now proceed to have a hammerlock on the Federal Government just as they do in states like CA, IL, and NY (all three of which are deep trouble, not coincidentally).

      Trust me, CC: Conservatives want to win, but we don’t think we can or should become Democrats-Lite in order to do so. Opposing abortion and even gay “marriage” shouldn’t prevent anyone from voting for us; if it does, and they choose to put on the yoke supplied by their Democratic masters, then more fool them – if the GOP would only at least make the case for freedom and give the voter a clear alternative to the outright statism of the Left.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Well said, Nahalkides. I’m all for trying. But the obstacles are enormous.

      • CCWriter CCWriter says:

        Well, if they could manage to thread the messaging needle along the lines you state, it might work. So far they keep falling into the Democrat demonization trap. That’s a fact; maybe it’s time to figure out how to outmaneuver it instead of being in denial.

        Meanwhile, I was really impressed by something Brit Hume said on Fox yesterday. Just found a link to the video. He’s explaining what the Tea Party contingent is thinking, and that even if they are missing the strategy component, he gets it. As do I.

        Now, I only wish that the seasoned tacticians and go-for-broke emoters could actually get together. For all we know they really are, and it just doesn’t look like it at the moment. In fact, if in all the brinksmanship kerfuffle it may seem as if the establishment has defeated the Tea Party, do bear in mind it might be theater to put one over on the Obama side. Whatever gets the job done.

        I for one will take any cries of “Cave! Cave!” with a grain of salt. It’s easy to holler and scream; as far as I’m concerned anyone who says “why won’t they fight!” ought to be made to describe the scenario in terms of a chessboard and explain what moves they would make and the results.

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