The new Center for American Progress report “The State of American Political Ideology 2009 reveals the existence of a substantial group of “ambivalent” or “inconsistent” voters – Here’s what Democrats need to know in order to understand them
Editor's Note: This TDS Strategy Memo, written by Andrew Levison, presents an important perspective that extends the innovative analysis in the Center For American Progress' recent report "The State of American Political Ideology 2009.
The new report from the Center for American Progress, “The State of American Political Ideology 2009 provides a more finely crafted overall picture of the current balance between support for conservative and liberal-progressive principles in the American electorate than any recent study. As a result, it establishes a vital starting point for the development of progressive and Democratic strategy.
In each of four sections -- the role of government, economic and domestic policy, cultural and social values and international affairs and national security -- five questions express liberal-progressive principles in the most positive and affirmative way possible and five express conservative principles along similar lines. This extremely elegant methodology avoids many of the problems of inconsistent or incompatible question wording that often prevents meaningful comparison between opposing views.
The interpretation of the results is not, however, straightforward.
Looking at the 10 questions regarding attitudes toward government and the 10 covering economic and domestic policy, two conclusions are quickly apparent.
First, liberal-progressive principles do generally receive higher levels of agreement than conservative principles. The 5 liberal-progressive views regarding government garner an average level of agreement of about 69%, while the 5 conservative principles average support of about 53%. In the area of economic and domestic policy, the five progressive principles receive an average of 62% support while conservative principles receive about 53% support. Obviously questions can always be raised about particular survey questions, but the results are clearly quite striking.
Second, however, is the apparently illogical fact that both the liberal-progressive and conservative principles both receive over 50% support. A majority of the respondents to the survey expressed agreement with both major liberal-progressive principles and also major conservative principles.
One well-known explanation for this quite consistent trend – the appearance of support for both liberal and conservative views on surveys -- is the notion that Americans tend to be “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals” and indeed, the specific liberal-progressive principles in the CAP survey could possibly be argued to be marginally more concrete or program focused than the conservative principles.
But this is not a sufficient explanation. In fact, a number of the questions are quite directly contradictory. For example 73% of the respondents agreed that “Government regulations are necessary to keep business in check and protect workers and consumers” but 43% simultaneously agreed that “Government regulation of business does more harm than good.” Thus, in this case, almost 20% of the respondents agreed with both statements.
Again, 79% of the respondents agreed that “Government investments in education, infrastructure and science are necessary to insure America’s long term growth” while 61% agree that “Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” In this case, almost 40% of the respondents agreed with both statements.
This makes absolutely no sense if one assumes that the respondents were actually answering these questions on the basis of even the most minimally coherent liberal-progressive or conservative ideology. It is inconceivable that even a single one of the kind of people who attend the annual meetings of the liberal-progressive Campaign for America’s Future or the Conservative Political Action Council would ever reply to survey questions in this inconsistent way.
Two general kinds of explanations have been put forth to explain this kind of result.
One is that a certain significant portion of the electorate is fundamentally “confused”, “ambivalent”, or “inconsistent.” As a guide to political strategy, the conclusion that is often drawn from this is that these voters’ political opinions can safely be minimized or even completely disregarded because their attitudes are basically incoherent.
The second explanation is that many Americans are “bi-conceptuals” – that they have internalized two basically distinct and incompatible conservative and liberal-progressive ideologies, either one of which can be “invoked” or “activated” by triggering the appropriate memories and mental associations. As a guide to political strategy, this analysis is frequently interpreted as implying that it is simply the first or the strongest message that determines which mental schema will be activated in a given situation.
A significant fact about both explanations noted above is that they are drawn from only two of the social sciences – political science and cognitive linguistics. In contrast, analyses based on sociological and anthropological perspectives receive virtually no attention in the discussion of inconsistent voters and their implications for Democratic strategy.
The reason is that there is today a desperate—indeed absolutely appalling -- lack of ethnographic field studies of “average Americans” – of working class people, of the inhabitants of small towns and red state voters. In fact, as a previous TDS Strategy White Paper - How Ethnographic Field Studies can contribute to the Development of Democratic Strategy- has documented, since 1985 serious ethnographic field studies have declined so drastically that in this area liberal-progressive and Democratic strategists are quite literally “flying blind.” There is simply no intellectually serious body of empirical research today that documents how the opinions that are collected over the phone in opinion polls are actually expressed in real-world settings, on the job or at home, with friends or neighbors and how such opinions change and evolve over extended periods of time.
This lack severely hampers the interpretation of the data in the CAP study. There are, in fact, two very important sociological insights that can substantially help to better understand the results and apply them to Democratic political strategy.
I. Conservatism and Progressivism are Value Systems and Value Systems are Rooted in Social Institutions
In the classic study, The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion, John Zaller quoted two social psychologists who described the traditional view of attitudes as being essentially a “file cabinet” model…
“When people are asked how they feel about something, such as legalized abortion, their uncle harry or anchovies or pizza, presumably they consult a mental file containing their evaluation. They look for the file marked “abortion” or “Uncle Harry” or “anchovies” and report the evaluation it contains.”
Since Zaller’s 1992 book, political scientists, social psychologists and cognitive scientists have all proposed a wide range of alternatives to the simplistic “file cabinet” model, trying to map the larger conceptual schemas into which specific individual opinions are organized and to gauge the relative importance one opinion may have in relation to another.
But in the ordinary political discussion of opinion polls, the “file cabinet” model still appears as an implicit assumption. When the latest Gallup poll appears, commentators naturally default back to an implicit view of each individual opinion as an essentially independent, “stand-alone” proposition, presumably extracted from some neat little mental cubbyhole where it was stored side by side with thousands of others.
The “file cabinet” model is particularly misleading in the case of opinion statements about values or principles -- such as the 40 questions used in the American Political Ideology study. From a sociological and anthropological perspective there are two unique facts about values or principles (1) that they are arranged into higher-order cognitive frameworks called “value systems” and (2) that the conservative and liberal-progressive value systems have quite different social and cultural structures that underlie and support them.
Let us look first at the conservative value system.
At the highest level, the conservative value system is rooted in the institutional value systems of three of American society’s dominant social institutions - the business community, the church and the military – institutions whose message is then reinforced by the K-12 educational system, the legal and criminal justice system and the mass media. Each of these major social institutions provides both extensive written expositions of its institutional value system and also vast numbers of individuals --- local small businessmen, Chamber of Commerce members, clergymen and women, members of the military – in every small town and city neighborhood --- who serve as teachers, role models and local cultural transmission mechanisms.
The value systems of these major social institutions are imparted to almost every individual American citizen through a lifelong process of socialization conducted both within specific institutions (at church on Sunday morning, in the workplace from 9 to 5 and from the moment basic training begins to mustering out in the armed forces) and more generally through school, the legal system the media etc.
The value systems of the three major social institutions (along with a fourth major value system supporting “The American System of Government”) are highly integrated. Although frictions between the value systems of dominant social institutions have at times appeared in American history (such as the conflict between the “social gospel” of progressive Christianity and the business community’s “social Darwinism” at the turn of the century) for the last half century the four major American institutional value systems have been overwhelmingly harmonious.
One result of this has been the well-known perception in recent years that Conservatives and Republicans always seemed to have a more consistent message than Democrats – the easily recited triumvirate of “low taxes and small government” [aka free enterprise], “strong national defense” and “Christian faith”
One important consequence of this tight integration is that, to most ordinary Americans, the dominant value system does not seem like a conscious political ideology at all but rather like an entirely natural and obvious expression of “the way things are” or “common sense.” Many people who have only been exposed to the dominant value system literally cannot conceive of how anyone could possibly think differently. People who believe in alternative value systems (e.g. Islam, communism) can only be conceptualized as being literally “crazy” or “irrational”.
The liberal-progressive value system differs in almost every key respect.
First, the liberal-progressive value system, as it emerged after World War II, is not exclusively rooted in the dominant American social institutions. Rather, its social foundations are spread between four different sub-cultures that evolved at different times during the post-war period.
1. The trade union/New Deal sub-culture that emerged in the major northern industrial cities after World War II and was institutionalized in a vast network of neighborhood-level union halls and local Democratic clubs. From the New Deal it drew such values as a Keynesian commitment to full employment and to social programs like social security. From the unions it drew such social values as job security, democratic representation at work and solidarity.
2. The distinctly “liberal” post-war upper-echelon academic university sub-culture, which reflected enlightenment values of scholarship, reason and debate, faith in science and a global and multicultural outlook. While based in the universities, it became part of the Democratic value system during the Kennedy administration when President John Kennedy surrounded himself with figures like John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Heller, Theodore Sorenson and other Ivy League intellectuals.
3. The sub-culture of the Civil Rights Movement and other grass-roots movements of minorities that arose during in the 1960’s. Among the chief values these movements championed were equality, social justice and nonviolence.
4. The sub-culture of the university-based social movements - peace, the environment and women’s liberation among others. These movements adopted many values drawn from the earlier civil rights struggles but also developed new principles including opposition to US military intervention and an ecological world view
Even at first glance, it is clear that this fragmented social base of the liberal progressive value system makes it differ substantially from the conservative value system.
First, the different value systems in this cluster of sub-cultures are not integrated. There are substantial areas of overlap but also substantial areas of difference. As a result, the liberal-progressive value system does not appear even to its adherents as an entirely “natural” or “obvious” expression of ordinary “common sense.”
Second, unlike the dominant value system, these values systems are not by themselves self sufficient or self-contained. In cognitive terms they can be visualized as gradually “layered” on top of the dominant value systems during the course of a person’s growth and maturation. In some cases they explicitly modify the dominant values, in other cases they simply co-exist with them despite inconsistencies.
Third, by the 1980’s the major social and cultural foundations that supported these liberal-progressive value systems were in decline. The union halls and local democratic clubs of the northern industrial cities gradually shrank and no longer socialized new generations of manual workers, grass-roots organizations in Black and other minority communities contracted drastically and the social organizations that had institutionalized and supported the liberal-progressive counterculture in universities (campus organizations, communes, food co-ops, independent bookstores) declined as well.
As a result the liberal-progressive value system rests on a significantly weaker and narrower social foundation than the conservative value system. New liberal-progressive organizations and institutions did emerge in the 1990’s and 2000’s but in significant measure they arose online and not rooted in day to day personal and social interaction in local neighborhoods, jobsites or communities. In certain respects the liberal-progressive value system therefore rests on a more sociologically tenuous and fragile base than does the conservative value system.
This has significant implications for political strategy.
For one thing, when opinion polls indicate that 60 or 70 percent of the public supports some particular policy or view and some smaller number oppose it, such simple numeric comparisons may actually conceal major differences in the underlying organizational strength and social and cultural support structure behind the opposing ideas.
Moreover, the complex way in which different individuals internalize both the dominant value system and elements of other sub-cultural value systems in ordinary day to day life gives rise to a range of perspectives that do not fit neatly into formal and consistent conservative or liberal-progressive political ideologies.
Coming Tomorrow: Part II. Americans who endorse a seemingly incompatible combination of conservative and liberal-progressive ideas are not simply “confused”, “ambivalent”, or “inconsistent.” Many are expressing a coherent social ideology that Democrats need to better understand.