Is America Getting More Conservative?

Eric Alterman debunks claims from the right that our nation is becoming more conservative.

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Richard Florida, above, argues in <i>The Atlantic</i> that our nation is becoming more conservative. But it's worth taking a closer look at his claim. (Flickr/<a href=eschipul)" data-srcset=" 629w, 629w, 629w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Richard Florida, above, argues in The Atlantic that our nation is becoming more conservative. But it's worth taking a closer look at his claim. (Flickr/eschipul)

Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and a senior editor at The Atlantic, wants to explain “Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative.” He notes, as does everyone who writes about the topic, that “Americans at this political moment are significantly more likely to identify as conservative than as liberal: conservatives outnumber liberals by nearly two to one. Forty percent identify as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 21 percent liberal.”

That’s hardly news. What Florida thinks is worth paying attention to, however, is the map he draws of “The Conservative States of America,” which he uses to illustrate his point that America is becoming more conservative. He originally wrote about it in March 2011 and now updates his analysis with Gallup’s year-end data.

Florida admits that the “associations” between certain kinds of people and certain kinds of political attitudes at the state level that he and his colleague developed in their research do not explain much. As he notes, “correlation does not show causation.” Even so, he says, “they reflect the deep cleavages of income, education, and class that divide America.”

In order to continue with this line of reasoning, the reader is forced to gloss over a few points—the most obvious being one of definition. The word “conservative” has different meanings in different places. To be “conservative” in New York City might make you nearly communist in parts of Mississippi or Alabama. And while “conservative” states may have people who self-identify as “conservative,” they might not hold views that the popular media identify as conservative.

So what does it mean to be “conservative” by Florida’s (and the Pew Research Center’s) definition? According to a Pew survey released this month, more than half (57 percent) of lower-income Republicans (those with family incomes of less than $30,000) said that government does not do enough for the poor, while less than one in five (18 percent) said it does too much. On the other hand, higher-income Republicans (those with family incomes of $75,000 or more, perhaps not surprisingly) overwhelmingly think government does too much.

It would appear that, according to this crucial measurement, being more “conservative” is simply a matter of having more money, though even here the matter is complicated. Florida notes that “while rich voters favor Republicans, rich states favor Democrats.”

It’s also apparently a matter of having less education. Florida recognizes that, “Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones,” something that is also true on an individual level. The higher your educational attainment is, the more likely you will shed right-wing views. “The [negative] correlation between conservative affiliation and the percent of adults who are college graduates is also substantially higher than before (-.76 vs. -.53).” This may explain why conservatives are always seeking to cut student loan funding and other educational programs for the poor and middle class.

Florida also notes that states with more conservatives are less diverse. “Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants (-.56), or gay and lesbian ( -.60).” Given that Florida’s argument is about how America is becoming “more conservative,” one might have expected him to note that America is becoming both more ethnically diverse and tolerant when it comes to what used to be called “alternative lifestyles.” Even half of Republicans support gay marriage or civil unions these days. (And let’s not even talk about contraception.) So maybe it’s not time to break out the beer and pretzels quite yet.

Nor does the future look so bright for conservatives when one factors in the role that class continues to play in determining political attitudes. “Conservative political affiliation is strongly positively correlated with the percentage of a state’s workforce in blue-collar occupations (.73), and highly negatively correlated with the proportion of the workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work (-.61).” Given that manufacturing jobs are declining as a percentage of the workforce while “knowledge-based” occupations are rising, this too is bad news for the future of the right.

But among the greatest weaknesses of Florida’s analysis is the fact that political labels reflect far more about the implied meaning of the label than they do about a person’s actual politics. The word “liberal,” for example, has been subjected to so much abuse over the past four decades by an entire industry of pundits, politicians, think-tank denizens, talk-show hosts, and cable-news loudmouths that it’s a wonder that even one in five people are willing to cop to it at all, much less to do so where so much of the media and many in the pulpit equate it with Satan worship.

But when you add in those who call themselves moderate—and note that in almost all cases, those who hold moderate views fundamentally disagree with the putative “conservative” case—we come much closer to a workable analysis of the underlying attitudes of American citizens. Remember “moderates” do not wish to discriminate against gays, conduct a jihad against immigrants, or ban contraception, and they also actually believe in science and even math—just like liberals. (See my book, Why We’re Liberals?, for the data on this.)

This is not to say that our money-driven politics reflect these realities any more than our cable-news networks accurately reflect the views of those for whom their personalities profess to speak. A Pew poll in December indicated, for instance, that just slightly more Americans have a positive view of capitalism (50 percent) than a negative one (40 percent). Meanwhile, nearly one in three Americans (31 percent) think socialism is a good idea, which is almost as many as those who regard libertarianism the same way (38 percent). (The negative rating for libertarianism is just as high.) Our politics and political discourse can hardly be said to represent these realities.

It is inarguable, alas, that American politics have moved sharply rightward in recent decades. Keith T. Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University have been studying the phenomenon of political polarization over time. Their recently released updated numbers include the current Congress and go back all the way to 1879.

Skipping the first century of their data, Poole notes that “beyond doubt … Republicans have moved out to the right very fast, while the Democrats have drifted to the left, maybe, but nowhere close to what the Republicans have done.”

The journalist Michael Tomasky reads these numbers and notes that while House Democrats have become “50 percent more liberal than they were … House Republicans are almost exactly three times, or 300 percent, more conservative than they were. Roughly the same is true in the Senate, with the asterisk that the Republicans there are not quite as extreme as their House counterparts.”

Tomasky quotes Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, who observes, “If the Democratic senators have taken one step toward their ideological home, House Democrats have taken two steps, Senate Republicans three steps, and House Republicans four steps.”

To say that Americans are becoming more conservative provides a comforting narrative to mainstream media journalists who like to reassure people that all is hunky-dory in the world. After all, if our politics are more conservative, doesn’t that mean our people must be as well? In fact, it doesn’t. It reflects the reality that the power of corporate cash has become a much more significant factor in politics, as has the power of extremely wealthy individuals such as the Koch brothers to sway not only elections but the writing of our laws as well.

Conservatives are well-organized and well-funded. They are willing to use extremely tough tactics not only to demonize “liberals” but to prevent those who are likely to oppose them from being allowed to vote in both local and national elections. What they are not, however, is a majority. It is up to both “liberals” and “moderates” to ensure that, in the future, they have a much tougher time pretending to be.

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 newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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