The 2006 elections may be a year away, but already Democrats are working hard not to get cocky. With Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the multiple corruption scandals swirling around the Republicans, the ruling party is looking increasingly vulnerable. The president's approval ratings have slipped into the 30-percent neighborhood in some polls, and when people are given the "generic congressional ballot" question -- do you think you'll vote for a Democrat or a Republican in next year's election? -- Democrats lead by as much as 10 points, a gap that hasn't been seen since before the 1994 election. And we all remember what happened then.
Yet Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) raise a caution. Americans, they argue, are pretty conservative; no matter what is going on this week or this month, conservatives far outnumber liberals, so Democrats always start at a disadvantage. Democrats who want their party to stand up for a strong progressive agenda, they claim, are barking up the wrong tree. Democrats must stick to the center, or lose.
Even those with impeccably liberal pedigrees are making this argument, such as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. "According to the network exit polls, 21 percent of the voters who cast ballots in 2004 called themselves liberal, 34 percent said they were conservative and 45 percent called themselves moderate," Dionne wrote. "Those numbers mean that liberal-leaning Democrats are far more dependent than conservatively inclined Republicans on alliances with the political center. Democrats second-guess themselves because they have to." Meanwhile, Michael Barone of the National Journal looked at the same numbers and pronounced us to have "a conservative electorate." Evan Bayh, a probable candidate for president, cited the same figures to argue for a more centrist Democratic Party. "Do the math," he said. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic pronounced the liberal/conservative/moderate split "the most important thing you need to know about contemporary politics."
But all these observers make a mistake common to political elites: assuming that ordinary people look at politics the same way they do.
They would be right if everyone who talked to a pollster understood the words "conservative," "liberal," and "moderate" in the same way people in Washington do. Political elites tend to believe that, like them, voters understand the issues that define contemporary liberalism and conservatism, and that if they call themselves "moderates," that means they must have a clearly defined ideology that resides midway between the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties on the major issues of the day.
What flows inevitably from this misunderstanding is the notion that a political party can, through careful tweaking of its agenda, shuffle a step or two to the "center" and successfully snare enough "moderate" voters to reach a majority.
This view is embodied in what political scientists call the "median voter theory," which posits that political success belongs to the party that positions itself closest to the voter who lies in the precise middle of the ideological spectrum. But who is the actual median voter in America? At this moment in history, that voter is pro-choice, wants to increase the minimum wage, favors strong environmental protections, likes gun control, thinks corporations have too much power and that the rich get away with not paying their fair share in taxes, believes the Iraq War was a mistake, wants a foreign policy centered on diplomacy and strong alliances, and favors civil unions for gays and lesbians. Yet despite all this, those voters identify themselves as "moderate."
In fact, the people who call themselves "moderates" aren't midway between the two parties. When you examine them as a group, you find that they look much more like liberals than conservatives. In every presidential election since 1988, the Democratic candidate has won more votes among moderates than the Republican candidate. According to National Election Studies (NES), 56 percent of moderates in 2004 associated themselves with the Democratic Party, while only 31 percent leaned Republican.
And it isn't just party identification; on issue after issue, moderates have opinions almost exactly mirroring those of liberals. In the NES survey, 64 percent of liberals say we should increase spending on Social Security, as do 68 percent of moderates -- while only 47 percent of conservatives agree. Eighty-eight percent of liberals and 84 percent of moderates say federal funding on education should be increased, compared to only 58 percent of conservatives. Seventy-three percent of liberals and 66 percent of moderates want more spending for child care -- but only 38 percent of conservatives agree. Sixty-two percent of liberals and 57 percent of moderates want to spend more on aid to the poor, compared to only 39 percent of conservatives.
On some issues, moderates are in fact between liberals and conservatives -- for instance, 67 percent of conservatives say they support Bush's tax cuts, compared to 37 percent of moderates and 14 percent of liberals. But it is exceedingly hard to find an issue where moderates and conservatives stand on one side and liberals stand on the other. It is a mark of the Republicans' political skill that they have managed so much electoral and legislative success with an agenda that most Americans reject. As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in their new book Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, "Far from eliciting broad support for their actions, the GOP has eked out victories on issue after issue ... on which Americans' views of what they are doing range from dubious to downright hostile."
So if most "moderates" are Democrats who hold liberal policy positions, why don't they call themselves liberals? One answer is that these words have meanings outside the political realm that affect what kind of labels we are willing to place on ourselves. Many people are attracted to the ideas of "moderation" and "independence" even if their beliefs actually align fairly closely with one of the two parties. If you ask survey respondents whether they're Democrats, Republicans, or independents, between 30 and 40 percent will call themselves independents. But if you then ask the independents whether they lean toward one party or the other, most will say yes, to the point where the number of "true" independents falls to around 10 percent of the population.
But even if lots of people like thinking of themselves as "moderate," why should it follow that more people choose to call themselves "conservative" than "liberal?" The answer lies in a decades-long campaign to make the word an epithet -- from Ronald Reagan taunting Michael Dukakis as "liberal, liberal, liberal" to a host of Senate candidates who faced television ads calling them "embarrassingly liberal" or "shockingly liberal." Through endless repetition, conservatives succeeded in associating "liberal" with a series of traits that stand apart from specific issues: weakness, vacillation, moral uncertainty, and lack of patriotism, to name a few.
That is a familiar tale, but it is only half the story. Like so much else in our recent political history, conservative success in the area of political nomenclature was made possible only by liberal bumbling.
There was a time when a "liberal" was something most people -- even some conservatives -- wanted to be. On the stump in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower said "we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress." Eight years later, Richard Nixon quoted FDR's definition of a liberal as "a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life," and said, "It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him."
But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be. Few Republicans would claim to be "social liberals" -- even if they are -- but Democrats are always claiming to be "fiscal conservatives," saying they have "conservative values" or chiding Republicans for not holding to the principles of conservatism on issues like the deficit. The message this sends to Americans who don't know much about politics is that, regardless of the details of policy, it's good to be conservative and bad to be liberal.
Which brings us to what may be the most important feature of ideological competition in America today: Unlike liberals, conservatives don't simply criticize specific candidates or pieces of legislation, they attack their opponents' entire ideological worldview. Tune into Rush Limbaugh or any of his imitators, and what you'll hear is little more than an extended discourse on the evils of liberalism, in which specific events are merely evidence that the real problem is liberal ideology. Liberals may write best-selling books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president, but conservatives write best-selling books about why liberalism is a pox on our nation (talk radio hate-monger Michael Savage, for instance, titled his latest book Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder).
Indeed, large portions of the conservative movement can be understood as an effort to crush liberalism in all its manifestations. Conservatives understand that their main enemy is not a law, government program, or social condition they don't like. Their main enemy is a competing ideology, and that is what they spend their time fighting.
In contrast, liberals spend very little time talking about conservatism. They talk about their opposition to President Bush or the policies proposed by the Republican Congress, but they don't offer a critique of conservatism itself. When was the last time you saw a book-length polemic against conservatism? Liberals have failed to understand that a sustained critique of the other side's ideology not only defines your opponents, it helps to define you by what you are against.
As a consequence, while there are "movement conservatives," there are no "movement liberals" for the simple reason that there is no coherent entity we could call the "liberal movement." Instead, there are a dozen liberal movements -- a pro-choice movement, an environmental movement, a labor movement, and so on. Whether cause or consequence, the conservative campaign against liberalism has been accompanied by a sharpening of conservative identity, not only in the public mind but in the hearts of conservatives themselves.
There is no doubt that the difference between the number of people who tell pollsters they are conservatives and those who say they are liberals should be a matter of concern for Democrats. But if they respond to that concern by "moving" to an imagined "center" -- in other words, by making their positions on issues more conservative -- they will find themselves in an even worse hole than they are now. The Democrats' "liberal" problem isn't about issues, it's about identity.
As part of a solution, many on the left have decided to start with a clean slate, ditching "liberal" in favor of "progressive." As a strategic move, this has much to commend it. Recent American political history has made it hard to argue that the root of "liberal" -- liberty -- belongs more to the left than to the right. In contrast, liberals can legitimately claim that they and not conservatives are the advocates of progress. They can argue that with their desire to conserve, conservatives are stuck in the past, while progressives want to achieve social and economic progress. Any number of different issues can be understood through this prism.
But the rebranding of the left through the substitution of "progressive" for "liberal" can only succeed if all on the left agree that they are in fact progressives, and proclaim it loudly. If they accompany that proclamation with a critique not just of conservative policies and politicians but of conservatism itself, they'll find more and more moderates calling themselves progressive. Otherwise, they'll be right back where they started.
Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America. His next book, Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, will be released by John Wiley & Sons next spring.
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