Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Are Words For? 2

Via Monkey Cage, Gallup has fascinating new numbers out that show the limits of whatever success conservatives have had convincing Americans that they are conservatives.  In fact, in area after area, Americans think that government should have quite a bit of responsibility -- for protecting the environment, for making sure Americans have jobs and adequate health care, even for providing "a minimum standard of living for all."  Indeed, the only area Gallup polled on in which people endorsed the conservative answer was that Americans really don't want government to reduce income differences between rich and poor. 

Now, I wouldn't read too much into it (and John Sides cites other polling with different wording that shows the opposite results).  John has it just about right:
It's a fool's errand to try to generalize about the ideological proclivities of the American public -- right, center-right, center-left, etc. The most salient fact is that most Americans don't have political ideologies similar to those of many political elites. Instead, their attitudes toward something like the role of government are more often ambivalent.
What polls like this (at least combined with election results over time in which mainstream liberal Democrats do just fine) do show that it doesn't seem to matter very much that Americans like to call themselves conservative, and especially that they don't like to call themselves liberal.  Really -- suppose that Sara Robinson spent her requested $100M and, presto!, it worked: instead of liberals running away from that label, they wore it proudly, because all the people who currently believe things liberals believe and/or vote for liberal candidates now thought of themselves as liberals.  What would change?  Well, nothing that I can see.  Oh, some superficial things would change, perhaps.  But it wouldn't create a market for liberal candidates pushing the idea that government should take responsibility for this or that pressing issue, because as the polling tells us that market already exists.  On the other hand, it also wouldn't destroy the market for conservative pols.  Indeed, people would still, just as they do now, manage to hold completely conflicting ideas about what government should and should not do.  Why shouldn't they?  Most of us never have to resolve conflicting impulses about individualism and the community, or about government that should guarantee the basics of life and government that reaches too far into our lives.  Both sides have long cultural histories, and therefore make intuitive sense to lots of Americans when seen through the right lens.  And building up liberalism or progressivism as a "brand" isn't going to change any of that.


  1. Americans self-identify as Conservative, I think, in the "devil we know" sense of the term. They're cautious about messing with things.

    When you ask them about what the world should be like, you get a Liberal's paradise.

    When you ask them what they'd be willing to pay to get there, you get "oh, maybe $10 / month".

    When you ask them what they think of a specific proposed change, you get "wait a minute! how do I know you won't totally f*ck it up?!".

    The liberal's job is to earn trust. The opposition just has to scare people. So, in a very real sense, it's "one 'aw sh*t' wipes out all previous 'attaboys'".

  2. Gordon is right. Americans may want liberal policies overall but since they identify as conservative, it is easier for conservatives to get their votes or scare them into voting out liberal incumbants than it is for liberals to get them to vote liberal or vote out conservative incumbants.

  3. I just don't see that in practice. I see a lot of GOP candidates happy to mouth platitudes about being conservative, but running away double speed from actual conservative positions. Conservative candidates are afraid to say they'll cut SS, they're actively right now campaigning *against* Medicare cuts, they can't campaign on closing any (specific) agencies or departments...and of course conservatives haven't exactly cleaned up in the last couple of election cycles. Yes, they'll do well this time, but not, I don't think, better than economic models would suggest.

    There might be an effect in GOP primaries, but even there I suspect it's other things, not branding.

  4. Well, I thought I was (implicitly) agreeing that branding matters only to the ideological few. The "conservative" that most identify with is "don't change anything, you might make it worse", not the brand.

    Convincing these people you can make changes without making it worse is long, slow and hard.

    It's also an asymmetric fight.

  5. I’m confused by your last paragraph. Isn’t Robinson’s argument premised on the claim that better branding would lead to more votes for Democrats? Are you claiming that branding brings no votes whatsoever?

    If so, that seems like a very strong claim to make based on a relatively small n (elections that have been forecast correctly by the economic model). I think that the economic model is useful, but I certainly wouldn’t want to elevate it to a status of universal law as you seem to do here.

  6. Anon,

    Yeah, that's more or less what I think. I don't know...maybe it would make some difference, but it seems highly unlikely to me. Getting people to think they're conservatives hasn't, as far as I can see, either made them change their views on issues or (to the extent that they have one) their philosophy about government, and it hasn't made them (as far as I can see) more likely to vote Republican. That is, they seem to vote Republican about as much as the similar people on the other side who don't like the word "liberal" vote for liberal Democrats.

    Or, to think of another possible branding opportunity: we know that there are large groups of voters who call themselves independents but vote just like people who call themselves Dems and Republicans. Suppose that you could, through marketing, get the indies who already vote that way to think of themselves as Dems. What exactly have you gained?


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