Ideology in the American public

Published 9:02 am Saturday, October 3, 2009

Is the United States today a center-left nation or a center-right nation? There is no question that Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election and the Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 congressional elections dramatically changed the ideological make-up of America’s political leadership. On almost every major domestic and foreign policy issue, Barack Obama is well to the left of his predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush. And it is equally clear that the ideological makeup of Congress has shifted significantly to the left since 2006. But did this leftward shift among our nation’s political elite reflect a similar leftward shift among the American public?

Despite the results of the last two elections, some conservative pundits and politicians have argued that there has been no leftward shift in ideology among the American public. They claim that the United States was and is a center-right nation. In their view, the Republican Party did not lose the 2006 and 2008 elections because it was too conservative but because it abandoned its conservative principles during the Bush years. It follows that to revive its fortunes the Party should not move to the center, as some moderate Republicans have suggested, but go back to those conservative principles.

One piece of evidence that is frequently cited by those who claim that the U.S. remains a center-right nation is that when Americans are asked to describe their political views, they continue to prefer the conservative label to the liberal label by a wide margin. Thus, a recent Gallup Poll found that more than twice as many Americans described themselves as conservative (38 percent) as liberal (18 percent). Moreover, 39 percent of the respondents in this poll said that their political views had become more conservative in recent years while only 18 percent said that their political views had become more liberal.

This preference for the conservative label is nothing new, of course. It has existed since at least 1972 when the American National Election Study began asking respondents in its biennial election-year surveys to place themselves on a 7-point liberal-conservative scale. In that survey and every subsequent ANES survey, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a wide margin.

Despite the popularity of the conservative label, however, many polls have found that Americans frequently take liberal positions on specific policy issues such as health care. In the 2008 ANES, for example, 42 percent of Americans placed themselves on the conservative side of the 7-point ideology scale while only 28 percent placed themselves on the liberal side. But in the same survey, 51 percent of Americans placed themselves on the liberal side of a similar 7-point scale measuring support for government-sponsored health insurance while only 37 percent placed themselves on the conservative side. More recently, a CBS/New York Times Poll in September found that almost two-thirds of Americans supported a government-run insurance option as part of a plan to reform health care in the U.S. It is findings like this that have led some liberal political commentators to argue that the United States is now a center-left nation.

So who is right? One way of answering this question is to compare the effects of ideological identification and policy preferences on Americans’ political behavior. For example, we can find out whether one of these measures of ideology has a stronger influence on voting decisions. Fortunately, an October 2008 Time Magazine poll provides an unusual opportunity to compare Americans’ ideological self-identification with their positions on a wide variety of specific policy issues. In this survey, approximately 1,000 likely voters were asked to place themselves on a five-point liberal-conservative scale and to give their opinions on ten policy issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to the war in Iraq and health insurance. On each issue, respondents were asked to place themselves on a zero-to-10 scale with zero indicating strong opposition and ten indicating strong support for a specific position.

In the Time poll, as in almost every other national survey since the 1970s, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a wide margin: 16 percent of likely voters described themselves as very conservative, 26 percent as somewhat conservative, 29 percent as moderate, 20 percent as somewhat liberal, and 9 percent as very liberal.

When asked about their views on specific policy issues, however, these likely voters took the liberal side more often than they took the conservative side. On six of 10 issues — abortion, health insurance, the war in Iraq, regulation of financial institutions, government assistance to homeowners threatened by foreclosure and global warming — a majority or plurality of respondents came down on the liberal side. On three issues — gay marriage, offshore drilling, and business tax cuts — a majority or plurality of respondents came down on the conservative side. On one issue, federal bailouts for financial institutions, it was not possible to identify liberal and conservative positions.