07 Feb 2011

The Myth of the Self Reported Conservative Majority

Reason magazine is much too libertarian for me to agree with it too often, but I do appreciate its honesty. They have a great post out today that debunks this myth, promulgated for years, that there is a giant majority of conservatives in our country. They site polls that show self reporting of people saying that they are conservative or moderate… but when you look at where these people actually stand on the issues, you find that this just doesn’t bear out.

About one-third of Americans say they fall in the middle of the road. But “a very large portion of the people who tell pollsters they are ‘moderates’ are in fact loyal, partisan Democrats who view their own party as representing moderate views,” writes Olsen in the journal National Affairs. “These voters are clearly not open to persuasion by the right or center-right, and they constitute a hidden ‘liberal’ component of the electorate that traditional poll questions tend to overlook.”

Not only that, but when people say they are conservative, they don’t mean they subscribe to the philosophical tenets of the intellectual right. This is particularly true of white, working-class voters, whom Olsen credits for the Republican House sweep.

As a rule, they don’t like taxes or deficits, but they value public schools and Social Security. They resent welfare dependency but want a government safety net.

The temptation of any political party is to interpret any impressive triumph as an enduring affirmation of its ideology. Democrats did it after their 2008 triumph, with the left-of-center magazine The New Republic running an article titled, “America the Liberal.”

But Obama won more because of the lousy economy than his worldview—which, as it happens, was also true of Reagan in 1980. Since taking office, Obama has been forcefully reminded that America is much less liberal than his party imagined.

These kinds of polls merely ask the wrong questions. Polling on the issues shows that most people are not as ideologically extreme as either party, and those identifying with either party dwindles after each election cycle.

I see this all the time on Twitter, and in comments of blogs. The country does seem to tilt a smidge to the right overall, but is by no means a conservative country overwhelmingly.

Author Details
After a few years of blogging on other sites, Solomon launched ‘Rise of the Center’ – the precursor to Uniters.org, leading to a number of interviews and freelance opportunities, most notably covering the 2012 election cycle on WNYC.org – the website for the largest NPR station in the country, in New York City – and reported from the floor of the 2012 Democratic & Republican National Conventions. After a hiatus from politics, the horrific circus of the 2016 election, and more generally increasing extremism and corruption, brought him back to this project.
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After a few years of blogging on other sites, Solomon launched ‘Rise of the Center’ – the precursor to Uniters.org, leading to a number of interviews and freelance opportunities, most notably covering the 2012 election cycle on WNYC.org – the website for the largest NPR station in the country, in New York City – and reported from the floor of the 2012 Democratic & Republican National Conventions. After a hiatus from politics, the horrific circus of the 2016 election, and more generally increasing extremism and corruption, brought him back to this project.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Self Reported Conservative Majority”

  1. The red/blue paradigm is just as useless in predicting political outcome as when one adds a middle to the paradigm.
    Not to sound too Marxian, an economic paradigm better explains political behavior.
    The middle America paradigm divides the electorate into three rough economic categories, desperate poor, middle, and wealthy elite.  It is easy to identify issues as desperate poor, middle, or wealthy elite issues.
    The extreme radical ends, desperate poor and wealthy elite are identified as what they are, “extreme”.
    Everyone else is middle.  The middle might be roughly divided into emerging wealthy or emerging poor.
    The bottom line is, people primarily vote their pocketbook, that is their real or perceived economic status.
    No political paradigm is perfect, some just better explain political behavior than others.
    I believe the “middle America” paradigm better explains political behavior.
     

  2. Hm. I must be a freak outlier. I don’t just vote for my pocketbook. I vote for what appears to be in the best interests of the public, the planet and well as special interests, to the extent that they can reasonably be accommodated. Although they are rarely a choice, I always look for win-win scenarios.
     
    If the public interest is reasonably served, I just assume that my personal interests will be served, including my income stream. Maybe I am naive.

  3. Here in Ireland we tend to lack the bitter divisions of American left/right politics. The two major parties for decades here have been centrist/populist/centre-right, embracing new stances as popular demand seemed to be shifting.

    Today we have a lot of debate because the economic crisis has given some far-left parties a boost. But in reality we know that whoever wins the upcoming election we’re going to remain – like almost all developed countries – a social democracy of some kind.

    I sometimes wonder if political groups pretend to be hugely opposed to give voters the impression that there is a lot of choice, when really the new government will be similar to the old.

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