Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
January 13, 2012 § 4 Comments
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.
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.
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.