Tea Party phonies: Doing the conservative zigzag and right-wing flip-flop, based on who's president

The Democratic Party is not as liberal as it was. The GOP is further right. Why do Republicans live in fantasyland?

Published July 5, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann                                          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mary Calvert)
Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Mary Calvert)

Fifty years after its underlying polling was done, "The Political Beliefs of Americans" by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril remains the starting point for anyone who wants to understand the big picture of American political opinion. But a new report on political polarization from Pew adds important new information, even as it leaves some questions tantalizingly unanswered and/or underanalyzed. Most notably, the twin issues of what's driving polarization and how symmetric or asymmetric it is remain to be fully explored, while the greatest locus of continued agreement is overlooked.

In a section titled “Is Polarization Asymmetrical?” the study first suggests that Democrats are driving the process, before introducing two caveats. This finding is simply not credible in the America described by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann in "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," or, more basically, in the system that's produced the sharp rightward trend in roll call voting among congressional Republicans since 1980 (as mapped by the DW-Nominate scores of Keith Poole and colleagues) compared to a relatively modest leftward drift among Democrats. [House mean, Senate mean.] Moreover, Pew's report itself contains a variety of contradictory information — not least the fact that the most consistent liberals are the people who most want political leaders willing to compromise.

While others have written extensively about Pew's new report, I'd like to focus more on questions raised, on what's not resolved, and that requires an initial discussion of why Free and Cantril remain relevant to this day. Their most innovative approach was the use of three different frameworks — an ideological spectrum based on questions about government intrusion vs. individual self-reliance and the free market, an operational spectrum based on support for specific government spending programs, and self-identification as liberal, conservative or middle of the road. A key finding was that 50 percent of Americans were ideological conservatives, while 65 percent of Americans were operational liberals — an overwhelming supermajority. More particularly, this psychological split manifested within the ranks of ideological conservatives: 46 percent of them were operational liberals, compared to just 26 percent who were operational conservatives. Thus, when you hear Tea Party Republicans say, “Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!” what you're actually hearing is just the tip of an iceberg that Free and Cantril were the first to discover and begin exploring.

The ideological and operational spectrums paint starkly different pictures of America — with the self-identification scale falling in between, with a 38 percent plurality calling themselves middle of the road. One consequence of these two pictures was a suggested difference in how to identify core liberals and conservatives. Since so many people supported spending more money on the operational questions, the relatively small fraction who don't are prime candidates for the conservative label. Similarly, since so many people opposed government intervention on principle, those who don't are prime candidates for the liberal label. It makes sense to define these ideologies in different terms, because that's what produces relatively compact groups with coherent policy views on both sides.

Compared to Free and Cantril, Pew's handling of the ideological spectrum represents a dramatic improvement in two fundamental ways: First, they've created an ideological consistency scale that includes a broader range of issues, including questions on race, immigration, foreign policy, homosexuality and the environment — several of which weren't even salient political issues in 1964. Second, their questions are framed by presenting two contrasting positions and ask people to choose between them, whereas Free and Cantril presented one statement, and asked people to agree or disagree — a practice now widely understood as biased toward agreement. What's more, Pew uses its ideological consistency scale in a gradiated manner — consistent or mostly liberal or conservative, with a mixed category in the middle — which mirrors Free and Cantril's scale of complete or predominant ideologues, with a middle-of-the-road category between them, and Pew uses this scale consistently and creatively throughout its study.

Despite Pew's excellent use of its ideological consistency scale, it's important to understand what's not being captured in its analysis: the operational level, which is where much higher levels of agreement still reside. As an example of how ideological value statement questions differ from operational spending questions, consider what Pew has to say regarding spending on the poor, after noting that partisan divides have deepened on nearly every measure in the ideological consistency scale:

For instance, while Democrats have always been more supportive than Republicans of the social safety net, the partisan divide on these questions has increased substantially over the last 20 years. Two-thirds of Republicans (66%) believe that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return;” just 25% say “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently.” Among Democrats, just 28% believe the poor have it easy. The partisan gap on this measure is now 38 points, up from 19 points in 1994 and 26 points in 2004.

Things look dramatically different, however, if we look at specific spending questions. I prefer those on the General Social Survey (GSS — online archive here), which is considered the gold standard of public opinion polling in the U.S. GSS spending questions ask if we are spending “too much,” “too little” or “about right." In 2012 — the last date GSS data is available -- 52.3 percent of Republicans thought we were spending “too little” on the poor, compared to 23.1 percent who thought we were spending “too much.” That's almost exactly the reverse of the picture Pew painted above — a perfect illustration of the ideological/operational divide that Free and Cantril first observed in 1964 survey data.

If we ask about “welfare,” views are decidedly more negative because the term itself is so pejorative. Even liberals tend to think we're spending “too much” rather than “too little” in most years. But even support for spending on welfare skyrockets if we shift our focus even closer to the ground. In 1986, GSS included a special module of questions presenting people with different scenarios of families in need, asking how much support they should receive. The results were presented in detail in "The Deserving Poor" by Jeffry A. Will. Broken down into nine regions nationally, one of Will's charts showed that the average levels of support people thought appropriate exceeded the actual levels of support by 2-to-1 or better in all but one region, where it was just slightly less than 2-to-1. In one region — the East South Central — the average level of support people thought appropriate was $265/month, more than 10 times the lowest level of actual support for one of the states in the region.

This study clearly indicates that the ideological/operational divide that Free and Cantril discovered only gets more extreme, as the operational questions become more concrete, more rooted in questions of specific need. At the “hyper-operational” level that Will explored, virtually everyone is a liberal, compared to existing policy.

As for the kind of trend data Pew cited in the passage above, we can compare GSS's spending question trend using the so-called liberalism index, to get a single number to measure support — the number saying we're spending “too little” by the number saying “too little” or “too much.” In contrast to Pew's ideological findings, between 1994 and 2012, both liberals and conservatives became more supportive of spending on the poor and on welfare, though the gap between them did widen, because liberal support increased more. The gap increased 9.8 percent for spending on welfare, from 17.1 percent in 1994 to 26.9 percent in 2012. So the gap widened much less — barely over half the change in Pew's measure — and did so entirely because liberals became more supportive more rapidly than conservatives did, not because conservatives grew less supportive (they didn't). The gap increased even less, 5.1 percent for spending on the poor, from 19.7 percent in 1994 to 24.9 percent in 2012.

More broadly, on 25 GSS spending questions, the "liberalism index" moved in the same direction for both liberals and conservatives on 17 items — more than two-thirds of them. It only moved in the opposite direction on eight of them. On those eight, the conservative movement averaged 7.7 percent more conservative, compared to 6.8 percent more liberal on the other side. So, on the minority of items where liberals and conservatives moved in the opposite direction, conservatives moved more on average than liberals did. This markedly different and more nuanced array of shifting opinions shows the continued importance of the ideological vs. operational view of American politics, as well as the greater degree of agreement on the operational level. Pew's considerable advances in developing a more sophisticated understanding of the ideological dimension cry out for a comparable level of work on the operational dimension — and, most important, on the interactions and inter-relations between the two.

But what about the questions I raised earlier, about the twin issues of what's driving polarization and how symmetric or asymmetric it is? Here Pew hews toward a “balance narrative” approach, in which “both sides do it” more or less equally. But its own reported findings undercut that narrative, as does other available evidence.

First, let's take a closer look at what Pew reported in a section titled “Is Polarization Asymmetrical?” Here, Pew singles out the long-term leftward shift among Democrats as “particularly noteworthy”:

The share of Democrats who are liberal on all or most value dimensions has nearly doubled from just 30% in 1994 to 56% today. The share who are consistently liberal has quadrupled from just 5% to 23% over the past 20 years.

In absolute terms, the ideological shift among Republicans has been more modest, in 1994, 45% of Republicans were right-of-center, with 13% consistently conservative. Those figures are up to 53% and 20% today.

Pew then goes on to say, “there are two key considerations to keep in mind before concluding that the liberals are driving ideological polarization.” First is that 1994 was a relative high point in Republican conservatism, as Republicans moved “substantially toward the center ideologically” from 1994 to 2004, “as concern about the deficit, government waste and abuses of social safety net that characterized the 'Contract With America' era faded in the first term of the Bush administration,” after which “Republicans have veered sharply back to the right on all of these dimensions,” so the GOP's rightward shift “over the past decade has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which Democrats have become more liberal.”

In short, conservative “principles” zigzagged to accommodate a Republican in the White House. Remember when Dick Cheney told Paul O'Neill “Reagan proved deficits don't matter"? That's what conservative “principles” look like in action ...which is why liberals are driving polarization? I'm sorry, “That does not compute,” as Data would say. (Pew also notes a “second consideration,” that the whole nation has moved slightly to the left due to wider acceptance of homosexuality, and more positive views of immigrants.)

All the above represents a rather substantial caveat, but is even all that really the whole story? Pew itself takes note of the more extreme polarization of elected Republicans I mentioned above. What's more, the 1994 figures it cites show the GOP then already more polarized than the Democrats were — which is hardly a surprise, comparing them back to the 1970s, prior to 12 long years of Reagan/Bush. Reagan was easily the most conservative president since the 1920s, while Clinton had just passed NAFTA, not exactly the second coming of the New Deal or the Great Society.

In short, there are all sorts of problems with the “liberals did it” or even the “liberals did it, too” polarization narrative. For the sake of coherence, we can identify three sorts of evidence in Pew's own report that undermine the idea of liberals driving polarization, or even just keeping even with conservatives: First, there's evidence that liberals favor compromise, while conservatives oppose it. Second, there's direct evidence of unequal polarization. Third, there's evidence of unequal insularity and close-mindedness. We'll examine each of these in turn.

First, Pew notes that 82 percent of consistent liberals say that they like elected officials who make compromises, vs. 14 percent who like them to stick to their positions. In contrast, consistent conservatives prefer the opposite by 63-32 percent. What's more, consistently liberal individuals favor compromise significantly more than mostly liberal individuals (64-32 percent), while consistently conservative individuals are more opposed to compromise than mostly conservative individuals, who are evenly split — 48 percent preferring compromise vs. 47 percent who prefer sticking to their positions. In short, compromise itself appears to function like a liberal principle, which is hardly consistent with the notion of liberals driving polarization.

Second, Pew gives us two examples of direct evidence of unequal polarization manifested in terms of hostility toward the other side's party. Based on ideology, Pew tells us that “72 percent of consistent conservatives have a very unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party,” compared to just 53 percent of consistent liberals who have similar views of the GOP. Pew also reports that “In both political parties, most of those who view the other party very unfavorably say that the other side’s policies 'are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” But once again, this is significantly more pronounced among Republicans: “Overall, 36 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners say that Democratic policies threaten the nation,” compared to just 27 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners

But not only are Republicans and consistent conservatives more negative about the other side, objective reality gives them less reason. Despite right-wing fears, today's Democratic Party is not that different from the Democratic Party of 20 years ago — or even earlier. This is particularly evident by looking at how the 90 percent Democrat level of liberalism has barely moved a whisper since the 1960s in the House, according to Poole's DW-Nominate score. In the Senate, 90 percent Democrats are actually more conservative than they were in the early 1960s. So on both counts, Republicans have no objective reason to be so much more negative toward Democrats. The reverse is not the case, however. In both chambers, the 90 percent Republicans are substantially more conservative than they were in the 1960s and '70s — in the House, dramatically so. Thus, Republicans are over-responding to an increased Democratic liberalism that's mostly all in their heads, while Democrats are under-responding to an increase in Republican conservatism to levels without historical precedent — at least not without going back well before the Great Recession.

As for feeling threatened by the other side's policies, again, we're in need of a reality check. What sorts of things have Republicans been alarmed about during the Obama years? Death panels? They don't exist. A foreign-born, Islamic, Marxist president? Sorry, he doesn't exist, either. Massive voter fraud? That doesn't exist, either. Using the IRS to intimidate political opponents? Didn't happen. On “issue” after “issue,” as Gertrude Stein once said, “There's no there there.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have good reason to fear that Republicans forcing the government into default really would threaten the nation's economic future. Even the GOP's business class backers were afraid of that one. Having Bush in charge, neglecting the need to rebuild New Orleans' levees really did threaten New Orleans' safety — and ignoring Richard Clarke's warnings about al-Qaida didn't help New York's safety, either. And then there was the little matter of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. So, again, there's a profound asymmetry in terms of actual versus perceived threat, on top of the difference in levels of reaction.

There is an explanation for why conservatives react more intensely to perceived threats, which gets us into the field of political psychology. A wide range of findings support the conclusion that conservatives are more risk-averse than liberals, and are inherently distrustful of change. There's no doubt that the pace of change has increased in recent years, so it's understandable that conservatives would experience higher levels of threat than liberals would. But this does not mean that liberals or the Democratic Party are the source of the threat. In fact, the whole thrust of modern liberalism has been to make it easier to deal with a changing world, spreading values and institutions that facilitate tolerance between different groups and individuals who respond differently in the face of a changing world.

We can see this exemplified in attitudes toward homosexuality. Liberals favor adapting, by allowing gays the same marriage rights as straight people. Conservatives think that liberals accepting gays is the problem — if they'd only join with conservatives in condemning homosexuality, then everything would be just peachy. Biology, however, disagrees. And that is what conservatives are actually at war with.

This brings us to the third kind of evidence in Pew's report, evidence of unequal insularity and close-mindedness. We first have to acknowledge that there is a clannish in-group dynamic at work on both sides, but that's where the similarities end. We can see this reflected in three of Pew's rather unsurprising findings about community preferences:

[L]iberals would rather live in cities, while conservatives prefer rural areas and small towns; liberals are more likely to say racial and ethnic diversity is important in a community; conservatives emphasize shared religious faith. And while 73% of consistent liberals say it’s important to them to live near art museums and theaters, just 23% of consistent conservatives agree – one of their lowest priorities of eight community characteristics tested.

All of these reflect variations on a well-known cognitive divide: liberals seek novelty, conservatives seek stability. But look at what it means: When liberals and conservatives retreat to their enclaves of like-minded people, conservatives see a lot of other people who look, think and act a lot like them — and that's exactly what they want. Liberals, on the other hand, see a lot of different people — different races, different ethnicities, different religions, different sexual orientations, different lifestyles, different music, different food — you name it, they encounter differences of all sorts in all different sorts of combinations. Sure they're all similar in some respect; they're other people who enjoy living in a diverse community. But that's a kind of meta-level similarity; it's layered on top of the fact that people are different from one another, and that's what they find mutually attractive.The fact that liberals thrive on difference makes them fundamentally more open-minded than conservatives are, even if they'd rather not be around more close-minded conservatives, all other things being equal.

This does not exhaust the topic, but it's enough to sketch out some of what's missing from Pew's analysis. They have most of the pieces, but they're approaching things from a perspective that takes balance, harmony and stability as normative. Extremism in either direction gets us out of balance, and is problematic. If we want to fix American politics, we need to restore balance, harmony and stability. Those are among the deep philosophical assumptions shaping Pew's approach, along with much of American elite thinking.

But this framework of assumptions is deeply questionable in view of the reality of change, and conservatives' relative difficulty in handling it. The conservative response to global warming is illustrative of the problems involved: On the one hand, conservatives have rejected the science; on the other hand, they've embraced a fantasy-world narrative of conspiracist intrigue. How are we supposed to balance any of that? The cause of global warming is not some liberal conspiracy, as many conservatives presently believe; it is industrial civilization itself. And liberal attempts to deal with global warming involve a lot of “operational”-style thinking in terms of priorities and trade-offs. Conservatives, on the other hand, have managed to keep us stuck on the level of ideological conflict for more than 20 years now, at least since the era of George H.W. Bush's presidency.

Simply put, political problems are solved on the operational level. That's what it's all about. Fortunately, it's also where views are far less polarized than on the ideological level. If we want to understand our evolving political culture, we need to understand both these levels, and how they interact with each other. But if we also want to save ourselves from destruction, we need to also understand how to bring the operation level to the fore. It's by far the most promising way to both solve the most difficult problems we face, but also to bring us together as a people. It's simple to state. The challenge is how to do it.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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