Responding to my demurrer to “the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal,” Yeggmen sticks up for the saw:
what researchers have (repeatedly) done is get a bunch of people together and have them fill out a long and comprehensive political questionnaire. They ask them to choose an ideological label, vague questions about principles (e.g., whether the government should do more or less), and ask them thousands of questions on specific policies in order to ascertain the ideological character of their policy preferences.
In the aggregate, Americans are always operationally liberal on average.
They prefer policies through which the government does and spends more to solve social
problems. And they are always symbolically conservative on average: they consistently prefer the
conservative label to the liberal one.
With respect, to explain the saw is not to defend it. My argument is not that Americans do act consistently with their conservative self-identification. My argument is that if Americans are “operationally liberal,” it’s because they’ve been painted into a corner. As I wrote on Yeggman’s blog,
one might say Americans are “operationally liberal” who support laws like RLUIPA, or national education reforms, etc. Point being, liberals have changed the way political structures can be influenced, and conservatives have to play by these rules. For example, I might oppose federal dollars being spent on local schools. But a liberal California court changed the way residents paid for their children’s education, resulting in the passage of Prop 13 by concerned homeowners who suddenly lost the value of their investments due to the ruling, which ultimately wound up starving many California schools. ESL and other programs required by law, as well as overhead for liberal teachers unions also use up limited local funds. Am I “operationally liberal” to approve of federal funds or other national reforms to keep the whole patchwork going at least until my daughter graduates? Again, I think it’s a lousy political dig to say so.
Americans might also be “operationally liberal” because programs like Social Security work like, and may even be branded as, investment arrangements when they are actually generic liberal tax-and-spend programs. Again, as I wrote in the comments on Yeggman’s blog,
many Americans believe that they’re entitled to social security not because young working people have a general moral obligation to pay for their retirement, but because they understand, incorrectly, that they’ve paid into something of a trust account. Thus, their support for social security is actually quite conservative (notwithstanding the big government aspect of it). I’d guess roughly the same psychological phenomenon is happening with medicare. It is disingenuous to call these folks “operationally liberal” when they have been made to pay into a system that looks like a retirement account and acts like a retirement account but is, by design of New Deal liberals, a liberal tax and spend program.
Public education is an especially impacted victim of 20th century progressive liberalism, suffering the confusion, expense, and indignity of having to incorporate the vagaries of First Amendment decisional law—and later other civil rights, some welcome but many bizarre—into the operations of local schools. When student performance nosedived in the latter half of the century, there was no use in troubleshooting—everything had been changed. The only thing left to do was follow one period of rash liberal experimentation with another. And then another. There’s no such thing as a “conservative” position on education anymore. It’s got a century of liberalism’s fingerprints all over it.
Beyond education, many liberal policies have become status quo. And people don’t tend to assign labels to the political furniture they’ve become accustomed to. Should we have a progressive tax code? Well geez, haven’t we always? Next. Should the government require that workers get a “living wage”? What should they get, a dying wage? Next. Should we spend a lot of money to protect the environment? Aren’t we already? And there’s always those folks mouthing off about how badly we’re still doing. Better not do any less, then, I guess. Next.
If this is what “operationally liberal” looks like, you can go right ahead and spare me.
And this is not to mention favoring policies that directly benefit those being polled, such as laws favoring unions or subsidies, etc. When President Bush sought to introduce personalized accounts into the Social Security system, a 2005 survey showed the most negative responses to the proposal was from respondents in their 50s—older baby boomers. This was explored by Andrea Louise Campbell in How Policies Make Citizens. Government policy was directly connected to this constituency’s well-being. It would be obtuse to call this “operational liberalism.”
(I’ll drop this in as a parenthetical, because I can’t figure out how to read the report Yeggman cited. But the “political questionnaire” referenced there provides only topics, not actual questions. E.g., “Spending on Welfare,” “Spending on the Poor,” “School Choice,” “Abortion,” etc. How are the researchers interpreting responses to any of these topics as “conservative” or “liberal”? I can think of both conservative and liberal reasons to favor and disfavor each of them until they’re made into English sentences.)
There’s all sorts of deck-stacking that goes into why people favor particular policies. And it’s easy for liberals to sell a single policy, because they sound nice taken individually. But when offered a choice between political philosophies, theories, worldviews, whatever you want to call them, Americans identify as conservative. That counts for something. It means that the informed liberal knows it’s going to take some doing to get these conservative Americans to endorse their policies. More than just huckstering. Americans are smarter than they’re sometimes given credit for.
If Americans won’t be sold on the liberal narrative, then the liberal’s play is scorched earth: convince them that all narratives are a stupid waste of time. Liberals, in fact, don’t even have a narrative. That’s offered as proof enough. Narratives are then subverted by modern social science that villainizes “value judgments” through which to interpret the endless data it collects, and divorces science from human ends and destroys our ability to learn from or build upon the past. Sound bite politics works well in this cause. If I get all my politics in op-eds and four-minute news segments, that’s just enough to hear the conclusions of some of the aforementioned liberal social science data miners. There’s no possibility I’ll learn the role liberalism played in creating the problem at issue, and thus why I should reject the solution it offers. Status quo, ho.
Just please stop calling it liberalism.
You say Americans are smart, but your argument depends on them being too dumb to be abke to give a disapproving response to a status quo policy is they truly oppose it, or to understand the (mindnumbingly simple) way that Social Security actually works. I agree, people are smart. And they support things that even you wouldn’t deny are liberal, while many of them (though not Americans as a complete bloc, as you astoundingly aver) self-identify as conservative. So it seems to me that they are enamored of the conservative label, but support policies that liberals have brought into existence. I don’t care a whit if we call that operationally liberal or not, but I do care that we agree that Americans are smart and sophisticated, so we should think that if they opposed policies that we agree are liberal institutions and arrangements, then they would tell us that.
Take Social Security. I’ve always understood that it’s a tax and spend. My money doesn’t go into an account that I get to draw off of later. But what if they change it? What if they let me opt out? Would I?
Only if there was a way to recoup the investments I’d already made. I’m about half way through my carreer now. If I drop out of the Social Security system to join a privately funded/ organized retirement scheme, do I “lose” all the money I already paid in?
And the other sad reality is that I do believe there are alot of people who make bad long term choices. Long term choices are hard even for the very smart people. We’re an impulsive species. Look at how often people say “I didn’t know how much I needed insurance until I got sick.” Well duh. The whole ~point~ of insurance is to spend 5 years paying into it with no benefits so that when you DO need benefits there’s money there to support you.
Heck when I was in middle school, we had to do a budget for a Household and we weren’t allowed to figure in Medical Insurance. We had to set asside part of our income as “medical” and then every day (which was one month of our budget) we’d draw cards. If you drew a medical emergency, you better have saved up enough to cover it or you were humped. Sure you could cut on those savings, but that only worked if you lucked out.
Where is that kind of logic now? I can tell you that “bugeting” isn’t part of the ACT so we don’t teach it any more in school….
It’s the old saw that says Americans self identify conservative, not my own authority.
You take my acknowledgment that Americans are smart as somehow upending all my arguments while actually addressing none of them. I said they’re smart in the first post the other day in the context that Kevin Drum suggested they didn’t understand capitalism had some downsides. Not that they necessarily understand the history of a hundred years of liberalism.
So they’re just as smart as you need them to be for your argument, but no smarter.
“But when offered a choice between political philosophies, theories, worldviews, whatever you want to call them, Americans identify as conservative. ” That’s not the old saw, those are your words, as far as I could see. (But if you were just referencing the old saw, fair enough. In any case this is all in reference to what was just a parenthetical aside pointing out your language use.)
The facts are these> Something like 41% of Americans identify as conservative. That doesn’t justify the statement that “Americans identify as conservative,” whether it’s the old saw or your own view. Neither does whatever percentage of Americans support this or that policy mean that Americans as a bloc are operationally liberal. “Americans are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal” is shorthand for “A plurality identify as conservative and a plurality support many programs we might call liberal.” There wasn’t any indication you weren’t making your own assertion that “Americans identify as conservative,” but if you were just engaging in similar shorthand, fair enough.
Whether significant parts of the status quo reflect liberalism largely depends on one’s perspective. I would note that, on most issues, American policy is well to the right of its peers. Liberalism has been under siege for the past few decades, so I suppose it’s fair to say that liberals have defended the status quo more often than they have sought to upend it – not because they necessarily like the status quo but because they prefer it to a more rightist alternative.
I agree that it is unfortunate that the paper I cited did not include more about its methodology. From what I understand, they generally posed an alternative that was more liberal than the status quo against an alternative that was more conservative than the status quo. And while there are conservative justifications for higher taxes and a liberal justifications for school choice, I think it’s fair to say that the former is generally a liberal position and the latter a generally conservative one.
I am unsure why you believe that the opinions of people who benefit from a given policy have been compromised. But I suspect that this a philosophical gap that cannot be bridged so I’ll leave it alone.
I don’t actually disagree with your larger point, believe it or not. The operational-symbolic paradox indicates some serious problems with liberalism, including (but not limited to) the lack of narrative that you point to. The point is that it isn’t just an “old saw,” as you put it. It’s a consistent finding in political science, and if you believe that academic research holds any value it indicates serious problems with both liberalism and conservatism. Value judgments are important, but so are policy preferences, regardless of whether they have somehow been tainted by experience.
Anyways, I appreciate the response.
“I am unsure why you believe that the opinions of people who benefit from a given policy have been compromised.”
Well, it’s the argument used by anyone who says “Tea Party on Social Security, LOL”. And you might not have made that specific argument, but when you say things like “Americans claim to be conservative but support all kinds of liberal policies”, you’re implying you believe that it’s due to the same inherent hypocrisy on the part of self-identified conservatives.
Well, I can only speak for myself but I don’t think that the data necessarily implies hypocrisy. Just that what the conservative movement wants and what rank and file conservatives want can be very different.
I think the argument here won’t wash – to say the least. You suggest that there’s support for Social Security and Medicare because people regard these as programs they’ve personally paid into and so the support isn’t really “operationally liberal.” In other words, when people identify as conservative they are quite clear about what that means, but when they support supposedly liberal programs they’re getting it wrong. But it’s not hard to imagine that absent programs like Social Security and Medicare most people would still support government support for the elderly or ill. Pretty much everyone on the planet does. Furthermore, these programs that people pay into do not entirely define operational liberalism – there’s also considerable public support for environmental regulation, for increased taxes on the rich, for first trimester abortion, minimum wage, church-state separation, child labor laws, and even gay marriage. It’s quite odd that you dismiss these out of hand, but seem quite confident you know what people mean when they self-identify as “conservative.” (What do you think “conservative” means today anyway? Santorum? Paul? Gingrich? Bush? Buchanan? You?) Finally, to suggest that liberalism “doesn’t have a narrative” is also quite odd, given the considerable literature and history that underpin it.
“…it’s not hard to imagine that absent programs like Social Security and Medicare most people would still support government support for the elderly or ill.”
Which is why when Social Security was proposed, people said “oh, you mean something exactly like what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years now”.
Er, wait, that’s not what happened at all.
Don’t quite follow the point. Sorry. But as a matter of historical interest the first old-age social insurance program was designed by that famous German liberal, Otto von Bismarck, in 1889.
But Sheldon, that’s exactly how FDR designed Social Security.
You suggest that there’s support for Social Security and Medicare because people regard these as programs they’ve personally paid into and so the support isn’t really “operationally liberal.”
From an FDR adviser:
In the course of this discussion I raised the question of the ultimate abandonment the pay roll taxes in connection with old age security and unemployment relief in the event of another period of depression. I suggested that it had been a mistake to levy these taxes in the 1930’s when the social security program was orgiginally adopted. FDR said, “I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”
Of course I know that. But you miss, first, that FDR was preventing “a damn politician” from cancelling the program – he wasn’t suggesting that it would be unpopular unless people paid into the program. Second, you miss the larger point I made – that there are many popular liberal positions, not just those that are based on a feeling of financial entitlement. I’m arguing against the implication of the original post that people are really and truly conservative through and through, and don’t really support any liberal positions.
Sheldon, Tim’s saying that placing all nice things in the “liberal” column is the problem.
E.g., “Spending on Welfare,” “Spending on the Poor,” “School Choice,” “Abortion,” etc. How are the researchers interpreting responses to any of these topics as “conservative” or “liberal”? I can think of both conservative and liberal reasons to favor and disfavor each of them until they’re made into English sentences.
And of course, opposition to any of these good and nice things must be “conservative,” because conservatives suck.
I think Tim’s point is more about how the rhetorical formulations obscure the politics of the real world. Yes, Virginia, conservatives want to help widows and orphans out too. Even Republicans do.
The rest is where it gets squirrelly.
BTW, I found this recent Gallup poll pretty close to meaningless.
..but not much less meaningless than the “attitude polls” Tim’s referring to here, that America is “functionally liberal.”
For a bunch of political scientists/ policy wonks/ doctrinaire ideologues/ political bloggers to push a paper full of abstract political and philosophical statements under the nose of “reglar folk” and then interpret the answers as being “Yay Reagan” or “Yay Marx” is evey bit as silly as it sounds.
Americans aren’t stupid, but they also aren’t all that concerned with philosophy or political ideology. They are capable of understanding it, but just choose not to.
As we mentioned on another thread, people don’t pick a philosophy then follow it, they first form impressions and attitudes, then hunt for a sect or party that best fits.
Their attitude towards food stamps for example isn’t formed by a thoughtful reading of Burke, so much as the observation of that white trash family down the street who is scamming the system.
It is very true that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged or successful in business, and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested or laid off.
Not to mention that “conservative” and “liberal” as labels of temperment and culture as much as politics. I for example am fiscally liberal, culturally moderate, and tempermentally conservative. Where do I show up on that poll?
In other words, Americans hold many beliefs that are inconsistent and contradictory.
They really do want to make sure that government doesn’t get involved with their Medicare because, as Craig T. Nelson observed, “nobody helped me out when I was on food stamps.”
Yes. The dominant attitude is, “what works to solve important social problems without interfering too much with my life?” There’s a mix of values here, and for most Americans where the line is drawn is far more complicated – and far more interesting – than simple labels would suggest.
What’s going on here is what I’ve noticed before–a person has a picture in their mind of what something looks like, and when someone does something that matches a part of that picture, they assume that the picture therefore describes that someone.
This argument (which, by the way, I find far superior to your first earlier this week), still seems to me to fall into the trap that most ideologies do when confronted with popular programs that run counter to it’s tenets: That the only reason it is popular is due to some nefarious conspiracy. Anti-torture and and anti-drug war advocates, for example, often make long winded arguments for why the government is able to maintain such programs; they rarely come to terms with the fact that these programs are popular and enjoy support. (If not in the abstract, then in the specific. Most Americans would probably say they are not for torture, for example; they are, however, pretty OK with water boarding suspected terrorists. Similarly, I suspect that while majority of Americans might say they are against the “drug war,” most have no problem with Constitutional hiccups that occur in the pursuit of drug runners and dealers.)
To say that Americans only enjoy safety nets because they have a metaphorical gun put to their head seems to me to be wishful thinking on your part. While Americans might enjoy and support privatizing all retirement investments in booming equity years, I think you will find that once a bubble bursts and huge amounts of retirees found they had little to survive on those safety nets would be put right back up.
I myself don’t subscribe to the “operationally liberal” bit, if for no other reason than it seems to be stacked in one of those “all popular things are by definition liberal” specious arguments. But it seems equally flawed to respond that are obviously popular programs are not just because you don’t care for them.
A better argument to pursue, IMHO, is that some programs – while popular – might not be good for the longterm financial health of the country of its citizens. These are arguments where with enough fitting things can be done. (An example of this might be Ross Perot’s success in the early 90s of getting people focused on the longterm effects of lowering taxes and increases govt expenditures through increased debt.)
I suspect that telling people that they really hate things they think they love because they are not as clever as people who agree with you will be a fairly fruitless endeavor.
Indeed. It’s also far from clear what people mean “operationally” when they self-label as conservative. What would one call the Tea Party members protesting Obamacare while carrying “Keep your hands of my Medicare” signs? And what would they say if they couldn’t live in their homes anymore because their tap water was contaminated by chemical runoff? Somehow I doubt that they would accept it as an unfortunate but necessary side effect of our free-market system.
Same crap, different thread, eh, Sheldon?
What would one call the Tea Party members protesting Obamacare while carrying “Keep your hands of my Medicare” signs?
First of all, a cheap anecdote. Second, Medicare is also taxed as an insurance policy, for which people expect a return. Just like Social Security, per our brief discussion here
If you have a principled argument, I’d like to hear it. But working the back of the room on Kowal’s post isn’t happening.
Another good start is to be honest about why the deficit is so large in the first place- because Americans demand massive spending and low taxes both.
And the spending is almost all for things that enjoy deep and wide support, that most people consider sacred.
True enough, Lib60. We wouldn’t be in this mess otherwise, that we bought more “sacred” than we can pay for. What else is new?
“Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.”—Maggie Thatcher, 1976
But if you do the math, tax increases aren’t even going to get it half done. Forget the US, look at Europe, parasites on the Pax Americana. They don’t know whether to shit or go blind. They’ll probably do both.
Update yr database, dude.
I agree with your point where it applies – i.e. where policies persist. In a democracy as responsive as ours, they do so because they enjoy a critical quantity of support. But torture is not among those policies. It wasn’t even maintained as policy by an administration very inclined to maintain it throughout that administration, precisely because of how unpopular it was and the outrage that proliferated when it was revealed.
The right examples from the War on Terror are detention beyond what existing law allowed, and surveillance of Americans beyond what existing law allowed. Those were maintained because they were not sufficiently unpopular, and indeed were popular enough, to not impose enough of a cost on elected officials to make them restore the previous limitations.
I agree brawdly, MD. But as I said above, I think in the case of water board/indefinite detention for Muslim terrorist suspects, as a country we are by and large just fine with it.
Should we be? Absolutely not, I would say. But we are nonetheless. I want to write a post about this soon, but I wonder if in these kinds of issues we all spend a great deal of time spinning our wheels by surrounding ourselves with people that agree with us and bitching about how our leaders won’t do things differently, and. Of enough time recognizing that we are in the minority and attempting to engage our neighbors in good faith that we might slowly change tides.
“To say that Americans only enjoy safety nets because they have a metaphorical gun put to their head seems to me to be wishful thinking on your part. While Americans might enjoy and support privatizing all retirement investments in booming equity years, I think you will find that once a bubble bursts and huge amounts of retirees found they had little to survive on those safety nets would be put right back up.”
Interesting that safety net programs in the US were put in place by generations with first-hand experience with the problems. My grandparents’ generation supported Social Security because they saw serious elderly poverty — as in tar-paper shack and pick up spilled coal along the railroad poverty — among those whose children had moved away. My parents’ generation supported Medicare because they watched members of their parents’ generation suffer and/or die because they could not afford care or buy — at any price — health insurance.
Those who seek to repeal the net must argue some combination of workers’ real wages are enough higher that everyone can save for their retirement expenses, that financiers can’t destroy those savings, that insurance companies are somehow more benevolent, and that letting the unlucky die miserably is more ethical than taxes.
I understand arguments to trim and adjust to meet budgetary reality; I don’t understand arguments to go back to the situation before the programs.
My grandparents’ generation supported Social Security because they saw serious elderly poverty — as in tar-paper shack and pick up spilled coal along the railroad poverty — among those whose children had moved away.
I’m pretty certain bad stock returns in the 00s are the reason that we’ve stopped hearing ‘privatize social security’. A dollar invested in the S&P 100 on the last day of 1999 would have gotten you about 90 cents if you cashed out the last day of 2009. The Dow made 5%, which was at least positive, but not better than any random investment.
Some people think we dodged a bullet there…but frankly, I think we’d probably have been better off if we’d been shot in the shoulder a few times, and learned our damn lesson. I wonder what the world would be like if in 1998 or so Clinton had said ‘Okay, Republicans, we’ll privatize social security, everyone invest in stocks!’ and then the end goddamn retirement system had blow up along with the stock market.
Nowadays, of course, the privatization supporters are running out of things that investment should be. Suggesting stocks looks damn stupid, even if they’re about to claim ‘Over 30 years, stocks always go up’. The memory is too recent of the crash. (And no one is quite stupid enough to suggest investing in property. 😉
I’ve confusingly heard some people suggest that people should invest in government bonds…which is quite possibly the most bafflingly idea ever. And would require the government having more debt…and, of course, the more bonds issued, the lower interest they’re going to pay. I just find this entire concept of ‘Privatize social security…by buying government bonds’ almost surreal, and often I think people suggesting it have no idea where government bonds come from or why they exist.
So, at this point, any time anyone suggests ‘privatize social security’, I have to ask ‘And replace it with investments in what?’. And then, after they run out of investment places besides ‘a bank’, I usually have to ask if they’ve seen the interest provided by banks currently.
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