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Gallup on Ideology: Nothing To See Here, Folks

As part of the endless efforts of conservatives to treat the last two election debacles as aberrations in a "center-right nation" (or as somehow-conservative reactions to that godless freespending liberal George W. Bush), you can expect some reaction to the latest Gallup survey of the ideological self-identifications of Americans. It shows a slight uptick in "conservative" self-identification during 2009, up to 40% from 37% last year. But it's basically the same findings almost always found in recent decades when voters are offered the three choices of "conservative," "liberal" and "moderate." Self-identified "conservatives" have been bumping around 40% since 1992, with "liberals" around 20% and "moderates" holding the balance. Moreover, Gallup confirms the very old news that Republicans are heavily conservative (73% "conservative," 24% "moderate" and 3% "liberal"), while Democrats are more ideologically diverse (40% "moderate," 38% "liberal" and 22% "conservative").

There's no real evidence here that anything's changed since November of 2008.

And as always, the C-M-L choice doesn't seem to tell us as much as more nuanced measurements of ideology. The big recent Center for American Progress study released in March, State of Political Ideology, 2009, added "libertarian" and "progressive" to the usual menu of self-identification options, and after pushing leaners, found that 47% of Americans think of themselves as progressive or liberal, while 48% self-identify as conservative or libertarian. The CAP survey also found that when you probe deeper in terms of more specific statements of values and beliefs, there's a reasonably solid progressive majority when it comes to most matters of international and domestic policy. The conservative "brand" may still be relatively strong, but it doesn't always translate into issue positions, much less voting behavior.

Virtually everyone agrees that the long-stable C-M-L findings disguise generational trends that are worth watching closely. The new Gallup survey finds that "liberals" outnumber "conservatives" by a 31%-30% margin among voters under 30. And a May analysis by CAP on "millennials" shows 44% self-identifying as progressive or liberal, and just 28% as conservative or libertarian.

None of this, of course, will deter "center-right nation" fans from claiming the latest Gallup survey as evidence that Americans were misled during the last two election cycles, or were offered insufficiently stark ideological choices, or were simply tired of George W. Bush and will return to the Republican Party almost automatically in 2010 or 2012. This argument is essential to the conservative project of keeping the GOP firmly on the Right, or driving it even further Right. When you are a hammer, everything--and certainly every poll--looks like a nail.

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The clearest indication that the C-M-L typology conceals more than it reveals is the way these same voters split D vs. R. As the same Gallup poll says:

Thus far in 2009, Gallup has found an average of 36% of Americans considering themselves Democratic, 28% Republican, and 37% independent. When independents are pressed to say which party they lean toward, 51% of Americans identify as Democrats, 39% as Republicans, and only 9% as pure independents.

These numbers, more than the simple C-M-L numbers, jibe with the CAP results for ideology and positions on issues. "conservative" and "liberal" are ill-defined. Everybody, in contrast, knows what they mean by Democrats and Republicans.

This continued claim by the right wing that America is a "center-right" nation is a huge laugh. The right wing has been purging centrists from the GOP for years, and those who haven't been forced out have left voluntarily. By contrast, the Democratic party has embraced centrists, to the point where they now outnumber liberals in the party. Given that it's the Democrats who are in power, and the centrists caucus with them, not the GOP, this country should more properly be called center-left.

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