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Think Again: America Is Much Less Conservative Than the Mainstream Media BelieveI

06/20/2013 05:05 pm 17:05:54 | Updated Aug 20, 2013

It's a well-known "fact" within the mainstream media that the country is not as liberal as journalists like to think it is. As with the consistent insistence on the prevalence of liberal bias, however, that fact is also fundamentally false.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough is among many in the media and elsewhere who like to, as he says, "warn [their] friends in Manhattan and Washington and L.A. and in the mainstream media ... that America is much more conservative" than they believe it to be. He made this claim in February 2012, basing it on the example of marriage for same-sex couples, noting that a majority of Americans still opposed its legalization. Scarborough did not actually identify which of his "friends" were making this claim, nor did he identify the nature of the argument they allegedly offered.

Leaving that aside, however, he had his facts wrong. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, marriage equality was supported by a 54 percent to 40 percent majority within 30 days of Scarborough's evidence-less assertion. Similarly, the Gallup poll on the issue taken closest to the statement, in May 2012, also put the number supporting marriage equality above 50 percent. (And don't forget, we know that Gallup consistently oversampled for Republicans throughout 2012, so that number is, if anything, understated.)

Scarborough needn't feel alone in his ignorance. The members of America's political class, whether journalists, pundits, or politicians, routinely overestimate the relative conservatism of the American people. In fact, David E. Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan published a study in March and discovered that thousands of state legislative candidates systematically judged their constituents' political views to be considerably more conservative than they actually were.

While this was mildly true in the case of liberals and moderates, it turns out that conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. "This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country," Broockman and Skovron discovered. The source of this misinformation is unclear, but one can reasonably conclude that much if not all of the problem lies with the mainstream media. After all, state legislature candidates cannot usually afford much polling, and none of us are immune to the power of the media to shape what Walter Lippmann termed "the world outside and the pictures in our heads."

A significant part of the problem appears to lie with the inaccurate use of labels. Without a doubt, self-professed conservatives consistently outnumber liberals in polls when Americans are questioned about their respective ideological orientations. Politicians, pundits, and reporters tend to believe that this extends to their views on the issues. It doesn't. In fact it represents little more than the extensive investments conservatives have made in demonizing the liberal label and associating it with one unflattering characteristic after another.

I delved deeply into this phenomenon while researching my 2008 book, titled Why We're Liberals. In the book, I noted that as a result of a four-decade-long campaign of conservative calumny, together with some significant errors on liberals' own part, the word "liberal," as political scientist Drew Westen observed, implied to most Americans terms such as "elite, tax and spend, out of touch," and "Massachusetts." No wonder barely one in five Americans wished to associate himself or herself with the label, then as now.

Yet at the very same time, detailed polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly "liberal" positions by almost any definition. As I noted:

To offer just a few examples of this liberal-in-all-but-name attitude regarding economic and welfare policy, according to the 2006 survey, released in March 2007, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility "to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." ... Two-thirds of the public (66 percent) -- including a majority of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent) -- favor government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most people also believe that the nation's corporations are too powerful and fail to strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high, about the same number who say that "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person" (68 percent). When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) supports stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, while 69 percent agree that "we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies," and fully 60 percent of people would "be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment."

Unfortunately, the ideological labeling/issue preference mismatch phenomenon appears to be here to stay -- at least for the foreseeable future. As Tom Jacobs of Pacific Standard magazine points out -- much in line with all of the above -- a working paper the magazine wrote about in 2011 found that, "although about 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives (with 35 percent calling themselves moderates and 21 percent liberals, according to a 2012 Gallup survey), only about one-quarter of them are truly conservative on the issues." Jacobs further notes, "In still another paper, presented at the Southern Political Science Association meeting in January, three researchers from Washington University in St. Louis ... [reported] that 'symbolic conservatives often are operational liberals.'"

What's more, just this week, yet another Pew study, this one dealing exclusively with Millennials, finds much the same thing taking place in their politics.

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