Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere

January 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

Tim Kowal at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen is going after Kevin Drum for repeating what political scientist have known for about half a century. First, Drum:

You all remember the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal? It means that lots of Americans say they’re conservative and like to believe they’re conservative, but when it comes to specific government programs they turn out to be pretty liberal. They like Medicare and Social Security and federal highways and disaster relief and unemployment insurance and all that. Try to cut these things and you learn very quickly just how operationally liberal most Americans are.

To which Kowal responds:

Yes, I remember that old saw.  It’s rubbish.  Try it in another context:  A lot of Americans say they eat healthy, and like to believe they eat healthy, but put a bunch of tasty junk food in front of them and, Bob’s your uncle, they turn out to be pretty unhealthy after all.

Of course people are not going to give up Medicare and Social Security after those programs have been dangled in front of them their entire working lives.  (They’re just tax-and-spend programs, remember, so we’re not “investing” in our own “trust accounts”—we’re paying for them because we like them so much because, again, we’re all “operationally liberal.”)  To suggest this means the whole thing’s a draw politically is pretty crooked scorekeeping.

OK, let’s go ahead and chalk people opposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security up to them wanting to get a return on their metaphorical investment. I’m not sure I completely agree, but whatever. The thing is, “that old saw” doesn’t just apply to so-called entitlement cuts.

Basically, what researchers have (repeatedly) done is get a bunch of people together and have them fill out a long and comprehensive political questionnaire. They ask them to choose an ideological label, vague questions about principles (e.g., whether the government should do more or less), and ask them thousands of questions on specific policies in order to ascertain the ideological character of their policy preferences.

Here’s what they found:

In the aggregate, Americans are always operationally liberal on average.
They prefer policies through which the government does and spends more to solve social
problems. And they are always symbolically conservative on average: they consistently prefer the
conservative label to the liberal one.


Only about one in five self identified conservatives holds consistently conservative issue positions: right of center positions on both [moral and social welfare] dimensions. Put another way, almost 80% of professed conservatives are not conservative on at least one of these dimensions.

Notice that Ellis and Stimson’s findings apply to more than the few social programs that this country still provides. Hell, they aren’t even restricted to economic issues. A plurality (34%!) of conservatives, Ellis and Stimson discover, are neither social nor economic conservatives. 30% are conservative morally but not economically, and 15% are conservative on issues of social welfare but not morality. And again, this is far from an isolated study. Repeatedly, political scientists have found this to be the case.

Even outside of academic research, it isn’t very difficult to find issues where the symbolically conservative public is to the left of not only Republicans but Democrats as well.

But I’m sure Kowal will dismiss all of this as Americans gorging on “junk food” (funny for a guy who indignantly chastised Drum for supposedly condescending to “flyover country”). Faced with evidence of his own ideological isolation, he equates those who don’t toe the Federalist Society line to children who want sugar. Is it any surprise, then, that most Americans hold fundamentally liberal policy positions? Even as liberalism has fallen out of favor as a label people are unable to adopt truly conservative ideals. A movement that would call care for our most vulnerable “junk food” while demanding massive tax cuts for our most prosperous is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is one thing to argue that in a world of limited resources we cannot do everything we would like to – it is quite another to mock the positions of all who disagree with you as childish whims.


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§ 4 Responses to Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere

  • Tim Kowal says:

    You can tell me if anything in the three books you linked to address this, but “conservative” and “liberal” are abstract concepts that describe a particular structure in a social organization or political economy. It’s problematic to assign these labels to specific policy preferences, however. Take social security. As I alluded to, many Americans believe that they’re entitled to social security not because young working people have a general moral obligation to pay for their retirement, but because they understand, incorrectly, that they’ve paid into something of a trust account. Thus, their support for social security is actually quite conservative (notwithstanding the big government aspect of it). I’d guess roughly the same psychological phenomenon is happening with medicare. It is disingenuous to call these folks “operationally liberal” when they have been made to pay into a system that looks like a retirement account and acts like a retirement account but is, by design of New Deal liberals, a liberal tax and spend program.

    Similarly, one might say Americans are “operationally liberal” who support laws like RLUIPA, or national education reforms, etc. Point being, liberals have changed the way political structures can be influenced, and conservatives have to play by these rules. For example, I might oppose federal dollars being spent on local schools. But a liberal California court changed the way residents paid for their children’s education, resulting in the passage of Prop 13 by concerned homeowners who suddenly lost the value of their investments due to the ruling, which ultimately wound up starving many California schools. ESL and other programs required by law, as well as overhead for liberal teachers unions also use up limited local funds. Am I “operationally liberal” to approve of federal funds or other national reforms to keep the whole patchwork going at least until my daughter graduates? Again, I think it’s a lousy political dig to say so.

    • Yeggman says:

      You’re right that there’s some room for interpretation, but there are enough issues where there’s a very clear line between the liberal and conservative positions to draw conclusions. Should we be spending more on social programs or shouldn’t we? Should we favor liberal abortion laws or ban the practice? Should the government provide health insurance to all Americans, even if that means higher taxes, or should it be left to the private sector?

      Remember, they’re asking lots of these questions. Let’s say they ask you if we should increase federal education funding, and you respond in the affirmative. Maybe they’d wrongly peg your response as liberal. But ultimately that doesn’t matter; they’ll look at your positions on labor, on taxes, on other forms of spending, and they’ll correctly conclude that you’re an economic conservative.

      Again, the research shows not that Americans are in favor of the status quo, but that they are in favor of substantially, perhaps even radically, more liberal policy. Now, is the research perfect? Of course not. But I think it’s certainly more valuable in ascertaining Americans’ political preferences than self-assigned labels. And frankly, the disparity says a lot of bad things about liberalism, too.

  • […] “the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal,” Yeggmen sticks up for the saw:  what researchers have (repeatedly) done is get a bunch of people together and have them […]

  • […] Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere by Yeggmen […]

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