So I guess you can’t blame conservative Republicans for thinking that the last election put them in the ideological driver’s seat. But a moment’s reflection shows that the government-control contest and the idea-contest are at least relatively autonomous. That raises the possibility that conservatives savoring recent Republican victories are kidding themselves just as liberal Democrats were kidding themselves two years ago when, contemplating the 2008 election returns, they envisaged a new progressive dawn .
Sometimes a party keeps or regains control of a branch of government by surrendering ideological ground. Liberals over the age of 40 know the feeling. A lot of them had a bittersweet taste in their mouths when Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 by proclaiming that the “age of big government is over” and abandoning the left wing of the Democratic Party over the ideologically charged issue of welfare reform.
Or a party can win control of a branch of government in a low-turnout mid-term election by mobilizing one ideological constituency while the opposing constituency sits on its hands. Those gains are often ephemeral because the ideological composition of the larger electorate that turns out for a presidential election hasn’t changed and liberal constituencies are likely to be re-mobilized in two years.
Here are Ed Kilgore and Ruy Teixeira making the argument that, because the last election fits snugly into the second category, it would be a mistake to interpret impressive Republican gains in the House as a sign that the electorate as a whole, or the median voter in particular, is getting more conservative.
I can’t fault Kilgore and Teixeira’s logic; that registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were more likely to identify themselves as “conservatives” this year than in 2006 or 2008 doesn’t imply much of anything about the ideological self-identification of genuine swing voters. Accordingly, the ideological appearances generated by this election don’t tell you much about the parties’ comparative prospects for capturing crucial swing votes in the next one.“So overall [says Teixeira,] we’re shifting Republicans around between straight identifiers and leaners, both straight Republican identifiers and leaners have become more conservative over time and they turned out at very high levels in 2010. That’s the basic story. There is no big ideological shift here viewed across registered voters as a whole. It’s overwhelmingly an intra-Republican story.
“’To put Ruy’s analysis another way [says Kilgore], people who are by and large going to vote Republican in most elections have become more conservative, and they did turn out disproportionately in 2010, for all sorts of reasons, including their age and ethnicity. This is not the same as suggesting t that “swing voters” are moving to the right. It’s the failure to understand that a majority of independents aren’t really ‘independent’ that sustains the illusion that indies are primarily wing voters who are now swinging hard to the Right and to the GOP.”
But is it really plausible that Republican-leaning constituencies' getting more conservative according to their own lights has no impact on the ideological content of other voters’ preferences? That would be a more credible assumption if every ideological community had its own insular political culture and developed its ideas about how the political world does and should work by responding to largely separate stimuli.
There are important respects, however, in which everyone across the American ideological spectrum shares a single political culture, gets its politically relevant information from the same sources and develops his or her own political preferences by responding to same set of choices presented by the major parties during election campaigns. Under the circumstances, it seems a lot more plausible to think of the ideological spectrum as an ecological system, in which changes in the opinion of sizable group of people at one place on the spectrum has an impact on the content of beliefs of people across the spectrum. Part of what makes people identify themselves as conservative or liberal, after all, is their perception that they stand to right or left of other people and that they now stand to right or left of where they themselves once stood.
We can argue about what the fact that more Republican-leaning voters are identifying themselves as conservatives says about the state of play in the battle of ideas. But it must mean something, and probably means something disheartening for liberals.