Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I laid out the big picture argument:

(1) It’s not liberals, but ultra-conservative movement conservatives who are far outside America’s mainstream, based on data from the General Social Survey.

(2) This data shows that liberals and conservatives have significantly more overlap than disagreement across a range of controversial social issues, as well as national spending priorities.

(3) On the other hand, those wanting to downsize the welfare state represent only a small minority—even among self-described conservatives.

In this diary, I’m going to take a closer look at the national spending data. What we'll find is incredibly robust support for big government--despite how people may react to that term. Demonization can only take you so far. Indeed, we find that the welfare state is more popular than bare bones of the night watchman state that conservative ideology endorses.

The General Social Surevey began in 1972. Questions about national spending were part of it from 1974 on, beginning with a set of 11 questions, all set in the same format:
"We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I'm going to name some of these problems, and for each one I'd like you to tell me whether you think we're spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount. Are we spending too much money, too little money, or about the right amount on..."
Another 15 questions were added in 1984, along with 15 questions asked that year only. Two more were added in 2000 and 2002. In addition another set of questions was asked with a slightly different format in 1985, 1990 and 1996. We'll examine the responses to these four sets of questions separately, so we can see how much stability and how much variation there is.

The GSS Main Spending Sequence

Here's the main sequence of questions:
As can be seen, liberals and conservatives have the least disagreement over functions of the night watchman state (7.9%), followed closely by the welfare state periphery (9.7%). There is almost twice as much difference over the welfare state core (15.6%) as there is over the night wathcman state. Still, that's not very much disagreement--less than 1 out of 6.

Interestingly, however, there is slightly more support for the welfare state core than there is for the night watchman state. There are two ways we measure this: (1) the combined total of those saying we're spending "too little" or "about right." This is the combined total of those who don't want to cut spending--a reasonable definition of support. Using this measure, support for the welfare state core is 83.7% compared to 70.2% for the night watchman state. (2) The "liberalism index" cuts out the middle--it's the percentage of those saying "too little" or "too much" who say that we're spending "too little." (Normally, the liberalism index is reversed for military spending, because long-term data shows an inverse relationship between support for military and domestic spending. But for our purposes, we want to focus on what kinds of spending get what kinds of support, so we're treating all items the same, for our purposes here.) Using this measure, support for the welfare state core is 75.2% compared to 53.2% for the night watchman state.

There is a relatively small number of items in our sample, so it wouldn't be wise to make too much of this comparison--yet. Still, it's a significant warning that those think the welfare state unpopular, and controversial compared to "basic government functions" cannot just assume they are right. The evidence here is that they are wrong. Not only is the welfare state popular with everyone--not just liberals--it is more popular than the night watchman state, at least from the data we have here.

As we’ll see, however, this same pattern recurs again and again, in every sequence we will look at. This consistency considerably strengthens our conclusion.

Furthermore, the welfare state periphery is even more popular. While it's not the traditional welfare state that we in America identify with the New Deal, it certainly encompasses the sorts of programs that are traditionally identified with liberals. Its high popularity is another blow against the notion that liberals are an alien force in the American body politic.

The GSS Main Spending Sequence--Version Y

Now lets look at the second long-term sequence of data:
Here again, we see the same big picture pattern. When it comes to liberal/conservative difference, the differences between the three categories have shrunk a bit, 9.9% for the night watchman state compared to 16.4% for the welfare state core, with the welfare state periphery at 14.0%. But the difference in support levels has increased: 72.6% to 38.5% in terms of liberalism index, and 83.1% to 60.1% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. (Again, the welfare state periphery is more popular by both measures: 87.3% and 91.1% respectively.)

It's tempting to blame this difference on foreign aid, and to claim that this is really a liberal item, part of the welfare state periphery, if not the welfare state core. However, most foreign aid is directly or closely tied to American business or military interests. Although the American people vastly over-estimate how much is spent on foreign aid as well, the perception of it as wasting money on people overseas is equally significant. However, there is no guarantee it would be more popular if peole came to see it as a boondogle for American business. Most convincingly, however, we can simly remove the item, and look at how the night watchman state would fare without it. The answer is: better, but essentially the same. Liberal/conservative disagreement would rise from 9.9 to 11.1, while the welfare state core would still best it comfortably: 72.6% to 49.0% in terms of liberalism index, and 83.1% to 71.5% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending.

The GSS Main Spending Sequence--Version Z

Now let's look at the 1984 "Z" sequence:
The three categories have grown closer in terms of the liberal/conservative difference: 7.9% for the night watchman state and 9.7% for the welfare state periphery--both identical to the figures for the main sequence. But the difference for the welfare state core has dropped to just 12.0%--less than one in eight. What's more, we again find that the welfare state core is much more popular than the night watchman state: 85.9% to 50.7% in terms of liberalism index, and 91.3% to 69.1% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. The welfare state periphery again scores highest of all, with 87.1% and 93.4%, respectively.

And again, removing foreign aid from the night watchman state does not change the big picture: The difference between liberals and conservatives creeps up to 8.5%, while the welfare state core is still much more popular than the night watchman state: 85.9% to 62.3% in terms of liberalism index, and 91.3% to 79.6% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending.

Where Question Wording Does Make A Big Difference

Before looking at our fourth series, it's time to take up the two examples where wording makes a significant difference:

First, changing the wording from "assistance to big cities" to "solving the problems of the big cities" more that doubles the number of those saying we're giving too little, from 24.0% to 51.9%, and more than halves the number of those opposed, from 34.8% to 16.6%. In both versions, however, those who think we're spending too much are a small minority electorally.

Second, the effects are much stronger when it comes to helping the poor. If the word "welfare" is used, more than half the people, 50.4%, say that we're spending too much--a unique example of majority oppsition to domestic spending. Just 19.1% say we're spending "too little." But if "assistance to the poor" is used instead, the figures completely reverse: 65.1% say we're spending "too little," and just 11.0% say we're spending "too much." (Version Z, used "caring for the poor" for the one year it was asked, and got 69.4% saying we're spending "too little," just 7.8% saying we're spending "too much.")

These examples--especially the second one--open a window into a whole other realm of investigation, one that will only partially be explored in the current series. The demonizatin of "welfare" by ultra-conservatives has had an incredibly pernicious effect on our body politic, as well as on the poor themselves. But it seems to have had little impact on people's thinking about "assistance to the poor," which is, for the most part, really just another way of saying "welfare."

GSS Alternative Spending Sequence

We're now ready to look at the last GSS spending sequence, one in which people are allowed to opt for large cuts or increases, for a total of 5 choices rather than the 3 used in the questions above. This is a smaller sequence, and perhaps because of that, there's a break in the pattern, as seen in the chart:
This time, the welfare state core has the least disagreement between liberals and conservatives: 12.5% compated to 14.9% for the night watchman state and 19.9% for the welfare state periphery, which is also the least popular of the three--a dramatic shift from the other results. But one thing stays the same: The welfare state core is much more popular than the night watchman state:

81.5% to 60.3% in terms of liberalism index, and 89.2% to 76.3% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. The welfare state periphery again falls to third, with 59.6% and 72.3%, respectively.

General Spending Questions

The last category we look at is general spending questions. A word of warning--one of them is about defense spending. However, it was framed as a part of a set of questions about spending in general, so we’re going to keep it here. What’s more, there aren't a lot of questions in this category.
From the chart, we can see that “Defspdr” is a bit of an outlier, but not as much as “CutGovt.” The reason for this comes from the context in which CutGovt was asked. It was asked as one of several options for government action to spur the economy. The question asked was as follows:
758. Here are some things the government might do for the economy. Circle one number for each action to show whether you are in favor of it or against it. [There was also a neutral option.]

A. Control of wages by legislation. [SetWage]
B. Control of prices by legislation. [SetPrice]
C. Cuts in government spending. [CutGovt]
D. Government financing of projects to create new jobs. [MakeJobs]
E. Less government regulation of business. [LessReg]
F. Support for industry to develop new products and technology. [HlpHiTec]
G. Supporting declining industries to protect jobs. [SaveJobs]
H. Reducing the work week to create more jobs. [CutHours]
CutGovt was the most popular option: 81.5% favored, of which 40.2% favored it strongly. But it wasn’t alone. Nor was it without contradiction.

Of these, D (MakeJobs), F. (HlpHiTec) and G. (SaveJobs) involve the government spending more money. Yet, they, too, received hefty majorities as well: MakeJobs was favored by 71%, 26.2% “strongly.” HlpHiTec was fovered by 75.4%, 25.1% “strongly.” SaveJobs was favored by 50.1%, 14.8% “strongly.”

More precisely, 58.5% favored both CutGovt and MakeJobs, 15.2% favored both “strongly.” 62.8% favored both CutGovt and HlpHiTec, 14.3% favored both “strongly.” 41.3% favored both CutGovt and SaveJobs, 8.9% favored both “strongly.” It’s as if they were voting to go on a diet to lose 20 pounds, and to eat more ice cream at the same time. It could be done, of course. The hard part is figuring out how. In any event, it’s clear that the answer to this question is not a true measure of people’s overall policy preferences.

What’s really interesting is a comparison between CutGovt and MakeJobs. CutGovt represents conservative orthodoxy. Calls for cutting spending to help the economy have been heard thousands upon thousands of times over the past thirty years. There is some logic to it—too much borrowing can crowd out money for private investment. But there’s logic against it, too. Or more precisely, experience: when FDR cut spending in 1938, still under the sway of balanced budget orthodoxy, he temporarily killed off the recovery from the Great Depression. It was only after this experience that his administration fully embraced the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. On the other hand, “government financing of projects to create new jobs,” (MakeJobs) was what Roosevelt did to employ millions of people during the Great Depression, but it’s something that politicians rarely talk about nowadays. Yet, support for it was almost as high as for the budget-cutting alternative.


Spending Category Support Compared

We are now ready to present a grand overview. If we combine all the questions from the earlier spending series together, and sort them into the three categories we've used before, and treat general spending as a fourth category, this what we get:
The pattern we've seen before in most of the separate question sequences shows up again: (1) liberal/conservative differences increase from the night watchman state (9.2%) to the welfare state periphery (12.1%) to the welfare state core (14.2) (1) But differences are always relatively small compared to agreement that averages 7-to-1 over disagreement in last instance. (3) The welfare state core is much more popular than the night watchman state, both in terms of liberalism index (78.7% to 53.8%) and increased or stable spending (86.8% to 68.2%); while (4) the welfare state periphery bests it slightly (81.6% and 88.9% respectively).

In contrast, the general spending questions show the highest rate of liberal/conservative disagreement--19.0%. The disagrement is still less than 1 in 5, but it's more than double the disagreement over the night watchman state. In addition, support for general spending is lower than any of the other three categories by a significant amount (58.5% to 68.2%) by one measure (more or stable spending) and is slightly above last place (52.8% to 49.9%) by another (liberalism index).

In short the greatest division in opinion and the greatest opposition come when we ask the most general kinds of questions. When we ask specific questions, opposition generally declines (20-30%) substantially while division increases modestly (3-5%). The difference between the welfare state periphery and the welfare state core is relatively small compared to the difference between both of them and the night watchman state. All this makes perfect sense in terms of a citizenry that is broadly supportive of the welfare state in particular, and broad public spending for the public good more generally. This citizenry includes conservatives and moderates as well as liberals. If it did not, (1) the overall support for the welfare state core and periphery could not approach the 90-% level and (2) the liberal/conservative difference would rise sharply moving from the night watchman state to the welfare state, rather than rising just a modest 3-5%.

Final Thoughts

Finally, we return to two items touched on briefly in passing—foreign aid and welfare. These items are notable for how anomalous they are. Their support scores in both measures diverge markedly from most other spending items. Indeed, their support levels are lower than the average for general spending category. Within that category, the single item they most resemble is CutGovt.

They clearly appear to be items about which the public lacks context. First, the designated recipients are clearly “other”—not the sorts of people the average American citizen thinks of as “us.” Relatedly, they are socially remote. Most people don’t know very much first hand about people on welfare or in countries receiving foreign aid. Furthermore, they have no idea how much money is being spent. Although it is rarely asked, whenever the public has been asked, they have grossly over-estimated the amount of money spent on both these items—so much so that they believe these items (which account for roughtly 1% of the budget each) constitute 20% of the budget or more, enough to make the reasoning about them bleed into thinking about spending in general, as opposed to spending on specific items for a specific purpose.

This is where the ultra-conservatives get their traction. By demonizing remote and powerless others, and demonizing liberals for caring about them, ultra-conservatives have created a narrative framework for talking about politics that is far removed from reality, but closely connected to people’s ignorance, fear and prejudice. They can’t get much mileage out of it in attacking the welfare state directly, because conservative support for the welfare state is far too solid for that. But these two outliers provide insight into how ultra-conservatives can and have created a narrative that is far more potent when expressed in other areas—even though it fails to produce the high levels of polarization that many assume to exist. We will take a look at those areas in our next installment.

Oh, one last thing. Here’s another chart of GSS main spending sequence. Just one difference. It’s limited to self-identified conservatives. The only items that a majority of them want to cut are welfare and foreign aid:
In lordzorgon's front page diary, "Republicans or conservatives?" at Swords Crossed, he wrote:
If you dislike what is going on in our social or foreign policy, I think it is fair to blame "conservatives", because conservatives are mostly running the show in those areas. But to carry this over to economic policy, sorry -- conservatives are *not* running the show right now. Only faux conservatives who passed tax cuts but don't have the cojones to back them up with spending cuts.
But, as the above chart clearly and conclusively proves, conservatives do not want to cut spending. It's not for lack of cojones, as the political discourse of sexual insecurity would have it. It's because conservatives don't want it. And while the folks in Congress are more reactionary than conservative, they can only go so far before running afoul of their base.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Yes, Virginia, Conservatives Are Running America...Into The Ground

It's amazing how conservatives, the great preachers about "personal responsibility" are never actually personally responsible for anything.

Neither Nixon, nor his protege, McCarthy, were responsible for their own downfalls, for example. It was their "enemies" who did them in--though how exactly Nixon's enemies made him cheat on his taxes has never really been fully explained.

And when Ronald Reagan was caught red-handed trading arms for hostages with Iran to fund the conta terrorists in Nicaragua, what did he say? "Mistakes were made." Passive voice. "Mistakes were made."

And when half the House leadership that was hounding Bill Clinton over the Lewinski affair turned out to have affairs of their own, what did we hear? Nothing but a quick reversal, in which those doing the investigating were suddenly the bad guys. Salon magazine was vilified. And Larry Flint? Puh-leaze!

But mighty as these men might have been, they were only dodging responsibility on an individual basis. Now, however, the conservative movement is in trouble, "big time," as America's #2 war criminal would say.

And so it's only natural to find the entire conservative movement doing a "Who, me?" routine.

They've been doing it for some time. But now we have an example at Swords Crossed, lordzorgon's front page diary, "Republicans or conservatives?", which is actually (a) relatively sophisticated, compared to what we get from, say, Ender, with a breakdown into 4 different kinds of conservative and a look at all three branches of government and (b) relatively balanced and honest, concluding:
If you dislike what is going on in our social or foreign policy, I think it is fair to blame "conservatives", because conservatives are mostly running the show in those areas. But to carry this over to economic policy, sorry -- conservatives are *not* running the show right now. Only faux conservatives who passed tax cuts but don't have the cojones to back them up with spending cuts.
Quite frankly, if anyone is going to try to peddle this line, I don't think your going to find a substantially better job than lordzorgon has done.

Things Fall Apart

But once you start poking around a bit, it's surprising how quickly and easily the whole things starts falling apart.

First, consider this passage:
- For Congress, we had a brief *conservative* (as opposed to just Republican) majority 1995-98. Another brief one circa 1947. If you're feeling very generous, maybe a brief one 1981-82, when Democrats let Reagan get most of what he asked for. And finally, we can go back to the pre-Depression era, when there was a solid working conservative majority in the 1920s.
What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong? Simple: According to movement conservatives, evil liberals are to blame for all that's wrong with America. They are an alien force, out of touch with real Americans, whose true nature is conservative. So--uh--how come Americans almost never trust conservatives to run Congress? And how come America became and remained the world's dominant superpower over a long period in which conservatives barely held Congressional power for the blink of an eye?

Don't get me wrong. We can quibble a bit over the dates, but lordzorgon's basically right: "conservatives" as he defines them have played virtually no role in making America great from the platform of Congress.

Where he's wrong is in taking them off the hook for the rapid tumble America's taken since they came to power in 1994, helping to squander one of the greatest opportunities a world superpower has ever had to shape its own future, and create a better world for all the people in it.

Who's A Conservative?

According to lordzorgon, conservatives (not just Republicans) controlled Congress from 1995-1998, but he never explains why the cut-off date. Also according to lordzorgon, Bush is neither a fiscal nor an economic conservative, defined as follows:
A "fiscal conservative" believes the government should run a balanced budget, shouldn't run up debt, and should solve (one way or another) its long-term entitlement obligations such as Social Security and Medicare.

An "economic conservative" believes in small government (not just tax cuts but also spending cuts), devolution of many federal government functions to the states, and less reliance on government and more on private industry to solve day-to-day problems.


OTOH, lordzorgon says:
Reagan was definitely a conservative.
Hunh? As The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, Bush's deficit this year is projected at 2.3% of GDP. His total from 2002-2006 is 2.7%. The Reagan/Bush total, 1982-1993 was much higher: 4.3%. If Bush Jr. isn't a "fiscal conservative," then no way is Reagan one.

And the same goes for "economic conservative." Reagan cut taxes, but not spending. That's where his record deficits came from.

Nor, for that matter, was Reagan all that much of a social conservative. He knew how to talk to them, that's for sure. But he wasn't a church-going man, he had lots of gay friends (he was a Hollywood actor, remember?), he opposed the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978 that would have made it illegal for gays to be public school teachers.

You see where this is going? If your standard is complete ideological purity, then Reagan was no conservative. And if Ronald Reagan wasn't a conservative, then who the hell was?

Underlying Problems

In fact, there are a number of different underlying problems with lordzorgon's argument:

(1) He doesn't establish any standards, so the judgements are arbitrary. While some are uncontroversial, others are not, and still others are plainly wrong.

(2) Partly as a result of #1, he mixes up conservatives and reactionaries--which is commonplace, to be sure, but still it's wrong. It's simply false to claim (as he implicitly does) that Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor weren't conservative. He's using Scalia and Thomas as his benchmarks, but they aren't conservatives, they're reactionaries, as their willingness to overturn precedent indicates.

(3) Ultimately, where lordzorgon is headed is the argument that "conservatism hasn't failed, it's never been tried." Regarding economic policy, he says "conservatives are *not* running the show right now. Only faux conservatives who passed tax cuts but don't have the cojones to back them up with spending cuts."

This echoes the claim of communist apologists, "communism hasn't failed, it's never been tried." And, in a sense--a better sense than lordzorgon has managed--they were right. To take two biggies: (a) Marx wrote of the "withering away of the state," that surely wasn't what Stalin or Mao produced. (b) Marx said it would appear in the most advanced industrial nations, instead it showed up in backwards ones, dependent on foreign capital.

But you know what? Even though they were right in one sense, they were wrong in another: communism had failed, precisely because it proved impossible to try. The preconditions could not be met in the real world. And the same thing applies to conservatism. Because, just for starter, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives want more spending on the major welfare state items in the federal budget.

It's. Just. That. Simple.

(4) As stated in the beginning, the real purpose here is simply to avoid personal responsibility. Reactionaries have been selling themselves under the "conservative" brand name for over three decades now, and they do that by demonizing liberals, blaming everything imaginable on them. And payback's a bitch.

They've been able to get away for it in part because they've never had to govern. At best, they've semi-governed, bargaining roll-backs here and there. Gaining momentum, but not full control until after 9/11. Until then, the very long-term success of liberalism had protected them. As they kept on dismantling and destroying liberal policies and programs that kept America thriving and growing, there was still a good deal of backup, redundancy, and new opportunity in the system. So it took a long time for the incremental damage of their rollbacks to show up in major ways.

But from 9/11 onward--especially after they took over the Senate in November 2002--the breaks were off. And it's taken a remarkably short period of time for people to recoil in horror at what they've seen of conservatism's results when the rubber hits the road.

"Who's there?" / "Not me!" is just not going to cut it, no matter how hard folks like lordzorgon try.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 1.

It’s not liberals, but ultra-conservative movement conservatives who are far outside America’s mainstream. And I’ve got the figures to prove it. In fact, liberals and regular conservatives agree far more than they disagree. The ultra-conservatives are odd-man out, and their constant demonization of liberals is a highly effective form of distraction that’s absolutely crucial to the success of their project, which has virtually no mainstream support. This argument is consistent with, but goes far beyond, recent criticisms of neo-conservatives, including John Dean’s just-published book, Conservatives Without Conscience.

With Israel’s airstrike killing 4 UN observers, we once again see evidence of the right wing’s glee over the death of those it hates, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all. (After all, what do they know of these four people who died?)

Glenn Greenwald notes:
Here's another item to discuss in the next newspaper article about the "Angry Left": members of the Little Green Footballs community last night celebrate the death by Israeli bombing of four UN peacekeepers:

5- I would not put it against the Israelites, nor hold it against them, to have targeted this position based on the revelation, yesterday, that Indian UN 'peacekeepers' were complicent in the kidnapping/murder of Israelites, earlier.

20 - Too bad Kofi wasn't there, too.

22 - So what is Koffi going to do about it even if they did? I understand the paper cuts from a strongly worded letter can really hurt if desert sand gets in them. We are all at war with the UN, time to admit it.

37- I'm finding it hard to feel bad for these so-called peacekeepers. Most of them blindly shilled for Hezbollah while attacking Israel....

38 - ....
63 - ....
70 -....

That was just from the first 100 comments (more here). Consider the mindest required to celebrate the death of U.N. peacekeepers. It's time for another news article on the Angry Left.
This reminded me again of a discussion at Swords Crossed in which Ender defended Ann Coulter, explaining that “Coulterization of the GOP is your own doing” because out-of-the-mainstream liberals drove the conservatives out of the Democratic Party. This polarization, Ender explains, is what gives Coulter her audience. Hence, liberals are to blame for her.

There are, of course, more holes in this logic than you’ll find in Swiss cheese. Such as, “If it’s just a result of polarization, why doesn’t Al Franken make those sorts of jokes?”

After all, Franken’s made his living in comedy all his life. He knows what’s funny. What is he, chopped liver? Still, no jokes about killing conservatives.

[Note: I use Ender as an example, because I encountered him directly, and because Swords Crossed is relatively rare (arguably unique) website, set up to try to promote a left-right debate. However, as it has evolved, it appears that conservatives will only participate under something approaching Fox News rules—they get to spread group lies about liberals on a regular basis, while the liberals go around pretending it’s still the Age of Enlightenment. The dysfunctional debate at Swords Crossed is thus a good mini-barometer of how the larger political debate in our country is seriously off-kilter. I am continuing to post diaries there, but will not engage in debate there. I do not wish to appear to support the gross inequities of how the site functions to tacitly endorse the Fox News rules of engagement. Therefore, I do not engage there. I gladly engage here.]

My initial response to Ender demolished his sweeping claims with a few specific examples of recent polls to the contrary. But I promised a more sweeping survey of public opinion data—a promise I didn’t fulfill, since Ender piped up and promised to research and write a diary refuting me. I decided to wait for his response before doing my diary, but of course he never delivered.

So now I’m delivering on my promise. We’ve just seen another outburst of hate on the right—as Glenn documents. But unlike Ender, I don’t just blindly extrapolate, and conclude that all conservatives are just knuckle-dragging yahoos. Quite the opposite. I think that LGF—and the rightwingers at Swords Crossed, too—are highly un-representative of conservatives as a whole. In fact, liberals and conservatives have far more overlap in their views than have differences. Extremists in the conservative movement have hoodwinked the majority of conservatives, in large part by poisoning them with demonized images of liberalism. The result is a dramatic 72% difference in who liberals and conservative voted for in the 2004 election. But if we look at the issue level, we find that differences rarely come anywhere close to even half that much. Rather, agreement of 70%, even 80% or more is the rule.

Agreement and Difference Explained

First, let me explain what these terms mean. If there are two positions, liberal and conservative, and all liberals support the liberal position, while all conservatives support the conservative position, then there is a 100% difference between them. But if both liberals and conservatives support both positions equally, there is 0% difference. It doesn’t matter how much support there is for each position. All that matters is that the same percentage of liberals and conservatives support each position.

Expanding a bit, we don’t have to limit ourselves to two positions. We can ask people to respond on a sliding scale, and compare the distribution of answers in the same way: If there are 5 categories, and liberals and conservatives respond in the same percentages across the board, then the difference between them will be 0%. If none of the conservatives and liberals respond with a common answer, then the difference will be 100%.

Now, the image that Ender projects—the image that Coulter projects, and that movement conservatives of all stripes project, is that liberals and conservatives have virtually nothing in common. And it’s not just movement conservatives who believe this. It’s the conventional wisdom. It’s all that talk about “Red States/Blue States.”

It’s malarky.

On issue after issue, and question after question, if we break people down into liberal and conservative, there is more agreement than disagreement, and usually by an overwhelming amount. There are liberals who hold the conservative position, and conservatives who hold the liberal position. And if there are more than two options, there are both liberals and conservatives who will hold those positions as well. Combine these numbers together, and they will virtually always come up to more than 50%--usually a lot, lot more—70%, 80% or more as a rule.

Most public opinion polls do not systematically include information about people’s ideology. You have to hunt around and find the ones that do. And if you do that, people can fairly question if maybe you’re being selective in the polls you include, and those you don’t. So, to avoid any such questions, I’m just going to look at one source of data. It’s the most analyzed data set in US social science after the US Census, the General Social Survey, conducted by the non-profit National Opinion Research Center, which is affiliated with University of Chicago. The GSS has been conducted 25 times since 1972, with the 26th coming out later this year.

I’m not going to try to analyze the whole thing. I am going to look at every substantive question in 4 different parts of it, however. The first has to do with government spending—which is the heart of what New Deal liberalism was about. The others have to do with divisive so-called “wedge issues”—abortion, gay rights, affirmative action.

New Deal Consensus vs. Reactionary Fringe

I have chosen this combination of areas for a very deliberate reason. Undermining and reversing the New Deal is job one for movement conservatives. They have never accepted the New Deal as legitimate, and want to undo it completely, if possible. In this they are a fringe minority, and the data will convincingly prove it. In their quest to overthrow the New Deal, movement conservatives have resorted to using social wedge issues, to divide the Democratic Party base, and put conservatives in power—conservatives who dare not enact their most heartfelt agenda of abolishing the New Deal, but who can, nonetheless, roll it back incrementally.

On social issues, the liberal majority is not nearly so overwhelming and universal. Depending on how issues are framed, majorities may shift from one side to the other. But despite this fact, the differences between liberals and conservatives remain well below 50%--which means that there’s a lot more common ground, and a lot more room for reaching understanding than the polarizers would have you believe.

Why does this matter? Simple: if liberals and conservatives can work out compromise solutions on social issues (such as parental controls like the v-chip, instead of draconian government censorship), then the overwhelming liberal consensus on economic issues will prevail. Thus, polarization is a strategy for rightwing extremist to set the agenda for the entire country, and to stymie effective governance by the majority.

The demonization of liberals we see routinely here at Swords Crossed is but a tiny little echo of the overall rightwing noise machine, but it fits in perfectly with this grand plan—a plan that most people have no idea about. After all, even the vast majority of the extreme right true believers buy their own line—just like Ender does—and think that they represent the vast majority of the American people.

The Big-Picture Data

Here, then, are the broad results of the GSS survey questions in the areas I looked at—plus a snapshot supporting my claims about (a) widespread support for New Deal-style government spending and (b) the marginal nature of reactionary opposition. I will examine all this data in more detail in the diaries to come. But these broad results clearly demonstrate the truth of the claims I’ve just made. I stop here because (1) I don’t want everyone to go into overwhelm, and (2) I want the discussion here to deal with the fundamental arguments presented, as opposed to any discussion of detailed analysis which will come with the followup posts.

Liberal-Conservative Agreement

  • 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%. Even so, the disagreement—31.9%—was less than half the agreement—68.1%


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.

Liberal-Conservative Support For Big Government Spending

To look at support for welfare state spending across a range of areas, I created a variable, NatSpend6, which combined support for

A. Improving and protecting the environment.
B. Improving and protecting the nation's health
C. Solving the problems of the big cities
D. Improving the nation's education system
E. Improving the conditions of Blacks
F. Welfare

A landslide total of 73.1% says we’re spending too little on at least one program, net. (Too little spending on 3 while too much spending on 2, for example.) This is the minimal level of solid support for the New Deal welfare state. Another 10.8% says we’re spending the right amount, net. (Too little on 3, too much on 3, for example.) Since they do not support cutting programs, they should be regarded as supportive as well, for a total of 83.9%

The Marginal Nature of Reactionary Opposition

Just 16.1% think we’re spending too much on at least one program. This is the maximal level we can assign for opposition to the welfare state.

But support for cutting one program, net, is a far cry from supporting the abolition of the welfare state, which is the ultimate goal of movement conservatism. We have no measure for abolition. The closest we get is for those think we’re spending too much on all 6. And a miniscule 0.6% think that.

Even among self-identified conservatives, just 24.9% thought we’re spending too much on at least one program. And a miniscule 1.4% think we’re spending too much on all 6. Hard-core welfare state opponents are indeed a miniscule fringe.

Conclusion

The portrayal of liberals as an alien, subversive force in American politics, far outside the political mainstream, is a complete and utter myth. Not even bothering to refute this claim, we refute an even milder one—that liberal opinion is far out of touch with conservative opinion. We find that in all 99 questions surveyed, there is always at least twice as much agreement as there is disagreement between liberals and conservatives. Usually there is four times or more as much agreement as disagreement. Furthmore, we find that the number of people who want to abolish the welfare state cannot be larger than 1.4%, while 73.1% want to increase welfare state spending.

In short, there is no sweeping political polarization of American political life, liberals are not some alien, unpatriotic fringe, and most liberals and conservatives agree on most issues at least four times as much as they disagree.

The only odd man out is the ultra-conservatives—such as Ender—who have perversely come to dominate the GOP, and now control all three branches of government. It would be difficult to imagine a more undemocratic situation inside a formal democracy.

This is what system failure looks like.

This is what the fall of the Roman Empire looked like.

This is not a test.