Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is this a Center-Right Country?

Conservatives never tire of saying that this is a center-right country with which Obama and the Democratic Party are increasingly out-of-step. Liberals like to point to the last two national elections as proof that, when conservatives say such things, they’re letting wishful thinking get the better of them. But liberals are too demoralized today, and have lost too many elections they think they should have won over the last forty years, to resist the dispiriting suspicion that conservatives may be right.

A recent Pew study about how registered Republicans, Independents and Democrats situate themselves and the political parties on the ideological spectrum won’t quiet that suspicion. Here’s how Pew summarizes its findings:
“[M]ore voters view the Democratic Party as very liberal than see the Republican Party as very conservative (26% vs. 18%). As a result, the average rating for the Democratic Party's ideology among all voters is somewhat farther to the left than the Republican Party's is to the right. The Republican Party's rating also is closer to voters' average ratings of their own ideology, which is slightly to the right of center.

”These average ratings reflect sharp differences between how Republican voters view the Democratic Party and how Democrats view the GOP. More than eight-in-ten Republican voters (83%) say the Democratic Party is liberal (34%) or very liberal (49%). By contrast, a smaller majority (61%) of Democratic voters view the GOP as conservative (33%) or very conservative (29%).”
Smart center-left bloggers have done their best to explain Pew’s results in a way that doesn’t oblige liberals to concede that they’re surrendering contested ideological ground. Matthew Yglesias, for example, speculates about a “psychological anchor phenomenon” generated by the way the mainstream media have decided to describe the Tea Party movement. And Paul Waldman and Jonathan Chait think it’s a matter of Republicans and conservatives getting their news from propagandistic outlets like Fox while liberals and moderates still get most of theirs from outlets that at least pretend to political objectivity. All these explanations leave open the possibility that Democrats are just the victims of ephemeral economic distress and their own inept messaging.

I don’t doubt that there’s something to each of these explanations. But I want to take a couple of steps back to contemplate the conceptual grid of the Pew study. It works by asking a sample of registered voters to identify themselves as Democrats/Republicans/independents, and then to describe themselves and the parties as either liberal/conservative/moderate or very liberal/conservative. A numerical value is assigned to each answer so that an average ideological score can be computed for each group of respondents. The ideological spectrum this generates is an artifact of that mathematical operation. That makes the Pew study turn on at least two widely employed oversimplifications.

The first is the assumption that all political commitments can be plotted somewhere along a single ideological spectrum without serious distortion. It doesn’t take much self-examination, however, to discover that our political commitments are multi-dimensional. Most of us, for example, have somewhat considered views not only about what our government should decide to do, but about how it should decide what to do.

These are logically independent commitments in that one’s view of the first issue doesn’t commit one to any particular view of the second. When a democratic political system is functioning properly, the what decision and the how decision are also psychologically independent in the minds of people across the political spectrum, in that most people are visibly prepared to constrain their partisanship in deference to the shared civic norms. When partisans disregard or tailor their interpretation of those norms to their partisan agenda, however, they're drawing down on the reservoir of public trust that enables a democracy to reach legitimate public decisions.

That means that the Pew results conflate the respondents’ attitudes about substantive ideology and their attitudes about what counts as good democratic citizenship. Judging from the results of the 1998 mid-term election, a lot of people disapproved of the way the Gingrich-conservatives misused the impeachment process for the purely partisan end of bringing Bill Clinton down. The only way that disapproval could have been registered in the Pew study was by liberals and moderate voters disparaging the Gingrichites by calling them “very conservative” and somewhat conservative voters trying to put some space between themselves and the Gingrichites by identifying themselves as “moderates.”

Strictly speaking, however, disapproval of the Clinton impeachment had almost nothing to do with substantive ideology and almost everything to do with public perceptions that Gingrichites weren’t being very good citizens. Substantially the same dynamic seems to be animating the Tea Party movement. Its members like to call themselves “constitutional conservatives” because they’re as troubled by the democratic legitimacy of measures like ObamaCare than by their public policy content. None of that registers independently in the Pew results.

The second noteworthy feature of the Pew study is that it’s a snapshot taken at a particular point of time. But voters, especially ideologically minded voters, have memories that they bring to bear on their understanding of their own and other people’s ideologies. They remember enough about what Democrats and Republicans used to believe to be able to place them on the same ideological spectrum on which they situate today’s political players and themselves. When they do, you’d expect them to recall the innumerable respects in which Obama’s governing agenda puts him to the right not only of LBJ and Carter, but of Republican presidents like Nixon and Ford. You’d expect voters to remember, moreover, that today’s mainstream Republicans embrace policies, like the repeal of the estate tax, that are too right-wing ever to have occurred to Ronald Reagan.

Political memory goes some of the way toward explaining why, on average, Democrats think that the Democratic Party is ideologically moderate. It sure looks that way when you compare it to the party of  LBJ.  But if we assume that Independents and Republicans have comparable memories, the Pew results are all-the-more startling. Despite the Democratic Party’s spectacular move to the right on domestic policy over the last forty years, Independents and Republicans still think on average that it's “liberal” and “very liberal” respectively. That goes to show how far the entire ideological spectrum has moved to the right since LBJ was building the Great Society.

That’s what should be keeping liberals up at night.


Dave said...

I’ve often wondered about the soundbite that “America is a center-right country”. It has always sounded suspiciously similar to saying that “all the children are above average”. I mean, wherever America is politically, on average: is that not, by definition, the center? If the country is right of center, then what do we even mean when we say “the center”? The whole thing is bizarre.

So I’m grateful to you for explaining the method behind this metric. I finally understand what that soundbite is trying to say -- even if what it's trying to say is still, at best, muddled and confusing.

Ignoring the questions about the parties and focusing solely on where people see themselves, it seems to me that the survey is telling us simply that “the perceived political position of self is to the right of the perceived political position of others." One of those two perceptions must be wrong: we can't, on average, be to the right of average. And if we assume that each person's perception of self is correct, then ultimately, we should interpret this survey result as reporting on how we err in our "perception of center". Specifically:

Americans perceive America as being slightly to the left of where it actually is.

There are other possible interpretations. For instance, when I tell a pollster I’m conservative, perhaps I don’t mean I’m more conservative than the average American: perhaps I mean I’m more conservative than the government (“and I think most Americans would agree with me”). When I say the Democratic party is “very liberal”, perhaps I mean “now, relative to where it used to be.” You can be confident there’s a mix of these meanings among the poll respondents, muddling any single interpretation of the responses.

Regardless, the interesting takeaway of all this, to me, is about the “perception of center”. Why would we perceive America to be farther left than it is? Is it a result of a liberal-tilt “mainstream” media, e.g. conservative outlets and positions are tagged as “conservative”, while liberal outlets and positions are untagged and thus assumed to be “center”? Are there more and louder voices on the right, telling us that the country is more liberal than it is?

Or is this all much ado about an ambiguous survey question?

Ron Replogle said...


I think that when you call this a country "center-right" you're comparing it to other countries. Doesn't it make sense to say, for instance, that this is a this is "a center-right country" inasmuch as the median voter here is somewhat to the right of the median voter in a sample composed of, say, all the voters of the G-8 countries?

Ron Replogle said...

Sorry, I meant to address my last comment to Dave.

Dave said...

That may well be what politicians and pundits mean when they say that this is a center-right country; however, that's not at all what the Pew study tells us -- unless you believe that the average American, when asked "Are you liberal or conservative?", implicitly assumes "relative to an international standard, such as the G-8 countries, right?" and, moreover, has a good and consistent feel for what that standard is.