Descending from the high moral frame of discussing polarization in terms of Martin Luther King's model of Ghandian social change, I want to return to a more mundane, but still highly significant approach: number-crunching reality. Ideological polarization is vastly overplayed, I argue in this diary. And in the next, I will look at how partisan sorting of ideology has produced a stronger polarizing effect well beyond the modest ideological shifts of recent years.
Throughout the 1990s, a period of significant budget-tightening, a cross-section of Americans supported increased spending across a broad range of social programs, rather than cutting them back. The General Social Survey (GSS), which had been posing such questions every year or two since 1972, produced the following cumulative totals for 1992-2000, in response to the question how much are we spending:
|GSS National Spending Preferences|
> 50% Support For More
|Improving nations education system||55.5||22||22.5||71.2||77.5|
|Dealing with drug addiction||52.6||29.8||17.7||74.8||82.4|
|Improving & protecting nations health||50.5||28||21.6||70||78.5|
|* Liberalism index = "too little" [liberal position] / ("too little" + "too much") [liberal position + conservative position]. |
For a number of other programs, the number saying we spent "too little" fell below 50%, but was still much higher than those saying we were spending "too much." What's more the combined number saying we weren't spending "too much" stayed safely deep inside landslide territory--greater than 60%. In fact, the combined totals were greater than 70%:
|GSS National Spending Preferences|
< 50% Support For More
But >70% Support For More Or Stable
|Solving problems of big cities||49.8||26.1||24.1||67.4||75.9|
|Assistance to the poor||45.6||27.6||26.7||63.1||73.2|
|Improving & protecting environment||44.2||30.7||25.1||63.8||74.9|
|Highways and bridges||41.4||46.1||12.5||76.8||87.5|
|Parks and recreation||29.5||55.3||15.1||66.1||84.8|
These numbers might come as a surprise to many people. This was, after all the period of "Gingrich Revolution," a wholesale attack on the notion of "big government." There were suggestions that Congress should be made part-time, like the legislatures of most Southern and rural states, and even President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over." The people, evidently, had different ideas-though you'd never know it from the political coverage of the decade.
But the most surprising thing about these numbers is that they are not a cross-section of all Americans. They are a cross-section of Americans who self-identified as the most conservative on a scale of 1 to 7-roughly the most conservative three percent of the population by self-identification.
|Naturally, self-identification is not a perfect measure. Some of these people are surely mistaken. Yet, the numbers are generally similar among all who identify as more conservative then not. There is nowhere across the spectrum of ideological self-identification that opposes such spending. The results are inescapable: American conservatives are, on balance, supporters of big government and the liberal welfare state, despite the fact that those who represent them as conservative leaders feel exactly the opposite.
In fact, most conservatives seem to line up with old-fashioned conservatives like Bob Dole, whom Newt Gingrich attacked in 1983 as being a "tax-collector for the welfare state"-and this is deeply indicative of the change that has taken place among self-identified conservative politicians.
As the Republican's presidential nominee in 1996 and their vice-presidential nominee in 1976, Dole's position as a party leader and a conservative were seemingly unassailable. Yet, Dole came back from World War II severely injured. Although he received private help as well, he owed his return to normal life to extensive government-provided rehabilitation services-just as his government owed its continued existence to men like him. He may have been a conservative-and he was. But he knew from personal experience that government and the people had a bond together, and that honoring and preserving that bond was just as much a matter of conservative principles as it was a matter of liberal ones. A majority of conservatives who had been through the Great Depression and World War II reached similar conclusions, and so did the majority of conservatives who came after them.
But the movement conservative politicians of today do not go to war, so much as command others to go for them. The lessons of social solidarity that all Americans-liberals and conservative-learned from World War II are utterly lost on them.
This is why they are utterly outraged at the emergence of Mike Huckabee as a leading Presidential contender. Although he comes from a much more intensely and overtly religious subtradition, when it comes to the fundamental responsibilities of government, Huckabee is a Bob Dole-style "tax and spend" conservative. (Taxing and spending: it's what governments do. As Yogi Bera would say, "You could look it up.")
Conservatives Are Liberal On Other Issues, Too
Conservative support for liberal positions is not limited to social spending, however, since the liberal character of the American electorate can be across a wide range of issue area. In chapters 2-7, we will examine this in detail. However, a couple of broad-scale approaches provide a quick overview, indicative of what we will find in those chapters.
In his 1999 book, Public Opinion in America (2nd Edition), political scientist James A. Stimson observed that on average people self-identified as conservative over liberal by about 2-1, but had policy preferences exactly opposite-2-1 liberal. Of necessity, this means that a very large number of self-identified conservatives have generalized liberal policy preferences, going far beyond social spending.
Throughout the 1980s, another researcher, Tom W. Smith, published a series of studies, beginning with 111 trends in 1982 and concluding with a study of 455 trends in 1989. Smith organized the 455 time series into 17 categories of issue areas. Each was analyzed to see if it remained constant, showed linear movement in either direction, or showed non-linear movement (moving first one way, then another.) His first measure was simply to count the number of trends in each direction. He found that "54.9% are in the liberal direction and 24.2% in the conservative direction. Liberal trends thus exceed conservative trends by over two-to-one (2.27:1)." The net liberal/conservative score was thus 30.7%. Smith conducted a series of adjustments, to see if different ways of analyzing the data would produce significantly different results. They did not.
Smith also used a second measure, examining the amount of change-a measure called slope. He found that the net slope-the average slope of all the series-was 0.4 percent per year in the liberal direction. He also used a more refined measure of slope, a weighted average that takes account of the length of each time-series. Since liberal trends averaged longer than conservative trends on average, this produced a more liberal net slope of 0.47 percent per year.
There was significant variation between categories in all three measures, with race/ethnicity showing the greatest liberal trend by all three measures. On the other hand, crime was the only category showing a conservative trend by all three measures. Indeed, no other category showed a conservative trend using the weighted slope.
Smith also analyzed slope by year, and discovered that the vast majority of liberal trending took place prior to 1974. Combining Smith's findings and Stimson's it seems strongly indicated that America as a whole is a much more liberal country than it was immediately after World War II, but only slightly more liberal than it was in 1974, when Nixon resigned. This stands in sharp contrast to the political establishment, which is markedly more conservative than it was in 1974.
The Liberal/Conservative Overlap On Issues
Among ordinary people, the categories "liberal" and "conservative" are fuzzy, with lots of overlap, as countless polls have repeatedly shown. Not only do most conservatives have liberal or moderate attitudes across a wide range of issues, but many liberals also have moderate or conservative attitudes-although not to the same degree, especially on the core spending questions.
For example, if we look at the GSS's cumulative results since 1972, in seven issue areas-national defense, education, the environment, health care, social security, aid to cities and aid to blacks, the difference between self-identified liberals and conservatives ranged from a high of 26.7 percent to a low of 11.6 percent-a million miles away from the 100 percent opposition you would expect from the constant demonization of liberals.
Even when we turn to so-called 'hot-button' issues, the differences between liberals and conservatives are far from polar opposition. When asked if it should be legal for a woman to get an abortion "for any reason," the GSS showed a difference of 21.8 percent between liberals and conservative. But when given three choices-should abortion be legal "always," "sometimes," or "never," the difference sank to 12.1 percent.
What's more, the vast majority of that difference did not come from extreme opposition to abortion-the supposedly defining position for conservatives. Among liberals, 7.0 percent said abortion should never be legal. Among conservatives, the figure was 9.8 percent-a difference of just 2.8 percent. Yet, to hear hardline conservatives speak, you would think that the difference here would be 100 percent-all liberals would oppose outlawing abortions completely, and all conservatives would support outlawing them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Next Diary: Collapsing The Overlap: The Gulf Between Issues and Candidates, and More...