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.