“Ideologically conservative but operationally liberal”

Kevin Drum:

You all remember the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal? It means that lots of Americans say they’re conservative and like to believe they’re conservative, but when it comes to specific government programs they turn out to be pretty liberal. They like Medicare and Social Security and federal highways and disaster relief and unemployment insurance and all that. Try to cut these things and you learn very quickly just how operationally liberal most Americans are.

Yes, I remember that old saw.  It’s rubbish.  Try it in another context:  A lot of Americans say they eat healthy, and like to believe they eat healthy, but put a bunch of tasty junk food in front of them and, Bob’s your uncle, they turn out to be pretty unhealthy after all. 

Of course people are not going to give up Medicare and Social Security after those programs have been dangled in front of them their entire working lives.  (They’re just tax-and-spend programs, remember, so we’re not “investing” in our own “trust accounts”—we’re paying for them because we like them so much because, again, we’re all “operationally liberal.”)  To suggest this means the whole thing’s a draw politically is pretty crooked scorekeeping.

In fact, I was surprised that Drum would be this transparent about the fact that, when it comes to underlying objectives concerning redistribution and centralization, liberals don’t bother appealing to intellect.  They’re going to appeal to base desires, and they’re going to capitalize on crises when the value of principles is depressed.  When people get something for nothing, they’re unlikely to give it up voluntarily, and in fact are probably going to ask what else is on the menu at the same price.

Drum goes on:

When Americans hear about free enterprise from conservative politicians, it’s usually accompanied by images of sunrises over wheat fields, hardworking farmers, and small-town construction workers heading home after a day of honest labor. It is very definitely not accompanied by images of well-coiffed guys in suits and green eyeshades, making millions by sitting in boardrooms and approving mass layoffs by adding a quick line to a spreadsheet before they head out to lunch. But guess what? That’s what you get with Romney whether you like it or not. Americans may be ideological free marketers, but operationally they’re just folks who believe in a day’s pay for a day’s work. If you rub their noses in the the true face of modern capitalism, they aren’t going to like what they see.

The condescension toward the cow-tippers in flyover country is palpable. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. I guess I see him saying that Americans respect the farmer, who toils in the fields, or the construction worker, who toils on a roof. A day’s pay for a day’s work. Someone who produces. I realize that my former love affair with a more socialist viewpoint causes me to see it this way, but I imagine they do have more respect for the farmer or the construction guy than they do for the people who sit around boardrooms and toss lives around as easy as they scratch out line items on a spreadsheet.

    I realize that someone has to do these things to make businesses streamlined and efficient and help bump the stock price, etc. but it doesn’t contrast much more starkly with the “day’s pay for a day’s work” vision of which Drum speaks. I see his condescension for the Gekkos of the world as being palpable in that paragraph.

  2. People were also for ARRA, for Obamacare, for a lot of new things that make things better for everyone.
    They’re also skeptical that their government can accomplish these things in a good/efficient fashion.

    Americans are smart, skeptical, often cranky liberals. What most Americans call conservative, is actually just a cranky liberal point of view. It still maintains that things are fixable, and is remarkably egalitarian, it just thinks that fixing is by turning back the clock.

  3. “The condescension toward the cow-tippers in flyover country is palpable. ”

    Explain? I am not seeing where you get this from the quote that you pulled. How does noting that Mitt Romney is an investment-banker-y type imply condescension to farmers?

    • That cow-tippers’ puny minds only have room for a truncated version of conservatism in which free markets always results in something looking something like Main St. Disneyland.

      • There seem to have been many, many detours rest stops added behind the scenes in-between your points A and B – not to mention a pretty willful ignorance that Drum seems to be saying the tendencies he discusses are true across the board.

        Is it possible that you are seeing what you are hoping to see in your enemy?

        • Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, there’s more to elaborate on than I even realized at first. “The true face of modern capitalism”? I’m not sure what Drum thinks that means, but it surely is not conservative. It’s not even liberal, strictly speaking, though I would say it is more directly a consequence of liberal politics than conservative, given how centralized big government leads to special interest influence leads to a decline in democracy, as I argued in my recent piece.

  4. I’m with Mark and Tod here. I am a cowtipper in flyover country, and I know this is a direct appeal to me. But I don’t see the condescension so clearly–blue collar folks don’t like corporate types much. That’s why I take off my tie when I go to my factory worker neighbor’s house.

    • James, in your experience, does the dislike of the well-coifed “corporate types” tend to translate into “operational liberalism”? I like to think it doesn’t, but I’m curious to know your take.

      • Eh, I don’t think I could make a blanket statement about that. It can certainly translate into support for fish-the-rich policies, but it doesn’t necessarily result in anything we could really call anti-capitalist.

        Maybe I just don’t get the meaning of “operational liberalism,” but it sounds too neat and simplistic to me. And maybe that’s what you’re getting at.

        And I agree that “the true face of modern capitalism” needs lots of ‘splainin.’ Actually, it probably can’t be explained; once you start thinking seriously about it, it just collapses into a mess of substanceless symbolism.

        But coasties East and West will fall for it at least as quickly, probably more, than us cow-tippers, so while I see it as a bit mindless, I’m still not really feeling condescension per se.

    • “I am a cowtipper in flyover country”

      I knew that when you mentioned that you drank bourbon neat.

  5. Re: this characterization by Drum:

    When Americans hear about free enterprise from conservative politicians, it’s usually accompanied by images of sunrises over wheat fields, hardworking farmers, and small-town construction workers heading home after a day of honest labor.

    Most interesting thing about those images is just how close to jack-squat any of those have to do with the free market these days. Agriculture is largely corporate-run mass-scale stuff with subsidies out the wazoo, and construction usually involves the greasing of some local politician palms.

    As for the gist of this post in response, I don’t blame people for their attachments to the promise of future choco-rations, considering how much is stolen from them up to that point. I don’t think it’s remotely sustainable, since any accounting for it that pays off all claims in full results in a tax bill no one wants, but I understand why they hold it so close.

    • I agree with all of this.

      I don’t see how it’s “liberal” to expect that, after forty years’ working and paying into Social Security, that you would be able to claim retirement benefits from it. It’s not “liberal” to save for retirement, and if it weren’t for Social Security that’s exactly what these people would have done.

      • Between the remarks about elderly benefits and the vitriol that they throw at anyone on their “side” ideologically who questions the commitment of the party they tend to support to civil liberties and global restraint, I find myself wanting to ask: How small is American liberalism? Is it really just Managerialism + Medicare?

        • I think that was American liberalism, Mr. Psycho, and if that’s what Drum means here, then I suppose even Republicans have been “operationally liberal” since they dropped trying to undo the New Deal. [Goldwater wanted to in 1964, but that was the last gasp of anti-New Dealism.]

          I think the battlefield map needs updating, though. This new move into “income inequality” and the like represents a full step for American liberalism toward genuine leftism, beyond the safety net into something far more ominous.

          • only if it’s actually about “redistributionism” and not about utilizing the free market to remove bad players.

      • DD,
        nobody saves the amount they should for a good retirement anyhow. It’s about 20% of your income, in case you’re curious. And that’s bare minimum.

  6. Tim, you honestly think that if everyone could get out of Social Security and Medicare every cent they put into now, that a that point if we could all step back, take a look at the whole thing, and a supermajority would say, you know what, let’s scrap ’em both and go back to the rugged individualism thing? That Americans are ideologically conservative such that they would have this preference? Drum may cite to surveys that indeed are freighted as you say by people who have sunk thousands and thousands into these programs, but at bottom, I think his claim is really the nagative of one I just outlined – in that disinterested state, they’d still say, you know what, those programs served us pretty well, let’s not scrap ’em. Reform them certainly, but not scrap ’em. And I just don’t intuitively think you have a good read on public opinion if you think it wouldn’t be that way. I think people think that, at base, Social Security and Medicare are good programs in conception and idea, and they support the basic structure: the young and working support the old an less able to work. To the extent they have a problem with it, it’s that details need to be cleaned up like that so it can continue working like that into the foreseeable future. And that is what is meant in the claim that they are operationally liberal. Republican politicians talk about strengthening and “preserving” Social Security. These are popular programs, for what they are in principle, not just because people’s retirement savings are sunk into them. Maybe I can’t prove that, but at the same time it’s really easy for you to say that, hey if the entire structure of the American social insurance state were different, people might have different attitudes about it. In any case, let’s be clear about what the claims and counterclaims really are here.

    • I didn’t say people would scrap them. I said they probably support them to the extent they believe they are our ought to be run as trust accounts, which they obviously aren’t.

      • For the purpose of my argument that’s pretty much scrapping them. I think people get and support the idea that they’re not salting money away with Uncle Sam for their own future (if they were doing that, they’d, I expect, express a preferrenece to be allowed to find a good money manager because why the hell would the gov’t be better at managing their money individually than someone who has just a few clients compared to the number the government would have.) I think they get that what they’re paying in now, other people are getting, now. That’s the idea, they get it, and they support it. And if they don’t get it, and it and the alternatives were explained to them, they would support it. We can all make our own counterfactual assertions about what preferences would be under different conditions. What’s important to me is that we have clear what the claims are.

      • And let’s say you could show that people would prefer Social Security were a trust account system. You still can’t engineer your way out of the reality of their operationally liberal preferences, because they would come squirting out the back end. People would say, “Great! Now I know just what’s in my account day in and day out throughout my working life. That’s fantastic. Doo-dee-dum. Hmm. Now, hang on, I’m thinking about this a bit more and, you know, what about folks who fail to save for retirement? Yeah, they were irresponsible and all, but I’m compassionate, and I want a coordinated government system to make sure they are taken care of to decent level.” You’re not going to paper over that basic impulse, and that’s what drives people’s policy preferences. Social Security was set up because there were lots of destitute old people. It was set up in the middle of the depression when people didn’t feel like they had much to offer them, so it was sold as a kind of personal retirement account. But people are perfectly clear about the poor aid and redistributive effects of the program (I would expect). I.e. the liberal part. To the extent they are confused about how the program works, it’s just that some think that their personal benefit is drawn from an actual account to which they’ve contributed over the years, rather than from today’ payroll tax payers. I actually would appreciate any statistics you have about the extent of this misinformation.

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