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Everything You Know About Politics Is Wrong

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FOR TWO AND A HALF DECADES, IT'S BEEN A COMMONPLACE that most Americans are conservative, and that the liberalism of college towns and The New York Times is the viewpoint of an embattled minority. If the Republicans lose on November 7, the question among liberal politicos will be whether the American people have finally come to their senses. If the Republicans win, the question will be how to knock some sense into the public by 2008.

The premise of such political strategizing, however, is false. The notion that we’re in a long era of conservative public opinion is flat-out wrong. But it’s the founding myth of both conservative and liberal political analysis right now.

Conservatives, strangely reversing William F. Buckley’s observation that he was “standing athwart history, shouting ‘Stop!,’” now like to think of themselves as history’s tribunes, successfully fighting for the views of “the people” against the “liberal elites.” Liberals tend to think of conservatism as popular, too, so they end up playing the part of the embattled but enlightened minority. Both sides ignore the possibility that, in fact, the people and the elites basically agree with each other — and with liberalism.

There are at least three reasons to contemplate that possibility.

First, recent American history doesn’t even display Republican dominance.

Second, what Republican victories have occurred haven’t been endorsements of conservatism.

Third, public opinion is shaped by ideas, and therefore by the people who generate them. And those people are predominantly on the left.

Put these three observations together, and we get a new picture of what’s going on in U.S. politics. More important, we get a deeper grasp of what political scientists have long known about the realities of modern democracy.


The foundation of the Myth of Conservative Dominance is the “landslide” election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But contrary to legend, there was no landslide. Reagan won a bare majority of the popular vote — 50.7 percent. The “landslide” was an artifact of the Electoral College, where Reagan overwhelmed Democrat Jimmy Carter by 489 to 44.

Equally suggestive is the fact that even Reagan’s tiny popular majority was an eleventh-hour affair. The last CBS/New York Times pre-election poll showed Reagan 1 percent ahead of Carter, with only 44 percent of the vote — the remainder going to independent liberal candidate John Anderson. It seems, then, that millions of voters abandoned Carter literally at the last minute: on Election Day itself. As Paul Abramson, John Aldrich, and David Rohde’s polling analysis shows, “Reagan gained about 1 percentage point from last-minute shifts, while Carter lost 6 points.”

A last-minute shift away from the Democratic candidate isn’t consistent with the notion that the public was so taken with the Republican candidate’s conservatism that its votes for him betokened a “shift to the right” of historic dimensions — as so many commentators declared on the day after the election, and have been repeating ever since. Instead, the last-minute abandonment of Carter suggests that a huge number of voters resisted Reagan until the bitter end, but once inside the voting booth, held their noses and voted Republican.

Why would they do that? A plausible answer is that they decided they couldn’t risk continuing the unbelievably bad economy under President Carter. Three out of four voters named the economy as their top concern, and 65 percent disapproved of Carter’s handling of it.

Under Carter, inflation had hit 20 percent, as had interest rates; and unemployment reached 7.5 percent. Prices were doubling every four years; getting a job or buying a house was nearly impossible; and there was an “energy crisis” that required people to wait in line for hours to get a few gallons of gas. The economy in 1980 was far worse than anything Americans had experienced since the Great Depression. Reagan won by default.

So much for the first great “conservative” election. Then came 1984, when Reagan was re-elected. This time, he really did get a landslide: 59 percent of the popular vote. But he didn’t campaign as a conservative. In fact, he was despised by conservatives for his “Morning in America” campaign, with gauzy commercials featuring rural flag-raisings in a new dawn. Reagan got away with a substance-free campaign because the economy had been transformed. All seemed blissful: the crises of the Carter era had ended, so the normal pattern of presidential elections resumed. Incumbents win if times are good.

That’s also what happened in 1988, when Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, defeated a Democrat who promised to raise taxes. People don’t like paying taxes. But that doesn’t mean that people are conservative. It just means they’re struggling to make ends meet, and resentful of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” that they think characterizes government spending.

In 1992, Bush was not so lucky. Bill Clinton ran as a low-tax Democrat, and people didn’t think the economy was in good shape. Clinton won. In 1996, the economy was booming, and Clinton won again. In 2000, Al Gore, too, won the popular vote, and would have become president if not for the quirks of the Electoral College.

Starting in 1980, then, the Republicans have won the popular vote for president four times, and the Democrats have won the popular vote for president three times. That’s hardly evidence of a “sea change to the right.” Likewise, while Republicans have controlled the Senate for 16 out of those 26 years (small Republican states like Utah get as many senators as huge Democratic states like California), the Democrats have controlled the House for 14 of those 26 years. If there’s been a conservative realignment, it’s not apparent from the election returns.


Even if the modern Republican party had been the victory machine that the mythology implies it was, that wouldn’t mean that the public endorsed conservative views. In a two-party system, the public has no choice but to elect conservatives if liberals have presided over bad times. So election results prove very little. What matters is whether the public agrees with conservative ideas. And the fact is that (with the exception of cutting taxes) the public doesn’t.

It’s always hard to prove a negative, but there’s abundant data on this one. An invaluable starting place is Morris P. Fiorina’s Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

Survey researchers have long known that racist attitudes have virtually disappeared in America, which is why “structural racism” — as opposed to attitudinal racism — has assumed such a large role in liberal thought. Fiorina adds that even attitudes toward the most despised group in America, gays, have been softening in the very era in which social conservatism has supposedly gripped the American public. When people place social groups on a “feeling thermometer,” with zero meaning completely negative feelings, 50 meaning neutral feelings, and 100 meaning complete admiration, the average rating for gays rose from 25 to 49 — nearly neutral — from 1984 to 2004. The proportion of the public assigning gays a zero declined from 30 to 14 percent. While the public has remained evenly split on outlawing homosexual acts, the proportion favoring equal employment rights for gays has risen from 57 percent in 1977 to 79 percent in 2004. (One thing you learn from reading opinion polls is that the public often holds contradictory attitudes.) These figures will only improve over time. Americans under age 30 are overwhelmingly more tolerant of homosexual relations (70 percent oppose laws against homosexuality) than are Americans older than 49 (48 percent).

Not incidentally: 64 percent of Democrats favor legalizing homosexuality, but so do 51 percent of Republicans.

The data show that most Americans are even more tolerant on other social issues, and they grow more so all the time. Christian “fundamentalists” have been mobilized, but they are less intolerant than portrayed in the media, and they are very much a minority.

As for the economy, works by such political scientists as Fiorina, Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (The Rational Public: 50 Years of Trends in Public Opinion), and Larry Schwab (The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution) show that the public never supported conservative ideas.

The reality is that the public overwhelmingly supports the premises of modern liberalism: (1) if there’s a problem, the government should try to fix it; and (2) without government control, capitalism would run amok. Back at the dawn of the so-called Reagan Revolution, gigantic majorities disagreed with Reagan’s laissez-faire views and backed every actual and proposed government protection of consumers, workers, and the environment against the ravages of capitalism. Public attitudes have not changed since then. The result: Reagan was able to achieve none of the major items on his anti-government agenda, nor was the Gingrich Congress able to do so in 1994.

It’s not surprising, then, that since 1994 Republicans have dropped that agenda, and are no longer the anti- Big Government party in anything but name. This has infuriated conservatives, as did Reagan’s inability to tame Big Government or even to try. But in dropping conservatism, the Republican party is accurately reflecting the sentiments of the voters to whom they answer. Most people consistently say that they oppose “big government.” But they also consistently support all the little things that, added together, make the government big. As with people’s sometimes-conflicting attitudes about government policy toward gays, people don’t seem to notice the contradiction.

Moreover, even at the level of abstraction, while most people oppose “big government,” they think big business is just as bad, or worse. While about 4 in 10 voters think that government is always inefficient and wasteful, the same proportion thinks that “corporations make too much profit,” and 6 in 10 think “too much power is concentrated in large corporations.”

No wonder the polls show steady and overwhelming public support for all the main economic regulations inaugurated during the Progressive Era. Last month the Democrats were gearing up to campaign against greedy oil companies who, unaccountably, seem to have “decided” to raise oil prices — before supply increased, and prices fell. But the Democrats went ahead with their anti-oil company theme, since 42 percent of the public thinks that the Bush administration has (somehow) “deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall’s elections.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are also running against the biggest corporation of all, Wal-Mart — even though 150 million Americans benefit from its low prices, millions work there, and thousands more want to work at each store that opens (see Piotr Brzezinski’s article on p. 9). The Democrats are betting that the public is so anti-corporate that it will blame Wal-Mart for the poverty that makes its job applicants willing to accept low wages.

Another favorite Democratic vote-getter is also in play: raising the minimum wage. This is a policy that’s consistently supported by more than 9 in 10 voters, so it’s no surprise that Republican governors are joining in by advocating higher minimum wages, too. “The ideology that binds Republican governors is getting things done for their constituents,” says the executive director of the Republican Governors’ Association.

Problem-solving pragmatism has always played well in America, but it dangerously suggests that solving social problems is easy: just pass a law intended to solve the problem. This can-do attitude ignores the ways a complex world may frustrate the best intentions. Advocates of the minimum wage, for example, overlook the counterintuitive teaching of economists: that if employers are forced to pay employees more than the employees can produce, the employers will have to hire fewer employees (see Bryan Caplan’s “Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy”).

The public has never agreed with the conservative repudiation of economic regulations, and the same goes for the conservative repudiation of social programs. In recent years President Bush tried, and miserably failed, to privatize Social Security: the public opposed Bush all the way. When he mentioned Social Security during his last State of the Union address, the Democrats rose in a derisive standing ovation, so grateful were they for his help in boosting their popularity by giving them the chance to oppose privatization. Meanwhile, the Republicans did pass an enormously expensive new government entitlement, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit — supported by more than 90 percent of the public.

Economic conservatives make complicated arguments about the counterproductive effects (such as unemployment) of well-intentioned government policies (such as the minimum wage). These arguments may be right or they may be wrong, but most members of the public have never even heard them, any more than have most students at the best colleges in America. How likely is it, then, that many members of the public would support economic conservatism?

Now we’re getting down to the most fundamental problem with equating Republican votes with conservative votes: public ignorance.

The political-science literature has long emphasized the almost unfathomable level of public ignorance. Most people have no idea what the First Amendment says, they don’t know the names of their congressional representatives, they’ve never heard of any members of the Supreme Court, and so on. Seventy-four percent of the public can identify the Three Stooges, but only 42 percent can identify the three branches of government. In 1994, when Republicans took control of the House — supposedly because of another public “turn to the right” — the reality was that 71 percent of the public had never even heard of the “Contract with America” on which the Republicans staked their claim to a conservative mandate. And of the 29 percent who had heard of the “Contract,” half supported the Democrats. The list of what the electorate doesn’t know grows with each scholarly study of public opinion.

In light of the public’s immense ignorance, it’s no surprise that the seminal research on the topic, Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” showed that the public doesn’t even know what liberalism and conservatism mean. So it’s virtually impossible that in 1980, some “sea change” toward conservative ideology swept aside the public’s support of the business regulations, social programs, and toleration that are the hallmarks of liberal politics.

Converse pointed out that the gap between the politically ignorant public and the well-informed minority who write about politics — and who read articles like this one — is so wide that the well-informed few routinely project their ideological views onto the electorate at large. They just can’t imagine how poorly informed most people are. This accounts for the pundits’ routine overinterpretation of elections as “mandates” for the ideologies of the winning party. The overinterpretation of elections rests on the “optical illusion,” as Converse put it, that the public is as well informed as the pundits.

The pundits knew that Reagan was a radical conservative, so they assumed that the public knew, too, and that that’s why he was elected. The day after the 1980 election, they looked in the mirror and asked themselves what it would have meant if they had voted for Reagan. But the “conservative” voter who stared back at them was, as the data show, a mirage.

The overinterpretation of elections by the well-informed few is inherent in successful democracies, lest they lose their legitimacy. The sanctity of democracy would vanish if the voters were recognized as the ignoramuses they are. But most political observers are themselves ignorant of the political-science findings of public ignorance, so it rarely occurs to them to include it in their post-election analyses.


Astute readers will notice that I haven’t said a word about the issue of 2006: foreign policy. Isn’t the public conservative on this issue?

Not really. The public is unquestionably nationalistic. But nationalism can lead to a dovish foreign policy if the public thinks Americans are being hurt by a hawkish foreign policy — especially a hawkish foreign policy designed to help foreigners.

That’s what happened during the Vietnam War, and it’s what’s happening now. American casualties in Iraq, although dwarfed by the casualties in Vietnam and every other major war, are what have gotten Bush and the Republicans in trouble. The casualties — and the endlessly reiterated charge that “Bush lied” about WMD.

The focus on American casualties, and the charge that Bush lied — which would mean that Clinton, the UN Security Council, and every other informed observer of Saddam Hussein’s record of seeking WMD was “lying,” too — began as Democratic talking points. But they were picked up by the news media and hammered home, in every possible way. Gradually, the public came to agree that Iraq is a catastrophe, and that Bush’s dishonesty caused it.

In a democracy, the people have nominal power, but the people’s perceptions are shaped by the media. There’s no way to perceive political reality directly — un“mediated.” Even perceptions of the economy are filtered through media reports. In 1992, the media failed to report that the “Bush recession” had ended, which ensured Clinton’s victory. Today, the media barrage against the war has positioned the Republicans for defeat.

There’s one thing conservatives are definitely right about: the media are overwhelmingly liberal. There’s never been a study of the ideological or partisan leanings of media personnel that’s shown otherwise. The same reporters who failed to report the end of the recession in 1992 favored Clinton over Bush by 12 to 1 (see Did they conspire to suppress the truth? Of course not. But, faced with conflicting claims about a confusing world, they believed what they were prepared to believe, and they successfully conveyed this belief to the public.

Maybe Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh have changed things? Not really.

There have always been outlets for conservative opinion, and they have always suffered from the appearance of partiality. The result is that only partisans watch. Fox, on a good night, gets a tenth of the viewers of the broadcast networks’ news shows. Jon Stewart is far more watched than Bill O’Reilly. Limbaugh has fewer listeners than National Public Radio.

Most people get their news from “mainstream” sources, because most people don’t trust partisans. Mainstream sources like Katie Couric or NPR can be ideologically liberal without expressing partisan support for the Democrats. Since the public doesn’t know what to look for in identifying “liberalism” (or conservatism), NPR, Katie — even “The Daily Show” — seem more “fair and balanced” to more people than do Fox or Rush.

There’s no Democratic media conspiracy; there’s just a liberal media consensus. In part, that’s because media personnel are Americans, and Americans are, however unwittingly, liberal. But media personnel are more liberal than most Americans. Why?

The best explanation I’ve seen is that they are almost all college graduates. As you’ve surely noticed, the faculties of the best American colleges are virtually conservative-free.

No conspiracy there, either. Who are the most sophisticated thinkers, worthy of being taught to the best and the brightest? Rousseau, Kant, Marx; Foucault, Derrida, Habermas; Rawls, Dworkin, Rorty — not a conservative in the bunch.

Conservative philosophy (e.g., Burke) verges on the irrational — the antithesis of the university. Conservative social science is nonexistent — except in economics. And most conservative economists have bought into a mathematical fantasy of perfect markets that is as worthy of ignoring as it’s just plain boring. (The great exception was F. A. Hayek; see Peter J. Boettke’s article.) So students on their way to positions of public influence, including media influence, avoid economics in droves. And even the few who do take an economics course or two learn to be skeptical about economists’ formal models, which bear little relation to their practical experience.

No economics, no conservatism. No conservatism, no countervailing impetus to the natural liberalism of the American reporter, and the leftist impetus of his professors when he is still a student.

The pivotal issue here is whether the ideas taught to people matter. And they must — unless, as Marx believed, the world interprets itself to people, in the form of their self-evident “interests,” unmediated by professors, journalists, or authors.

That was very naive of Marx. His theory omitted its own role in inspiring revolutionaries. And he failed to see that he was at the tail end of almost two millennia of egalitarian individualism, gradually worked out from its Christian premises. Absent that history, neither he nor those who came after him would have believed what they did.

The specific trajectory of ideas I’m identifying — leftward — doesn’t apply outside the West. If media personnel were educated in Saudi madrassas rather than American universities, their audience would be moving toward Islamism, not liberalism.


Put together the influence of college on students, and those students’ later domination of the media, and you get a steady shift, even among an ignorant public, in whatever direction the professors ordain — dictated, in turn, by the broader history of ideas. In our case, that means a steady shift leftward, which is just what the survey data show. Flattering as it is for students, like their professors, to think of themselves as lonely voices resisting the mob, they are, in fact, the mob’s ultimate leaders.

That word ultimate is a caveat. The public, I concede, is so inattentive to politics that it takes time for the followers to catch up to the leaders. Eventually, however, the latest media message sinks in. John Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion shows that it took years of media pounding before Democrats understood that they were supposed to oppose the Vietnam War. Similarly, after engaging in only a year of focused antiwar reporting, the media failed to defeat George W. Bush in 2004, even though his share of the vote did fall far short of what would normally be expected of an incumbent presiding over an economic recovery.

If the Republicans lose on November 7, you’ll know that this time, the media message has finally sunk in.

If the Republicans prevail, however, it will be because their leaders have neutralized their own economic and social conservatism to accommodate the public’s economic and social liberalism, and have offered a more persuasive foreign-policy nationalism than the Democrats’. Republicans who attempt to hold power — like today’s congressional Republicans are desperately trying to do — become more liberal by the day. That’s the story of the GOP since World War II, when it started out resisting the New Deal state. It has now evolved to boasting about its gigantic expansions of that state’s power.

If the Republicans cling to the House, they will have slapped the “conservative” label on a popular liberal program of “problem-solving” governance. How? They’ll have taken advantage of circumstances fortuitous and local — redistricting, a computerized database of every potential Republican voter — not factors ideological and global. And in doing so, they’ll have effectively abandoned the claim that they are in office because of some broad public conservatism — and along with it, the myth that, in occasionally voting for radical conservatives such as Reagan and the Gingrich Republicans, the public “knew what it was doing.”

Now for the big implications of this political analysis. If the public doesn’t know what it’s doing, one has to wonder if democracy is such a great system of government that it should govern as much of life as possible.

The legitimacy of mass democracy is the ultimate question to which rigorous election analysis leads, and it should be asked regardless of who wins next month.

If the Republicans lose, it doesn’t mean that the people know what they’re doing. It simply means that a public that’s intuitively aligned with liberalism was encouraged, by a media that’s unenlightened about any thought but the leftist kind, to accept a dark interpretation of the war. This dark interpretation was based on a relentless focus on historically minuscule casualties, and on “Plamegate”-like claims that have been proven false. (It turns out that antiwar State Department gossip Richard Armitage, not White House mastermind Karl Rove, “outed” Valerie Plame.) It was based, as well, on the media’s under-reporting of more important issues, such as whether Iraq really was seeking Nigerien uranium. (It turns out that the report filed by Plame’s husband, antiwar Ambassador Joseph Wilson, indicates that Iraq indeed was.)

If the Republicans lose, it’s because voters, whose deeply limited understanding of politics is shaped by the media, have chosen Democratic liberalism over the falsely labeled Republican alternative. And if they win, it will be by embracing enough liberalism for the confused public to prefer them to the Democrats. In the second case, serious students of politics will have to abandon the notion of conservative hegemony. In either case, they should also question whether a system in which ideological elites indoctrinate ignorant masses deserves the obeisance we are taught to pay it.

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Jeffrey Friedman, the Max Weber Senior Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of the Social Sciences, Boston University, is the editor of Critical Review and of The Rational-Choice Controversy (Yale University Press).He has taught political theory and social-science methodology at Barnard, Dartmouth, and Harvard, and leads the Critical Review Summer Seminars in the Political Economy of Modern Democracies. To apply click on the seminar ad icon above.






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