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Why Right-Wingers (and Media Hacks) Are Totally Wrong About What Americans Believe -- We're Becoming Less, Not More, Conservative

Americans' views on the most pressing issues of the day are actually solidly progressive, so why do the media keep getting the story wrong?

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Where Are We Really?

If most Americans don't really identify themselves on a left-right scale, and often hold complex and conflicted opinions on subjects that don't line up politically with the labels they choose, how do we figure out what people really think?

In a 2011 paper (PDF) on the polarization of Congress, Ferguson pointed out that it may well be a mistake to assume that people vote based on “hot-button” issues like abortion or gay rights. “Huge numbers of people holding hot-button attitudes continue to affiliate with the 'wrong' political party,” he noted. (This played out in California, when the referendum banning same-sex marriage passed at the same time Obama swept the state's presidential vote.)

In the same paper, Ferguson also noted, “To the extent any ideological change at all shows, it is as often as not slightly leftward. On some issues, such as same sex marriage, public opinion has moved sharply in that direction.”

But while we caution anyone not to read too much into polls, there are several issues on which the American public has been fairly well surveyed, and those polls show that the progressive position is not just popular, but extremely popular. People's view of Social Security, for instance, remains overwhelmingly positive—79 percent think it is “good for the country"--despite repeated right-wing attempts to cut benefits and convince Americans that private accounts are the solution. Eighty-eight percent of Americans like Medicare, the single-payer health insurance program for those over the age of 65, and 77 percent of them are fans of Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor.

In September, Americans favored taxing the rich and eliminating tax deductions for corporations, according to another Gallup poll—and by big margins, too, with 70 percent in favor of tossing the loopholes and 66 percent in favor of taxing those who make over $200,000 more ($250,000 for families). And a poll last April found that even 54 percent of Republicans favored higher taxes on the wealthy.

(One piece of Florida's report that was interesting was that so-called conservative political affiliation strongly correlated with a large percentage of blue-collar workers in a state, but those self-identified conservatives “appear to be split along class and income lines when it comes to the issue of whether government should provide help for the poor.” He cited a survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that 57 percent of Republicans with family incomes of less than $30,000 said that government does not do enough for the poor. Unsurprisingly, the rich Republicans think the government is giving too much of their money away. Of course, Florida doesn't bother extrapolating this information to the idea that maybe conservatism as defined by Republican politicians simply isn't as popular as its reputation, but that would be complicated.)

The Republicans, at the moment realizing that they won't beat Obama on the economy with a plan that includes cutting taxes on the rich, seem to have pivoted to the classic “culture war” issues, presuming that they can win there. But they might want to take note of some polling data taking stock of the latest ridiculous right-wing non-controversy—Americans seem to like their birth control (99 percent of women who have had sex have used some form of it) and at least 56 percent of them think that health insurance should cover it. (And just for the sake of argument—Catholics haven't abandoned Obama en masse over birth control, either, with 46 percent of them approving of the president during the week in which we saw a very public temper tantrum from the Catholic bishops over contraception coverage in health insurance, down only three points from the week before. And churchgoing and nonchurchgoing Catholics feel about the same about the president.)

 
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