If your phone rang right now and you were asked to label yourself, which one of these three terms — liberal, conservative or moderate — would you say best describes your political views?
That’s the question Gallup sought to answer in a recent poll of Americans as part of the group’s “State of the State’s” series which is intended to “reveal state-by-state differences on political, economic, and wellbeing measures.”
Depending on your notions of the current political landscape in the U.S., and in Minnesota, you might be surprised by what the pollsters at Gallup have discovered. According to their results, 36.8% of the Americans polled self-identify as “conservative,” 22.2% as “liberal,” with the remaining 36.6% preferring to call themselves “moderate.”
The poll was based on a random sample of 178,527 American adults aged 18 and older, with surveys conducted by interview via telephone throughout all of 2013.
Here are the top 10 most liberal and most conservative states according to Gallup’s poll:
Minnesota, though leaning slightly left compared to the national averages, is relatively politically balanced based on the poll data — 36.6% of residents call themselves conservatives, 23.3% liberal, and the largest group, 37.6% of Minnesotans, identify themselves as moderates.
In fact, moderation might be the defining characteristic of Minnesota’s overall political ideology according to Gallup’s findings. Based on ranking, Minnesota has the 33rd largest percentage of self-identified conservatives among all states polled, is 20th highest share of liberals, while finishing at 13th overall in the share of people who describes themselves as moderate.
The Conservative Advantage
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the study is large disparity between the number of Americans who define themselves as liberal vs. conservative. We tend to think of American politics as bi-partisan, split, more or less, evenly between two major opposing ideologies and consider the terms “conservative” and “liberal” to be essentially synonymous placeholders for both major parties, respectively. If this is the case, we’d expect to see a fairly uniform divide between self-labeled liberals and their conservative counterparts.
But the data reveals a different story.
In fact, Gallup coined a term “conservative advantage” to describe to large disparity between the percentage of self-identifying liberals and conservatives they found during their research. Conservative advantage is a simple calculation that derives a value by subtracting a population’s percentage of self-identifying liberals from that same population’s percentage of respondents calling themselves conservatives.
Using that calculation and the poll’s results, there was a nationwide conservative advantage of 14.6 in 2013, down from 15.9 in 2012, providing some evidence of a marginally narrowing divide between the opposing political ideologies over the last few years, but also indicating a still-significant remaining gap in this nation between the number of self-labeled liberals and conservatives.
But What About the 2012 Election?
At first glance, the poll data appears to be difficult to reconcile with what we saw in the 2012 Presidential election since Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, who has been long-considered to hold strong “liberal” views, won 51.1% of the popular vote en route to being re-elected to the Oval Office.
In Minnesota, Gallup’s results appear to be even more perplexing in light of the state’s voting tallies from the most recent Presidential election. In 2012, Obama captured Minnesota’s ten members of the electoral college by winning 52.7% of the popular vote.
How, then, can we make any sense of the “conservative advantage” of 14.3 that Gallup assigns to Minnesota when a Democrat won nearly 52% of the vote? And how can a country with only 22.2% of it’s population considering themselves to be liberal elect a President who, prior to taking office in 2008, was cited by a 2007 National Journal rating as “the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate” based on his voting record that year in Congress.
How can a liberal politician like Barack Obama be elected (twice) in a state — and in a country — where self-labeled liberal voters are so significantly outnumbered?
A recent paper published out of St. Louis’s Washington University echoes the sentiments in questions like these, recognizing the paradoxical nature of citizens’ ideological self-identification juxtaposed with their voting tendencies, noting:
“The puzzle is that, on the one hand, Americans who call themselves conservative outnumber those who call themselves liberals and, on the other hand, a majority of Americans take a liberal position on most issues involving federal public policy.”
And also adding:
“We observe that there may be an important difference between labels and policy positions. Asking Americans about the ideological label they choose for themselves and asking about the positions they take on public policy options may be mixing both the level of abstraction and the specific referent of the question.”
The paper’s authors call it an “ideological puzzle” and I think that sums it up pretty well. The process of coming to better understand the difference between what people actually believe in regard to public policy and how they label themselves ideologically is a puzzling one.
I wonder if — like so many other confounding problems — it all comes down to definitions?
The Meaning of “Liberal”
Last Monday, the second half of Bill O’Reilly’s interview of President Obama was aired on Fox News, the first half having been played a day earlier on Super Bowl Sunday.
Over the course of their rather spirited two-part discussion, O’Reilly pressed the Commander-in-Chief on a range of issues he thought needed addressing, including the problems during Obamacare’s rollout, the U.S. response to the Benghazi embassy attack in 2012, and the IRS tax-targeting scandal. Though their rather lively sparring session over many hot-button topics included quite a few memorable soundbites, perhaps the most poignant exchange of the interview was initiated when O’Reilly asked the President plainly, “Are you the most liberal President in U.S. History?”
“Probably not,” Obama affably responded with a grin, adding that President Nixon’s policies were, “in a lot of ways,” more liberal than his own.
Now, this seems like a pretty simple question and answer, but what is Independent (though strongly conservative) O’Reilly really asking when he inquires about whether the Democrat President is the most liberal to ever hold America’s highest office? And why, in response, did Obama parry O’Reilly’s query by suggesting that Richard Nixon — a Republican — was more liberal than he?
Why are both O’Reilly and Obama treating “liberal” as if it were a 4-letter word?*
I’d suggest this subtle verbal judo match over the L-word in the course of their interview was actually of a significantly strategic nature, and closely related to the findings in Gallup’s recent poll.
As noted in the Washington University paper, polls and surveys of a similar nature to Gallup’s have consistently shown Americans eschew the liberal label — Americans do so even when the ideological positions they hold, as well as their voting tendencies, might best be described by that very term.
For better or worse, the word “liberal” has come to acquire an unbecoming connotation over the last several decades in American politics. It has been used pejoratively (and quite effectively) by Republican candidates against their Democratic opponents dating back to 1960’s and 70’s.
While 2013’s Gallup poll shows some indication that the word’s negative associations may be slowly fading over time, both Obama and O’Reilly are aware that in 2014, the data still strongly confirm the liberal label is not a helpful one for candidates seeking elected office. With midterm elections on the horizon this November and 77.8% of Americans, and 76.7% of Minnesotans, preferring to be referred to as moderate or conservative rather than liberal, I’d argue it is wise for anyone with political ambitions to steer clear of too tightly embracing such unpopular monikers.
I’d also argue it was pretty clear from the interview that Bill O’Reilly was trying to pin Barack Obama as a (gasp) liberal and the President calmly guided the discussion away from ideological labels and back to the the core of operational public policy, stating:
“I tend not to think about things in terms of liberal and conservative because, at any given time, the question is ‘What does the country need right now?’”
Regardless of the exact causes or effects, at some point, it seems pretty clear liberal became a dirty word in American politics, both on the federal level in Washington, and here in Minnesota. Simultaneously and paradoxically, according to some experts, policy positions traditionally considered to be liberal are more popular now than at perhaps any time in our nation’s history.
We are experiencing the reality of what the Washington University paper authors, Christopher Claassen, Patrick Tucker and Steven S. Smith, call the “Operational-Symbolic Ideology Problem” in American politics.
We live in a country and in a state where our stance on the issues, what we believe about the world, what we prefer to label ourselves, and how we vote, can all be very different.
So, if your phone rang right now and you were asked to label yourself politically, what would you say?
Author’s Note: *Later in the exchange, Obama does make an attempt to defend liberalism as pragmatic in many cases, noting, “What used to be considered sensible, we now somehow label as liberal,” citing Social Security and Medicare as examples of his point. In my opinion, this particular line of appeal by the President is less of a defense to salvage the L-word, and more of a confirmation that, in Obama’s view, liberal has indeed become a pejorative term.
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