Those Misleading Ideology Polls

Mistermix at Balloon Juice posted this poll showing the ideological spectrum of American adults from “Very Conservative” to “Very Liberal” and, naturally, there aren’t many people who self-identify as “Liberal” or “Very Liberal”.

Don’t believe the results.

As I’ve written before, the word “Liberal” has been stigmatized for more than 50 years. In the general population, referring to yourself as liberal is almost like referring to yourself as an anti-American baby killer. Far-right activists have successfully demonized the word.

What do these words mean to regular people? Do people really understand what they are? If a guy is frugal with money, hates to pay taxes and doesn’t particularly care for the government, but, at the same time, he voted for Barack Obama, he’s pro-choice and anti-war, what is he?

And finally, if you go through issue polls, one by one, you’ll find that most Americans generally fall into the “Liberal” category. We’re pro-choice (though the abortion labels are misleading, too), pro-same-sex marriage, pro-gun control, pro-healthcare reform, pro-Social Security and Medicare, etc, etc.

But none of this matters because politicians look at these self-identification polls and govern accordingly. And they’re “Very Wrong” to do so.

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  • http://twitter.com/TVHilton Tom Hilton

    “And finally, if you go through issue polls, one by one, you’ll find that most Americans generally fall into the “Liberal” category.”

    Not exactly. 60% support for A + 60% support for B + 60% support for C != 60% support for (A&B&C). A lot of people don’t fit into the standard party configuration–pro-choice “fiscal conservatives”, right-wing isolationists, etc.

    The other problem with issue polling is that most people haven’t really thought that much or that clearly about the issues, and when asked they give incoherent and contradictory answers (e.g., a majority saying the best thing for the economy is reducing the deficit). They also don’t necessarily know (or, in some cases, care) who’s pushing the policies they tell pollsters they support. Those polls showing a majority of Republicans reject the Republican party line on various issues? Fine for what they’re worth…but those people are still going to vote Republican. Voting behavior tends to be more tribal than policy-based.

    So issue polling is a terrible predictor of electoral results, but it isn’t wholly useless. The most optimistic read of those polls is that there are a lot of people liberals could conceivably reach–*if* liberals do the difficult work of making their message appealing to them. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean watering it down; it means framing it in a way that is more pragmatic than explicitly liberal, and more about “American values” than about liberal ideology. Which, by the way, is what the President has been doing since 2004.)

    • muselet

      I agree that the Democrats (well, liberals, but we have a two-party system) should—must—make use of issue poll results: let the public know, in a factual and coordinated way, who is advocating what positions on the issues. However, if history is any guide (“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” –Mark Twain), the Ds will instead continue to whine about the disconnect between voters’ policy preferences and their voting behavior.

      Voting behavior tends to be more tribal than policy-based.

      Alas, true.

      –alopecia

  • GrafZeppelin127

    These polls exist for one reason only: To make self-identified “conservatives” feel comfortable with being self-identified “conservatives,” and enable them to claim/prove to themselves that (1) they are the majority, (2) their policy preferences (meaning, their voting preferences) are shared by “most” people, and (3) anyone who disagrees must be, and is, wrong (argumentum ad populum).

    In short, what people label themselves has no meaning anymore. And you know what, I also hate it when people say, “Well, there are some things I’m liberal about and some things I’m conservative about.” That makes absolutely no sense. All it means is that there are some elements of the Democratic Party platform that they agree with, and some elements of the Republican Party platform that they agree with. But that’s not the same thing.

    I get even more annoyed when people say that they’re “fiscally conservative, but socially liberal.” That’s an even more egregious bullshit characterization than the former, for two reasons: (1) there is no such thing as a “fiscal conservative,” no matter how vehemently anyone claims to be one; and (2) calling oneself a “fiscal conservative/social liberal” is just another way of enabling and justifying acting in one’s own self-interest all the time. It’s like the way Tom Hartmann describes self-anointed “libertarians;” they’re just “Republicans who want to smoke pot and get laid.”

    How do you think the conversation immediately after the election of Barack Obama (who was supposedly the most far-left-radical-left-wing-Liberal of all time) and Democratic gains in both houses (21 House/8 Senate) of an already-Democratic Congress, was that “this is a center-right nation”? So the election of a supposedly far-left-radical-left-wing-ultra-liberal President and the strengthening of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate proves that Americans prefer Republican policies?

    I hate the media.

    • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

      “I hate the media.”

      Me too. With a damn passion.

    • muselet

      I don’t mind the “fiscally conservative/socially liberal” label too terribly much, but my level of irritation depends on what people mean when they apply it to themselves.

      Personally, I’m a liberal who doesn’t want government to waste money on ineffective programs, so I could call myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal (I don’t, for a variety of reasons).

      The Right has attached itself like a leech to the “fiscally conservative” part of the description and made it, mostly through repetition, synonymous with “don’t tax, don’t spend; don’t just do something, stand there” (the “socially liberal” bit is either ignored or transformed into “I don’t care what Christian church you attend or what make of gun you carry”).

      And yes, our wonderful news media are complicit in the Right’s “center-Right nation” sleight-of-hand.

      –alopecia

  • dildenusa

    Isn’t it interesting if one looks back in history that the terms “liberal democracy” and “liberal economics” actually refer to what is today called Libertarianism? It goes to show how adjectives have a way of reversing their meanings over time.

    My own political belief is libertarian socialism, which of course will never ever appear in one of these polls. The Internet, aka New Media, appears to be accelerating the flip-floping of the meaning of adjectives as authoritarian regimes seek to use the internet as a tool of repression. Here in the US, the authoritarian regime is indirectly run by the corporatists and their lobbyists. Corporations are not required to protect constitutional rights. Corporate and property rights take precedence over individual rights. Now the tea party republic wants to take this concept to it’s logical conclusion. Deregulating the corporate authoritarians to the the point of lawlessness will only put the 99% into the jaws of a feudal corporate fascist state similar to the middle ages in Europe. The end of the feudal system in Europe only came about with the Bubonic Plague from 1347-1350. Aren’t the tea party republics aware that history has a way of repeating itself?