Tuesday, June 19, 2012


My Sunday question this week was about why liberals don't use Democratic House and Senate primaries the way that conservatives use Republican primaries.

Nick Baumann believes it's just about an ideology gap, and refers to Gallup's charts which show that far more Republicans identify as conservatives than Democrats identify as liberals.

I'm pretty skeptical about this. It's certainly true that there's a big difference in self-identification, but it's not at all clear what that means. It does not, for example, mean that the movement conservative position on most issues tends to be the most popular one. Instead, polling majorities on policy are all over the place.

I don't want to say that the self-identification thing is totally meaningless. It certainly seems to reflect something out there, and it has consequences; in terms of primary elections, it's certainly true that Republican candidates fight over who is "really" conservative while Democratic candidates don't really do that. But does that have anything to do with issue content? Does it have anything to do with what we think of as ideology? I don't think there's a lot of evidence for that.

Again: the difference that I was talking about in Congressional primaries doesn't seem to be there at the presidential level. For presidential nominations, both sides seem to me to have a more or less equivalent set of litmus test issues, and you really can't get nominated unless you're on the correct side of them -- and I think it's hard to make the case that Democrats are more flexible about it than Republicans, or more likely to nominate party moderates.

And as for the self-identification numbers, I just don't think they're worth very much. Something, yes, but not very much.


  1. It really needs to be repeated quite frequently by political scientists: ideology is a very poor tool to describe the American public's positions on issues. It works pretty well for elites and high-information voters...but ideology is simply not a constraint for the majority of voters.

    Put differently: a lot of people have no idea what "liberal" or "conservative" means, and a lot of people have issue positions that are not part of a well-organized constellation of political ideas. They just like the environment and guns and taxes and don't like welfare or abortion. Those who consume a ton of political information are confronted with somewhat consistent ideological signals and their ideas come to be related to each other. But those who don't consume that much info simply never confront the inconsistencies in their positions. Toss on top of that the argument that the dominant American ideologies are far from internally consistent across all issues, and it's no wonder that ideology isn't a constraint for the majority of people.

  2. I said something similar in the comments of Baumann's post. Perhaps if we had more info from the primaries themselves we could see if one candidate described themselves as more conservative or liberal than the other. But until I see that data I too am not convinced that gallup poll means much.

    Also, I'm not sure if gallup does it. But if not I wish they would push people on those id labels to try and get a sense of what they think they mean.

  3. It's simple: "Liberal" has become a bit of a dirty word, so even some of the liberals don't use the label.

  4. It's at least darkly amusing that in a country where conservative political values are dead, there's been a longstanding, highly successful PR campaign against the word "liberal", so more people identify as "conservative".

  5. I think in a lot of ways, it comes down to the fact that Democrats respect government, and think it's important, and Republicans don't. Democrats want to know what their elected officials want the government achieve, which is not much of an ideological question. Republicans want to know what kind of noises their elected officials are going to make, and what kind of symbols they're going to deploy, although they don't much care what the government actually does. That is the kind of thing that results in pure ideological posturing.

  6. Couves & Reflection: both of you are right, but ideology has never been much of a constraint on the public. So, in a sense, liberal being made into a 4-letter word has bolloxed up the whole concept of ideology even further.
    What's interesting is that clearer signals from the parties has resulted in somewhat more ideological coherence amongst libs and cons. In other words, liberal becoming a 4-letter word has moved the topline, but had no real substantive effects on opinions, whereas partisan sorting/polarization has led to some partisans bringing some of their "rogue" issue positions into line.

    What "conservatives believe in X, Y and Z" couldn't do could be done by "Republicans believe in X, Y and Z, and are conservative."

  7. Krugman had a great column yesterday in which he astutely noted that (fiscal) collections of states need a central political body to smooth out the rough edges. Though Greece certainly sucks on so many levels, it isn't obviously worse relative to the Eurozone than Mississippi is to the US. We wouldn't expect Mississippi to go it alone, would we? Would we? (*crickets*)

    To take Matt Jarvis' first comment one step further, I suspect that for many of us ideology is like intellectual comfort food: I'm a conservative because I wouldn't want to be one of those damn liberals. Or vice versa. Matt generously proposed that these identifications arise from particular issue positions; I'm not sure even that is a necessary precondition.

    Tying it together, when Baumann gets angsty about
    the percentage of Gallup responders eating the liberal comfort food, maybe he's just - understandably - overthinking the thought behind the responses. Perhaps if Gallup had instead asked: "What do you think the Federal Government should do for Mississippi?", the percentage responses for "help", "humor" and "ignore" would be about the same as the observed "liberal", "moderate", and "conservative" responses - and the whole thing might start to make a bit more sense.

  8. There's a fairly recent bon mot that's apropos to this issue, something to do with how the Dems hate their base but the Repubs fear theirs, but I can't remember it off the top of my head and the almighty Google isnt helping

  9. The other issue: there exists no such thing as a genuine left among liberals. Among conservatives you have right-wing conservatives who believe in torture and pre-emptive war and kidnapping American citizens and hurling 'em into a secret prison forever without even charging 'em with a crime...and then you have the really extreme conservatives, who believe in things like shutting down the IRS and the U.S. mint and letting private citizens mint their own money (Ron Paul) or who believe it would be a good thing if America defaulted on its federal debt (John Bohener) or who advocate the return of child labor and eliminating agencies like the FDA that prevent corporations from putting poison in our food (Arizona congressional candidate Jesse Kelly: "It's our job to protect ourselves from e. coli, not the government's job.").

    The left equivalent of these kind of extreme ultraconservatives would be members of congress who are calling for the abolition of private property, the seizure of assets of all rich people, a national income cap, the elimination of money, and a nationwide guaranteed minimum income. (These policies sound hallucinogenically Marxist, right? Until you realize that a guaranteed minimum income was floated by FDR in his last term, and quite a number of members of congress during the Great Depression were calling for an income cap and the seizure of assets of the rich.)

    So where are these extreme far-left congressmen and congressional candidates?

    They don't exist.

    America in 2012 has an extreme far right but no extreme far left. In fact, hardly anything even resembling a true left: what Americans call "liberal" would be called conservative in Europe and the rest of the world. And a president like Obama, who signs off on continued tax cuts for billionaires while giving speeches in which he says government needs to tighten its belt and slash social programs for the poor in the midst of the greatest economic collapse since the 1930s, would be regarded in the rest of the world as a fringe lunatic extreme right-wing politician, the kind of extremist ultraconservative kook you could only find in, say, the Golden Dawn party in Greece or the National Front party in France.


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