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

Despite some misguided triumphalism on the Right, America is not getting more conservative. In fact, if you look at lots of public opinion polls, you'll find that just the opposite is true—Americans' views on the most pressing issues of the day are actually solidly progressive, with strong support for the social safety net and growing support for once-controversial social issues like marriage equality.

Nevertheless right-wing and center-contrarian media outlets love to jump on polls that identify Americans as conservative, without ever asking what the difference is between what your average Ohioan means by that word and what Marco Rubio means when he announces at CPAC that “the majority of Americans are conservatives.”

(Rubio's inaccurate comments sparked a controversy and prompted a vehement reaction from Rachel Maddow this week, as Politifact debunked his statement—but then rated it “mostly true” anyway, proving the pervasiveness of the myth of conservative America.)

An article by the Atlantic's Richard Florida titled, “Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative,” is an excellent example of the problem of relying on nebulously defined, self-identified “conservatism” as a measure of ideology. Florida cites new Gallup poll numbers (the same ones Rubio and Politifact cited) that the polling outlet itself said provided little evidence that America is “track[ing] right.” Gallup offered the far more innocuous headline, “Mississippi Most Conservative State, D.C. Most Liberal,” with the subhead: “State patterns in ideology largely stable compared with previous years.”

But “nothing has changed” doesn't make a good headline, and so Florida hooked an entire story on a false premise that belies the conclusions drawn by the pollsters he cites. Gallup goes on to point out, “Unlike political party identification, which has shifted significantly over the last four years, the state-by-state patterns in ideology have remained remarkably stable this year compared with previous years.”

And Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly noted:

If you look at the Gallup data on which Florida’s entire “analysis” (mainly just a charting of ideological self-identification by state) rests, it certainly doesn’t show any dramatic recent rightward trend. The percentage of Americans self-identifying as “conservative” since 1992 has varied from a low of 36% to a high of 40% (a high it reached in 2004, before dropping to 37% in 2008). As it happens, the percentage of Americans (again, according to Gallup) self-identifying as “liberal” has also gone up 4% since 1992 (from 17% to 21%). The percentage self-identifying as “moderates” has, accordingly, drifted down from 43% in 1992 to 35% in 2011, though the number was only two points higher in 2007 and 2008.

So this is a non-story given a clickworthy headline. Yet the willingness of writers and editors to greenlight stories on the myth of “conservative” or “center-right” America – and the willingness of supposed fact-checkers to support the idea – shows that this is a myth with incredible staying power in the American imagination. Why is that?

What Is a “Conservative,” Anyway?

When politicians speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference, as AlterNet's Adele Stan reported this week, they consider “conservatism” to be rigid opposition to abortion (and this year we're throwing birth control into that category as well), a deep aversion to taxes (for the rich, anyway) and a hatred of immigrants. Some years conservatism also includes a willingness to bomb whichever majority-Muslim country looked at us funny. If Rick Santorum is right, conservatives think the more energy they waste, the better they are, and if Newt Gingrich is to be believed, there's nothing they hate more than unemployment insurance.

But when Americans tell a pollster how they identify, most of them show their true colors, and it's not a deep red. As Paul Waldman of Media Matters for America noted back in 2008, “People who know a lot about politics -- like journalists -- assume that ordinary people have the same interpretation of those terms as political junkies have. But the truth, as nearly a half-century of political science research has made clear, is that a significant portion of the public has little or no idea of what these terms mean in the political world. A third of the public can't even tell you which of the two major parties is the 'conservative' one."

And Ezra Klein pointed out in 2010, even noted right-leaning pollsters have found for decades that more Americans self-identify with the Democratic party. So clearly, there's some space between what the GOP thinks “conservative” means and what the general public does.

The fact is that most Americans don't identify their political positions on a left-to-right spectrum the way journalists and political scientists do. As veteran organizers know, people vote with their guts, and their reaction to issues is both visceral and complicated. Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told AlterNet, “On specific concrete issues the population often likes a lot policies that are belied even by the labels they sometimes choose.”

Choosing three words like “conservative,” “moderate” and “liberal” as the only options to describe one's politics is, as Kilgore noted, a flawed methodology that tells us literally nothing about what those people actually support.

Polls are not always a reliable way to judge public opinion in the first place, Ferguson, who previously worked with the New York Times' pollster, pointed out. “If you do really careful samples and ask really careful questions you can usually learn a lot about true opinion. But that's difficult and expensive and most polls don't do this.”

Florida's story, for instance, doesn't describe the questions actually asked of responders. Ferguson explained that when it comes to issues on which people have conflicted opinions—like abortion—the way in which the question is asked or even the order in which questions are asked can change the response significantly. This phenomenon is called “priming” and happens subconsciously, but can still complicate or invalidate results.

A 2009 study from the Center for American Progress tried a more specific calculation of Americans' views, based not on which words they chose but their actual political positions:

Based on an innovative categorization of ideology, calculated from Americans’ responses to 40 statements about government and society split evenly between progressive and conservative beliefs, the American electorate as a whole records a mean ideological score of 209.5 in the Progressive Studies Program measure of composite ideology—solidly progressive in orientation. This figure is based on a composite scale of “0” to “400” with “0” being the most conservative position on the continuum and “400” being the most progressive. Americans are most progressive about the role of government and least progressive on cultural and social values. Ideas about economics and international affairs fall in-between.

And a new paper presented last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology found that political polarization in the U.S. has hardly changed at all in the last 40 years—but that Americans vastly overestimate how polarized we are. In a separate study presented at the same conference, another psychology professor looked at the reasons behind that perceived polarization, examining why people who are extremely partisan assume that others are as well, and found that projection, unsurprisingly, plays a role—those with strong views project their strong views onto others.

Which may explain part of the problem when it comes to the media and politicians. Marco Rubio, a right-wing Republican, obviously believes that when people identify as conservatives, they're just like him. And PolitiFact's team and Richard Florida, as well as other reporters, are steeped in a culture of conventional wisdom and stock narratives into which they fit information they receive. The problem, though, is that those narratives and conventional wisdom are often based on little in the way of hard evidence—and are often counter to reality.

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.)

Gay marriage, as Ferguson pointed out above, is an issue on which the public has largely swung more progressive—for the first time, in 2011, a majority of 51 percent favor same-sex couples being allowed marriage rights (from an average of four polls conducted by different organizations). And what polls even better than marriage equality? Protection from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Indeed, this is so popular that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe it should be a law, and 9 out of 10 of them think it already is.

In his Atlantic story, Florida provides graphs mapping demographic characteristics that correlate with the more self-identified “conservative” parts of the country. While many of his points seem pretty obvious (more diverse areas of the country are less conservative! College graduates are more liberal!) they also, if he chose to dig any deeper, would spell disaster for his conservative-creep theory.

As Ruy Teixeira pointed out in a Center for American Progress report in 2009, the demographics aren't on the conservatives' side. Younger voters are trending progressive, and voters of color will be a greater and greater percentage of the population as time passes. “By the election of 2016, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation,” Teixeira wrote.

And perhaps reflecting that shift in demographics, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans consider the conflict between the rich and the poor to be the greatest source of tension in American society—two-thirds of us, up about 50 percent from a 2009 survey. Richard Morin, a senior editor at Pew, credited Occupy Wall Street, among other things, for pushing the shift in national opinion. “The story for me was the consistency of the change,” he told the New York Times. “Everyone sees more conflict.” (In 2009, by contrast, immigration was seen as the largest source of conflict.)

Media outlets report on these polls individually all the time, but rarely bother to refer back to earlier studies when new ones come out—particularly one, like the Gallup poll, which seems to offer a sweeping conclusion easily demagogued by politicians like Marco Rubio. Politics these days is all about the campaign, and the media is all about the sound bite. Calculating where the American public actually stands on an issue, rather than sweeping them into a category called “conservative” or “liberal” is a complex affair, and reporters and pundits prefer simple answers. 

The fact is, though, as Rachel Maddow pointed out, the simple answer in this case is very simply wrong. Americans aren't getting more conservative, a majority of the country is not Republican or Republican-leaning, and if anything, we're swinging the other way—which should make all of us who don't subscribe to Rubio and Newt Gingrich's version of America sleep better at night.

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