Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beyond Red & Blue---The Possible Underpinnings of A November Sweep

I began writing this in July. I would have looked so much more prescient if I had finished it up and posted it then! But it contains reworkings of material I was already writing about in other posts, so the connections are obvious.

Since the 2000 election, descriptions of American political discourse and behavior is dominated by "blue" and "red", liberal and conservative as the fundamental divide, with the notion of polarization underlying and dominating all discussions. Even those, such as during the immediate post-9/11 period, in which polarization was temporarily set aside, generally called attention to the fact of polarization by noting that it was conspicuously missing.

Looking forward to the 2006 elections, it seems unlikely to most that we could see a major, realigning election, giving Democrats decisive and lasting control over Congress. There are a number of reasons for this, but woven into all them, in one way or another is fundamental notion of a polarized, evenly-divided electorate. But this presumption may prove false, based on two observations--the first general, the second specific. If it does prove false, then there is considerable chance of a realigning election--one that not only shifts power to the Democrats this election, but establishes a majority that will endure for some time into the future, perhaps even growing more substantial in the 2008 election, for example.

The first observation is that realigning elections are typically about redefining political cleavages, as well as electoral majorities. (Indeed these are two different aspects of the same phenomena.) Thus, whatever is true about the electorate prior to a realigning election has little predictive power of what such an election may produce.

The second observation is that liberal-conservative polarization is more mythical--or "narratively constructed"--than real--or grounded in actual policy differences. There is a much more fundamental split between "everyday" conservatives and "movement" conservatives--aka ultra-conservatives or reactionaries. It is the movement conservative narrative that construes politics in terms of liberal/conservative polarization, and obscures the degree of overlap between liberals and conservatives by demonizing liberals. The realigning potential of this election consists in part of the fragmenting grasp of the ultra-conservative narrative.

That potential is significantly reduced by most establishment Democratic Party forces, who fail to challenge it, and have, indeed, largely accepted and adapted to it. But it is exacerbated by a growing number of grassroots candidates and their supporters, including the collective influence of online activists, whose perspective is not shaped primarily by inside-the-Beltway perceptions and narratives. This potential can be further developed if these forces understand it's nature. Explaining the nature of that potential is the purpose of this post.

I will do this in three parts: (1) De-mythologizing liberal/conservative polarization. (2) Highlighting the conservative/ultra-conservative split. (3) Discussing the potential for narrative reconfiguration.

(1) De-mythologizing liberal/conservative polarization.

According to the myth of liberal/conservative polarization, liberals and conservatives have virtually nothing in common. However, the reality is quite the opposite of this. If the myth were true, then on virtually any public policy question one might ask, there would be very little overlap in answers from liberals and conservatives, and a very large difference. Indeed, a post-election analysis by Chris Bowers in November 2004 showed a difference of around 70% between liberals and conservatives in terms of who they voted for.

However, when we look at questions about issues, we see a very different picture. Instead of 70% differences, 70% even 80% agreements are the norm. This is true of questions with two, three or more alternatives.

I took as my data source the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is the premier longitudinal survey of American political attitudes, conducted by the non-profit National Opinion Research Center, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago. The 2006 GSS will be the 26th time it has been conducted. In the US, it is the most frequently analyzed source of information in the social sciences, aside from the US Census.

Examining some of the major areas covered by GSS, the following results were found, comparing substantive policy attitudes of liberals and conservatives. Agreement consists of the total agreement-the number of liberals and conservatives both agreeing to either the typical liberal or conservative, or to any number of intermediate alternatives that may be presented. Disagreement is the complement of agreement: If agreement is 80%, disagreement is 20%. I chose four issue areas--national spending, the basis of New Deal Liberalism--and three areas of divisive social "wedge issues" that would be expected to produce some of the largest differences between liberals and conservatives. These are the results:
  • Of 59 items dealing with issues of national spending, the average disagreement between liberals and conservatives was 12.8 percent. Only 7 items-less than one in eight-had a disagreement of over 20%. None had a disagreement of over 30%.

  • Of 18 items dealing with substantive questions about abortion, the average disagreement between liberals and conservatives was 15.9 percent. Although 8 items had a disagreement of over 20%, none had a disagreement of over 30%.

  • Of 13 items dealing with affirmative action, the average disagreement between liberals and conservatives was 14.6 percent. Just 2 items had a disagreement of over 20%, and none had a disagreement of over 30%.

  • Of 9 items dealing with gays and lesbians, the average disagreement between liberals and conservatives was 19.3 percent. While 5 items had a disagreement of over 20%, just one had a disagreement of over 30%.
In total, of 99 questions, only 22 had a disagreement of over 20%, and just one had a disagreement of over 30%. That means that agreement of more than 80% between liberals and conservatives is the norm on most questions. This is not indicative of a deeply polarized society.

Of course, one can construct much higher levels of polarization, by carefully combining and qualifying questions. But this gets us into the beginnings of the realm of narrative construction. The point I am making here is not that there are no differences between liberals and conservatives, but that the differences at the level of basic individual issues are relatively small, compared to the amount of agreement.

(2) Highlighting the conservative/ultra-conservative split.

The conservative/ultra-conservative split is perhaps best conceived in terms of the 1936 election. In that election, the GOP thought it had a helluva great campaign issue: Social Security. They were absolutely convinced that working people would rise up in rage against the government taking a portion of their wages for old age insurance. The GOP was wrong. They lost the 1936 election in a landslide—a landslide that the fledgling public opinion polling industry correctly predicted, while the old-fashioned straw poll used by Literary Digest incorrectly predicted a GOP victory. One of the first issue polls that Gallup subsequently did concerned Social Security. It discovered massive (80%+) support—support so high that it had to include a large number of self-described conservatives. By the time a Republican finally won the White House again, Dwight D. Eisenhower took office dedicated to protecting, defending, and even expanding Social Security, not abolishing it.

In the 1964 election cycle, a survey conducted by Gallup for the researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril (published in their 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion) produced the a more refined analysis. Relying on a multi-issue scale, they determined that roughly half of all self-described conservatives were operational liberals—defined as those who favored increased social spending across a range of different issues. Similar results were found among ideological conservatives—those identified by support for a set of broad statements about philosophy of government and individual responsibility. In each case, because there moderates as well, the number of conservatives who were also operational conservatives fell significantly below 50%. But even these conservatives did not necessarily want to abolish social spending programs. They were only asked about cutting them. The percentage of true-blue pre-New Deal ultra conservatives was not measured by Free and Cantril, but it was certainly much smaller than the number of people who considered themselves conservatives.

The percent who want to cut all 6 programs is 0.6%. Those who want to abolish them all would naturally be significantly less than that—virtually no one at all. And yet, ultra-conservative orthodoxy surely calls for cutting all social spending—a position rejected by over 99.4% of all Americans, and 98.6% of all self-identified conservatives. If we relax our criteria to include anyone who wants to cut 3 or more programs net (cut 3-6 programs or increase one and cut 4-5), that’s still only 10.0% of self-identified conservatives, and 6.5% of all Americans. Relaxing it further to include anyone who wants to cut 1 or more programs net, the loosest possible criteria, we still get only 16.1% of all Americans, and 24.9% of self-identified conservatives—just under one in four. Clearly, even by the loosest of measures, hard core ultra-conservatives are a small fragment of the conservative community.

But that just takes into account one aspect of conservative philosophy. If we examine just one more criteria—positions on abortions—the number plummets dramatically further, right back down into the truly miniscule level.

Most Americans favor abortions in cases where the women has been raped, where her health is threatened, or when the child would be born with a serious birth defect. However, the hard-core anti-abortion position opposes all exceptions. Combining these just these two criteria-the spending criteria and the abortion criteria, we come up with a figure of 3.5%. If we add just one more criteria-opposition to sex education in the schools-that figure drops further to 1.5%, a truly fringe amount. And yet that is only part of “conservative” orthodoxy requires. Yet, this same orthodoxy pretends to represent the “mainstream” of American opinion, while representing liberals as “far outside” that same mainstream.

This is what I mean by the conservative/ultra-conservative gap. Virtually all conservatives outside a tiny handful of activists are at odds with some significant aspect of the conservative agenda. What keeps them in line is conservative narratives—narratives that conservatives generally accept, even if they don’t follow or act in accord with them 100%. A significant part of these narratives involves the demonization of liberals.

(3) The potential for narrative reconfiguration.

To date, the most comprehensive, up-to-date work dealing with conservatives narratives comes from cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff’s work centers on cognitive metaphors, and the more general phenomena of cognitive and linguistic frames. These are not narratives per se, but they are the underpinnings of narrative. Furthermore, Lakoff’s own work is not primarily directed in a way to help us work on opening up the conservative/ultra-conservative gap. It illuminates the differences between liberal and conservative worldviews—and even, more subtly to the differences between what he calls “ideological conservatives” and “pragmatic conservatives.” But even this last distinction is not the one I’m aiming for. It’s not what isolates a mere 1% or so of the population.

The effective core of conservatism is identity politics. It’s what binds ordinary conservatives with reactionary ultra-conservatives. Mostly, it’s about race, religion and ethnicity, depending on these to over-ride class. But opposition to unions is also part of the mix. Free and Cantril found a striking correlation between operational conservatism and opposition to power-sharing with outgroups:

This opposition to organized political power is easily translated into everyday language: “They’re okay, as long as they know their place.” Although the nature and degree of such exclusionary attitudes has certainly altered over time, the GOP’s reliance on anti-gay initiatives and hysteria about illegal immigration are clear reminders that the basic logic remains firmly in place.

Moreover, the example of illegal immigration shows that there can even be a rational foundation for such fears. Illegal immigration is a problem—it’s just that it’s part of a whole complex of problems tied to neo-liberal “free trade” economics that conservatives have no intention of examining, much less challenging. It’s much easier to blame the victims with the darkest skin color. This is the essence of the liberal/conservative split: liberals engage in systematic analysis, seeking out complex patterns of cause and effect, while conservatives are quick to place blame on entire groups of individuals who in reality have very limited power or choice to do things differently, given the systemic forces they face.

Writ large, the problem that liberalism faces is just this: how to promote policies that change the systemic forces people face, when conservatives keep insisting that the problem is the people themselves. The answer, of course, is that conservative rhetoric only goes so far. Despite the hold it has, only the hardcore ultraconservatives steadfastly refuse to embrace liberal policies that work. Furthermore, new such policies can be introduced, but they need to be framed in the right sort of rhetoric.

Ironically, the best example of this is recent years is probably Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, with its rhetoric of “putting people first,” and standing up for those who “work hard and play by the rules.” Clinton’s campaign rhetoric was pitch perfect—ironically, since his GOP-lite governance did not deliver what it promised. Yet, the answers are there, if we combine that sort of rhetoric with policies that actually deliver what Clinton promised.

One key aspect of Clinton’s rhetoric deserves special note—his talk about people who “work hard and play by the rules.” This is a formulation for a broadly inclusive counter-identity to set against conservative identity politics. It says nothing about who people are, in terms of race, religion, skin-color, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It defines them by shared values—not values talk, but actual, real-life, day-to-day values. And this, of course, is what the promise of America has always been about. This is what liberals—and Democrats of all stripes—ought to be talking about every day. It’s what underlies everything we want to do, which is why we should bring it up every time we talk about doing anything.

This is hardly a panacea, but it is a starting point, a foundation. Narratives of inclusion, based on shared aspirations are an antidote to narratives of exclusion. And a Democratic House—even if it stands alone—can be a perfect place to start launching such narratives, via legislation such as increasing the minimum wage, empowering bulk purchases of prescription drugs in Medicare Part D, increased spending on veterans’ health care, etc. Above all, the House can become a place for holding hearings and staging debates—both about the widespread and systemic scandals and failures of Republican rule, and about what can be done to repair the damage done. and replace the policies that caused it.

The simple act of reopening honest, open debate in the people’s House will itself send a powerful signal that Democrats have a different philosophy, a democratic (as well as a Democratic) philosophy, not a plutocratic one, not theocratic one. There is much more to be filled in. Much, much more. But we must begin with the fundamentals. We must begin by showing America that democracy can work again, and showing them just what that looks like.


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