Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 5D

Party, Ideology and Abortion


This continues the abortion section of my argument (based primarily on data from the General Social Survey [GSS]) that it’s not liberals, but ultra-conservative movement conservatives who are far outside America’s mainstream. In contrast, ordinary conservatives and liberals agree much more often than not. This is the fourth of 6 sub-parts. [Links at end of post.]

We return to the abortion scales introduced in Part 5A, to both create a sort of snapshot encapsulation of the individual question data presented in the previous post, and to add the refinement of looking at political identity—party and ideology combined. Here, we will downplay the tables of numbers we’ve been using, leading with the visual impact of graphs.

* The AbThreat Scale *

In the first chart, of the AbThreat scale nationwide, by party and ideology (political identity) we see an initial condition with no real trend, out of which a sawtooth pattern emerges, and then develops a somewhat more distinct slope:

At first, independents and Republicans are slightly more supportive than Democrats in all three ideological orientations—a significant fact that is easily forgotten today. (See table below, first column.) Liberal independents are noticeably more supportive of abortion in all three cases (the red line) than are liberal Democrats. But the differences were slight, and the shape of the red curve shows no larger pattern. There is a hint of the saw-tooth pattern that’s about to emerge, but the differences are slight, and liberal Republicans are less supportive than moderate Republicans, making it impossible to see a sawtooth without projecting it into the data.

In the second time-period, the sawtooth is unmistakable—a sign of ideology taking precedence over party. Thus, it is not Democrats who are emerging as distinctly more pro-abortion on the ABThreat scale—it is liberals So much so, in fact, that there is an imperfection in the classic sawtooth form: The liberal independents still represent a high-point of support, which means that the highest points of the saw tooth not only fail to fall into line—they actually change direction. Indeed, with that one exception, there seems to be little difference among liberals, moderates and conservatives of different partisan orientations. All the conservatives have about the same level of support, as do all the moderates as well as the liberal Democrats and the liberal Republicans.

This sort of arrangement is quite common in American politics, because our politics has generally been much less ideological than that of other countries. This is also a reason why it’s not very effective for Democrats to “move to the center.” The independents closest to the Democratic Party are generally more liberal than conservative Democrats are. On the ABThreat scale they are dramatically more liberal, in fact.

This cross-cutting of party and ideology generally tends to have a conservative effect, preventing the sort of broad systemic change that liberalism advances. The protracted nature of the culture wars—with abortion as the most central and enduring manifestation—is partly just a manifestation of how American politics tends to work in general. Battles go on for a long, long time, because there are many other allegiances that work at cross-purposes. It’s precisely the opposite of the polarization we’re constantly told about. Of course, we are experiencing more polarization than usual. But that’s still not very much in the grand scheme of things. The rhetoric of polarization far exceeds the reality.

In the third time-period, the sawtooth remains, again a bit imperfectly. But the partisan slant just hinted at before is also present—the first clear sign that ideological polarization is becoming partisan as well, though not to the same extent. Support has dropped significantly among both liberal and conservative Republicans, while liberal Democrats have pulled even with liberal independents.

Thus, in this stage, we finally have a rather mild version of the pattern that Ender claimed for the early 1980s in the comment that first instigated this series. For the first time, liberal Democrats are no longer more conservative on abortion than liberal independents. But this result at this late date clearly refutes Ender’s thesis that liberal Democrats were the engine driving this change.

Another way to look at this same data is to rearrange it, grouping liberals together on the left, subdivided into Democrats, Independents and Republicans, followed by moderates, and then conservatives. The first grouping was by party, then ideology. This is a grouping by ideology, then party. The emergence of the sawtooth in the first view is reflected in the emergence of definite slope in this second view:

The slope that emerges above still has an interruption, when we get to moderate Republicans, who are more pro-choice than moderate independents. The slope is also relatively modest. That’s to be expected. After all, there just isn’t that much difference in views. There is overwhelming support for abortion in the cases on the AbThreat scale.

* The AbAutonomy Scale *

To get a view of where real divisions lie, we have to turn to AbAutonomy. Here is what the party/ideology view looks like:

[Corresponding Figures in Table Below]

Here we see a similar sort of progression as we did with AbThreat, but we appear to begin in the middle of the process, where a sawtooth pattern has already emerged, and we end up farther along in the process, with a much more pronounced downward-slope. At the same time, the different curves grow closer together—a reflection of the large-scale pattern noted above, that the extreme positions increased slightly at the expense of already-much smaller numbers taking middle positions We begin with the liberal independent peak higher than the liberal Democrat peak on all four lines. Even the liberal Republican peak is higher at the top line (supporting abortion in 1 or more cases), though only by a whisker. Moderate independents and Republicans are nearly dead-even, about five points above moderate Democrats, and the same pattern holds for conservatives as well—though with a larger Democratic gap.

The overall result is that independents are most liberal, followed by Republicans, then Democrats—a strikingly different constellation than we have today. Of course, this does not automatically mean that the parties as a whole were aligned this way. The balance of liberals, moderates and conservatives was quite different in the two parties. Yet, as we’ve already seen above, this pattern generally did hold, even though conservatives were a far more significant block among Republicans.

The second time-frame still has independents as the most liberal, but Democrats and Republicans are much closer together. Liberal Democrats are clearly more liberal than liberal Republicans, but moderates and conservatives rank about the same.

The most significant change in the third time-frame is the sharp plunge among conservative Republicans. The percent supporting all 4 options drops five percent, while the range from total support to supporting just one option also tightens five percent, resulting in a total drop of ten percent for those supporting one or more options. Since conservative Republicans also continued to expand their share of the population, this constitutes a significant development. At the same time, moderate Republican support for abortion in all four cases increased about five percent, increasing the cumulative support for fewer options., but with diminishing impact at the “one or more” level. The only other change approaching it is that moderate and conservative Democrats both gained about five percent in support of abortion, pretty much across the boards.

If we flip our perspective to ideology-then-party, we see a familiar pattern: a gradual progression towards a consistent downward slope, which is interrupted by moderate Republicans, who are more pro-choice than moderate independents:

The initial state is more structured, a slight variant on the familiar sawtooth pattern, while the third state has a more pronounced slope than ABThreat had—a reflection of the fact that there’s a greater diversity of opinion among the four questions on the AbAutonomy scale, and greater polarization as well.

* AbAutonomy & The White South *

Finally, if we look at the white South, we find a slightly different pattern, from beginning to end, but the rest of the country shows a pattern almost identical to that of the country as a whole.

White South / Rest of Country / Nationwide:

The white South has sharper contrasts in general, due to lower levels of support amongst all groups except for liberal independents and Democrats. The lines are closer together as well, a further sign of polarizing, since it means that fewer people take intermediate positions between supporting or opposing abortion in all four cases:

This is a crucial point. Because of the concentration of conservative Republicans in the white South, opinions there appear more monolithic. But there is actually more polarization within the white South than there is outside of it. We saw this already in the figures for the individual questions. Lower levels of agreement equate with more polarization. And the white South had lower levels of agreement on every question in the last time-frame. This is yet another indication that it is conservative Republicans who are driving polarization, not liberal Democrats.

Links To Previous Parts

Here again are links to the previous parts of this series:
    Part 1: Introduction. Overview of argument and data.
  • Part 2: GSS Spending shows conservative support for the welfare state, and high levels of cross-ideological agreement.
  • Part 3 shows shifts in party identification consistent with the historical record of race as the primary impetus for white Democrats shifting to the Republican Party.
  • Part 4 looks at the partisan shifts through the lens of religion.
  • Part 5A “The Big Picture—Parties, Abortion and Race Over The Years” began the 6-part look at abortion.
  • Part 5B A big-picture snapshot of abortion attitudes.
  • Part 5C Changes in abortion attitudes over three time-spans


At 7:20 AM, Blogger Robert D Feinman said...

This brings up an interesting question about "independents". I've always assumed that independents are of two types: the indifferents (those who don't pay attention to politics) and the evasives (those who align with a particular party, but play coy about it).

If the independents are really more "liberal" on social issues than the centers of either party then perhaps there is a third group the disgusteds (those who are concerned but don't think either party represents their interests).

If this is true it could offer an opportunity for specific candidates to woo these voters with a properly tailored message.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Paul Rosenberg said...


It's clear that independents are far from a homogeneous mass. Some are quite liberal--not just on abortion--while others are quite conservative.

I think that Chris Bowers was right on the money with his post-2004 election analysis at MyDD, in which he argued that a reformist, good-government strategy would be the best approach--both strategically and because it's the right thing to do. I also think that it makes sense as an elaboration of the basic liberal political framework, ala Lakoff.

OTOH, trying to reach independents on a specific, issue-by-issue basis is the DC consultant's formula, and it's a losing one. The issue appeal has to be grounded in something more fundamental in order to resonate in the moment, and in order to have staying power.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Robert D Feinman said...


You are probably right, but I just don't see any good government types in the current crop of candidates. The need to attract big money to finance a campaign means that no one will stand up to the big business influences which have corrupted the legislative process.

Howard Dean might have been such, but he didn't have time to develop his themes before he was put on the defensive. A neo-populist movement also seems not to have emerged even though the conditions seem ripe. The closest we have is John Edwards and I don't think he is resonating with the group we are discussing either.

Considering the number of inspiring leaders that have emerged recently in latin America it makes the contrast with the US even more striking.

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