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Think Again: America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe

Joe Scarborough

SOURCE: AP/Mic Smith

Debate moderators Joe Scarborough, right, and Mika Brzezinski, second from right, co-hosts of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," talk to the audience before the start of the South Carolina GOP governor debate at Memminger Auditorium in Charleston, South Carolina, Thursday, January 28, 2010.

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It’s a well-known “fact” within the mainstream media that the country is not as liberal as journalists like to think it is. As with the consistent insistence on the prevalence of liberal bias, however, that fact is also fundamentally false.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is among many in the media and elsewhere who like to, as he says, “warn [their] friends in Manhattan and Washington and LA and in the mainstream media … that America is much more conservative” than they believe it to be. He made this claim in February 2012, basing it on the example of marriage for same-sex couples, noting that a majority of Americans still opposed its legalization. Scarborough did not actually identify which of his “friends” were making this claim, nor did he identify the nature of the argument they allegedly offered.

Leaving that aside, however, he had his facts wrong. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, marriage equality was supported by a 54 percent to 40 percent majority within 30 days of Scarborough’s evidence-less assertion. Similarly, the Gallup poll on the issue taken closest to the statement, in May 2012, also put the number supporting marriage equality above 50 percent. (And don’t forget, we know that Gallup consistently oversampled for Republicans throughout 2012, so that number is, if anything, understated.)

Scarborough needn’t feel alone in his ignorance. The members of America’s political class, whether journalists, pundits, or politicians, routinely overestimate the relative conservatism of the American people. In fact, David E. Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan published a study in March and discovered that thousands of state legislative candidates systematically judged their constituents’ political views to be considerably more conservative than they actually were.

While this was mildly true in the case of liberals and moderates, it turns out that conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron discovered. The source of this misinformation is unclear, but one can reasonably conclude that much if not all of the problem lies with the mainstream media. After all, state legislature candidates cannot usually afford much polling, and none of us are immune to the power of the media to shape what Walter Lippmann termed “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”

A significant part of the problem appears to lie with the inaccurate use of labels. Without a doubt, self-professed conservatives consistently outnumber liberals in polls when Americans are questioned about their respective ideological orientations. Politicians, pundits, and reporters tend to believe that this extends to their views on the issues. It doesn’t. In fact it represents little more than the extensive investments conservatives have made in demonizing the liberal label and associating it with one unflattering characteristic after another.

I delved deeply into this phenomenon while researching my 2008 book titled Why We’re Liberals. In the book, I noted that as a result of a four-decade-long campaign of conservative calumny, together with some significant errors on liberals’ own part, the word “liberal,” as political scientist Drew Westen observed, implied to most Americans terms such as “elite, tax and spend, out of touch,” and “Massachusetts.” No wonder barely one in five Americans wished to associate himself or herself with the label, then as now.

Yet at the very same time, detailed polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions by almost any definition. As I noted:

To offer just a few examples of this liberal-in-all-but-name attitude regarding economic and welfare policy, according to the 2006 survey, released in March 2007, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” … Two-thirds of the public (66 percent)—including a majority of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent)—favor government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most people also believe that the nation’s corporations are too powerful and fail to strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high, about the same number who say that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” (68 percent). When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) supports stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, while 69 percent agree that “we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies,” and fully 60 percent of people would “be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.”

In regard to so-called social issues, I noted, the story is the same:

… [O]nly 28 percent of respondents agree that school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known to be homosexual, while 66 percent disagree. … [Moreover,] these findings reinforce previous polls like that in 2004 by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, which asked voters whether “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose” or if “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.” The condom/contraceptive option won the day by a margin of 67 to 30 percent.

Unfortunately, the ideological labeling/issue preference mismatch phenomenon appears to be here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. As Tom Jacobs of Pacific Standard magazine points out—much in line with all of the above—a working paper the magazine wrote about in 2011 found that, “although about 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives (with 35 percent calling themselves moderates and 21 percent liberals, according to a 2012 Gallup survey), only about one-quarter of them are truly conservative on the issues.” Jacobs further notes, “In still another paper, presented at the Southern Political Science Association meeting in January, three researchers from Washington University in St. Louis … [reported] that ‘symbolic conservatives often are operational liberals.’”

What’s more, just this week, yet another Pew study, this one dealing exclusively with Millennials, finds much the same thing taking place in their politics. In a series of three experiments reported on in Social Psychological and Personality Science, psychologists Ethan Zell and Michael Bernstein found “a systematic bias among young adults to perceive themselves as somewhat more conservative than they actually are,” much as Pew demonstrated in the polls I noted in my book.

Jacobs notes:

[Zell and Bernstein’s] surveys featured, respectively, 199 students at a Southeastern university, 360 adults recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (with a mean age of 28), and 154 students from two universities. The final group was weighted so that there were an equal number of people in seven political categories, ranging from very liberal to very conservative. … [The participants] indicated their views on 12 major issues, including welfare and gay marriage.

Results were consistent across the board: Participants rated themselves as more conservative than their positions on the issues would indicate.

According to Zell and Bernstein, all groups except for liberal Democrats “significantly underestimated their liberalism,” but none so much as self-identified conservatives. The result, therefore, is that the labels result in “conservative” voters voting for “conservative” candidates who share an ideological label but differ significantly on the issues.

Of course, the radicalization of the Republican Party has contributed to this confusion. Even self-professed conservatives such as Robert Dole decry how far Tea Party types have moved the party beyond the borders of mainstream Americans’ political beliefs, based in significant measure on their ideological commitment to what tend to be fictional beliefs. And yet because so many in the media have trouble recognizing and admitting this fundamental fact, our political conversation continues to be based on phony labels that mask the reality of a political movement with a decidedly minority constituency still managing to thwart the consistent political preferences of the majority time after time.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
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TV: Lindsay Hamilton
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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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