Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Conservative America?

An August Gallup poll yielded up an intriguing result: nationally, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a margin of 2-to-1, and outnumbered them in all 50 states as well, usually by large margins. This led to much back-slapping in conservative circles in the days and weeks after the poll's release. Right-wing talk radio offered "told you so"s. The conservative blogosphere rubbed its belly with a contented sigh. The Media Research Center whined about the lack of press coverage given the finding. The results played into a well-worn conservative narrative spun over the decades about the U.S. being, at heart, a conservative nation and hyping the results was, it seems, a handy way to bolster morale at a time when conservatives seem to be on the ropes. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a great deal of attention given to what the poll really meant.

The hard, cold political reality facing the right today--the one that's still there after the poll results, and after all that back-slapping--is that the U.S. isn't a conservative nation. What's more, that conclusion isn't even particularly controversial for anyone who has examined the matter in any detail; for the most part, it isn't even close. Public opinion is more heavily polled in the U.S. than in any other country on earth. On issue after issue, Americans are not only with the liberals but with them overwhelmingly.

A few Google searches offer a glimpse of the polling this year:

--An AP/Roper poll from October showed that 64% of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. 67% told the CBS/New York Times poll in September that the war wasn't even worth fighting. Though conservatives have been utterly opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal, the public has supported doing so for quite some time. A Newsweek/Princeton poll from April asked about Obama's then-proposed timetable for withdrawal by 2010 and found that 74% said that was either "about right" or wanted to withdraw even sooner.

--On the matter of health care, Americans have favored a single-payer plan, wherein the government provides health insurance for all, by about 60%, a number which has been stable for years. This is well to the left of any of the health care "reform" measures presently being debated in congress.

--66% told the CBS/New York Times poll in June they favored either gay marriage or gay civil unions. More importantly, opposition to such arrangements are centered in older adults (those over 40) and heavily concentrated in the elderly (those over 65)--the younger generations to whom the future belongs have adopted the more liberal views.

--The polling on global warming has shown huge majorities (over 60%) concerned about the problem for the last 11 years (and probably further back--that's the info I was able to track down with a Google search). The number, as measured by Gallup in May, had dropped from the year before (down to 57%), but it has briefly gone down before, and the long-term polling is very clear on the point. The boilerplate conservative position, on the other hand, is, of course, that global warming is either "exaggerated" or an outright hoax (the same Gallup poll showed that 66% of Republicans held to that view).

--A long-running majority of Americans favor abortion rights and have for decades. The Republican party platform position--a blanket ban on abortions without exception--polls at 6%-11%. A CBS/New York Times poll in June asked "in general, do you think the Court's decision [in Roe v. Wade] was a good thing or a bad thing?" 62% said it was a good thing vs. 32% bad. An interesting finding from that same poll is that, while (unsurprisingly) 74% of Democrats said it was a good thing, 40% of Republicans also said it was a good thing vs. 51% bad.

--In January, the ABC/Washington Post poll found that, while 55% of Republicans opposed loosening Bush-era restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, 59% of Americans favored doing so. Support has generally hovered around that level for a few years, now, and a more recent Pew Research Center poll in July found no change--support still at 58%.

And so on. One is hard pressed to find a single major public policy issue on which the liberals don't hold an overwhelming advantage in public sentiment.

Conservatives hold a different kind of advantage though, that of money. Lots and lots of money, which is made available to them because they're the natural allies of the Establishment.

Any liberal movement has to start from nothing or virtually nothing and build itself the hard way, from the ground up. They are grassroots efforts that have virtually nothing in the way of resources, are generally marginalized, often feared and despised, even criminalized and have to fight like hell, often for decades, to get anything at all. Look at the movement for extending marriage benefits to homosexuals. Twenty-five years ago, it was the pipe-dream of a hated micro-minority and probably wouldn't have polled out of single digits. Today, it's not only a majority position, it's an overwhelmingly majority one.

Conservatives, on the other hand, rarely have to build anything. They find millions of dollars available to them on the first day they launch a "movement." Money from powerful interests looking to maintain their prerogatives or looking to keep the general public fighting amongst itself over hot-button wedge issues in order to keep it from challenging those prerogatives. If one is a conservative, that must feel great but that money is as dirty as an old carburetor, and conscientious conservatives--if the breed isn't entirely extinct by now--haven't really come to terms with that. Their vastly superior monetary resources have meant conservatives are grossly overrepresented in just about every major institution. It also seems to generate a significant disconnect between the conservatives and the general public. Because they can call upon such vast resources at the drop of a hat, the conservatives are insulated from the concerns of the very real people they claim to represent, rather than being born of those concerns. Because they can so easily appear to have a significant advantage by virtue of their greater visibility, they believe they do have that significant an advantage. This gives them a warm security blanket beneath which they can proclaim America The Conservative.

It just isn't there in the public opinion data though. Self-identification as "conservative" outscores self-identification as "liberal" only because the omnipresent American conservative machine has spent decades of time and a kingdom's fortune demonizing the word "liberal." Most people aren't ideologues or policy-wonks and don't give a great deal of thought to what catch-all word may most precisely describe their politics. "Liberal" is, for them, only a word they perceive as having acquired some sort of negative taint in political discourse. They shy away from applying it to themselves. But for all that conservative money and noise and all the advantages it appears to give the right, the people are still with the liberals--and with them overwhelmingly--on the issues.

Just ask them.


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