Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Labeling Falacy


Here's where I'll make the first (but not the last) controversial empirical claim of the week: The country leans right of center. That's not to say that Americans are rabidly ideological, but they are dispositionally more conservative than not. I'll be defending this claim more fully in future posts, but for now let me cite a basic fact from one of Third Way's first products, "The Politics of Polarization", a paper by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck for which (full disclosure) I served as a research assistant. Galston and Kamarck noted that there are half again as many self-identified conservatives in the electorate as there are liberals. In 2004, 21% of voters called themselves liberal while 34% called themselves conservative (the rest identifying as moderate). Compare this distribution with the 1976 election, in which the split was 20/32.

Let me see if I can explain this: just because someone declines to label themselves as a "liberal" does not mean they aren't a liberal.

Put another way: how we label ourselves and what we actually believe are not necessarily correlated.

Few would deny that "liberal" has become a pejorative label. That's what a billion dollars of right-wing media will get you. Given that, it's not surprising that many people balk at being labeled liberal. Even after all these years of studying this I still find myself hesitating to use the label. The programming is that deep.

But that does not mean that I and many other Americans aren't as liberal as ever. Indeed, if you study surveys of people's attitudes on issues (health care, regulation, etc.) you will find that many more people lean toward the liberal point of view than are willing to adopt that label.

The mistake the author of the above makes is one I have seen Democrats make repeatedly over the last 20 years: they equate the favorability of a label with the favorability of the positions usually associated with that label. Then, working off that fundamental error, they tell Democrats that they need to "lean right" in order to win.

Yet this advice repeatedly fails. Why? Because the electorate does not lean right When Democrats lean to the right they lose votes because, even though the self-identification says that the electorate doesn't favor "liberals" they do favor liberal positions.

I dispute vigorously the assertion that the public is naturally inclined to vote for conservatives and Republicans (not always the same thing). Why do I say this? Because Republicans consistently spend a lot more money on elections than Democrats (at least until recently) yet, despite that advantage, Democrats still manage to win quite a few elections. What does this tell me? That the public is naturally inclined to vote for Democrats and that it takes a huge PR campaign on the part of the Republicans to get them to consider the alternative.

Advice like the above does not help Democrats for a multitude of reasons, not least of which that it affirms the Republican PR campaign against liberalism. Hell, if Democrats are running from the label then there must be something wrong with it. Right?

You don't win by polling the public and then adopting whatever stance it takes. You win by persuading the public that your stance is the one they should adopt.


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