What do our political labels mean?

Jim, last night I sent a rather combative email response to you. I was tired and got on a rant. You had told me that the country was becoming more conservative, and I had to get over it, stop being mad about it, and accept the reality. In our email exchange, neither of us made the case for what we were saying. We were just spouting. So I’ll make my case here, and try to keep it as brief as possible–though as always I reject sound-bite debate out of hand. Reality is complicated and takes more than 30 seconds to explicate.

1. It is true that in the last few years, pundits and the corporate media (including your guy David Brooks) have adopted the meme that America is becoming more conservative, repeating it enough that it has become a truism that one challenges at the risk of being denounced. The belief comes largely from a Gallup poll in 2009 that showed that “conservatives” are the largest ideological group in America. It is telling that even in their study, they put “conservative” in quotes, as they don’t really define it. The poll just uses the words and asks people to identify with a group without any good definitions of what the words liberal or conservative mean. I think a lot of this is due to a generation of concerted effort on the right to demonize the word liberal, going back to Reagan saying that the scariest words in the language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

2. E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post did a nice job of parsing the study by Gallup, showing that the shift, if it exists, is actually quite small. He also makes clear the problem with having polls that don’t define their terms. He points to another large poll also from 2009 by the Center for American Progress that showed if rather than “liberal” you used the term “progressive” the numbers changed significantly, and the liberal/progressive ideology scored much better. This is demonstrated in the introduction to the study: “The rise of progressivism in America is reflected more starkly in direct ratings of various ideological approaches. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans rate a “progressive” approach to politics favorably, a 25-point increase in favorability over the last five years, with gains coming primarily from those who were previously unaware of the term. “Progressive” now equals ”conservative” in terms of overall public favorability (67 percent, respectively).”

3. We had our debate without really defining the terms. There is a nice chart here that delineates the sort of general/accepted differences between liberals and conservatives, or if you will between the left and the right. It starts with a general definition, and looks as a bunch of specific issues. For the most part I think it is accurate. Let me know if you agree or disagree, for to have a useful discussion, we have to agree what the terms mean. To boil it down to its essence, I would say that a liberal/progressive believes that we are all in this together and that the government is the tool we use for our common good, while conservatives believe each person for themselves and that the government should do little beyond national defense. Those are the extremes, and of course everyone falls at a different point along the line, which is why grand declarations about the country being more conservative or more liberal are hard to really parse, and ultimately problematic. If you look at polls on specific issues, you will find that overall the results lean more progressive/liberal than they do conservative on most of the issues, with perhaps the exception of gun control. We can look closely at those individual issues if you want, and that would certainly keep this post from being brief by any definition of that word.

4. If we have really become more conservative, why did Obama win the election over McCain? While he hasn’t always governed as a liberal, Obama certainly campaigned that way–hope and change–and the belief he would govern far more liberally than George Bush helped him get elected.

5. If we have really become more conservative, why is the right pushing laws in as many states as it can to make it more difficult to vote? I’ve linked to this Brennan Center study before. And note that all the efforts to suppress the vote come from the conservative side of the aisle. If they really believed they were the ideology America agreed with, wouldn’t they want to make it easier to vote?

6. So if you really believe we are becoming more conservative, please, make a fact-based case. Don’t just tell me to get over it and accept “reality.”

7. All of this discussion I think misses the larger point. For me the better question is not what people believe but what governing philosophy is better for the country. And yes, that means I believe the country can often be tricked into supporting things that go against their self-interest and the interests of the country. See Thomas Franks’ book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” And see the study I linked to awhile ago showing that huge proportions of America have used government social programs while believing that they have never used government social programs. In other words, we are being helped by the government but through endless propaganda from the right don’t believe we are. That makes it easier to make people believe they don’t need the government, easier to think they are conservatives. Of course, when that help from the government actually goes away, then people start to wake up, and when pushed far enough, take to the streets. That seems to be where we are now. Label it as you will.


About JP

We're two guys who met in college, in 1980. We've stayed in touch, and like to talk politics, current events, music and religion. JP is nore liberal than Sid, but not in every way. We figure that dialogue stimulates ideas, moderates perspective, and is in general friendly. These are things we need badly in these dangerous times. The blog name is taken from a song by Bruce Cockburn.
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