Everything You Know About Politics Is Wrong |
BY JEFFREY FRIEDMAN
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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.
1. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE NOT BEEN VOTING DISPROPORTIONATELY REPUBLICAN
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.
2. THE PUBLIC DOESN’T AGREE WITH CONSERVATISM
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
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
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.
3. THE POWER OF IDEAS
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
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 mediaresearch.org). 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
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
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.
4. IS THIS ANY WAY TO RUN A COUNTRY?
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.|