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On the Myth of the “Right Turn”

In the wake of the mid-term elections, it makes sense that those on the political right would try to claim that there has been a fundamental “right turn” among voters, just as many on the left claimed but two short years ago that there had been a fundamental “left turn” among voters.

Those on the right predictably have seized on the fact that now 42 percent of the U.S. population identifies as conservative, a 20-year high, and that conservatives in 2010 broke 86-14 percent for Republicans, a 30-year high.

Consider the Gallup political ideology poll, which shows an uptick in the number of self-identified conservatives in the electorate:

Over at The Democratic Strategist, Ed Kilgore and Ruy Teixeira have counter-argued that what we are seeing is not so much a shift to the right, but rather more Republicans and Republican leaners choosing to identify as “conservative” rather than moderate.  I think this is largely right, though not the whole story.

The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost, however, has some problems with the Kilgore/Teixeira analysis:

If we follow Gallup, we’d draw two conclusions: (a) the increase in self-identified conservatives in the broader public has increased more than Teixeira and Kilgore acknowledge; (b) conservatives were not over-represented as a share of the electorate in 2010, but rather were under-represented in previous cycles.

Cost’s argument is slippery for a number of reasons. First, it’s not that Kilgore/Teixeira don’t acknowledge the increase in self-identified conservatives. It’s just that they ascribe it mostly to Republicans becoming more conservative, which, again, I think is probably the case.

Second, the claim that conservatives were under-represented in previous cycles seems to rely on an assumption that only now, in 2010, did many voters wake up to the fact that they indeed were conservative, after thinking for all these years that they were moderate. At last, perhaps thinks Cost, the fog has lifted!

A couple of additional considerations:

First, when you look at the balance of responses over 20 years, the balance is remarkably stable. Sure, it goes up and down, but “liberal” stays between 16 and 22 percent, conservative stays between 36 and 42 percent, and moderate (with the exception of its high point of 43 in 1992) stays between 35 and 40 percent. As Prof. James Stimson has shown (see here), the mood of the public goes back and forth between liberal and conservative. And power oscillates back and forth between the two parties in semi-predictable patterns

And there is good reason for this. The public is fundamentally moderate, and any time our winner-take-all system of elections produces a result that gets too far away from the moderate public, the electorate produces a response within a few cycles.

So, if there is a rightward shift, it’s probably only going to be a short blip, no more permanent than the supposed left turn of 2006-2008. Cost, to his credit, recognizes that the bump-up is more of a blip than a turning point. He also puts a good deal of hope (probably fairly placed) in the fact that Republicans will now be in charge of redistricting and Republican voters are better spread out while Democrats are more concentrated in urban districts

The second caveat is about the meaning of the word “conservative”

According to research by Chris Ellis and James Stimson, some people genuinely know what it means to a conservative in the current political debate, and indeed express matching preferences across all issues. But these “constrained conservatives” (as Ellis and Stimson call them) account for only 26 percent of all self-identified conservatives.

More common are the “moral conservatives” (34 percent), who think of themselves as conservative in terms of their own personal values, be they social or religious. And they are indeed right leaning on social, cultural, and religious issues. But they also like government spending on a variety of programs and generally approve of government interventions in the marketplace, hardly making them true conservatives.

And still others, “conflicted conservatives”  (30 percent), are not conservative at all on the issues. But they like identifying themselves as conservatives. To them, it somehow sounds better. Or at least, they like it better then their other choices in the traditional self-identification questionnaire: moderate and liberal.

A smaller group of self-identified “conservatives” (10 percent) could be classified as libertarian – conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues.

In other words, just because people identify as conservatives doesn’t mean that they are actually true conservatives . There are numerous reasons why they might identify so. It has long been the case that that the American public, on average, is operationally liberal and symbolically conservative. That is, that when asked about specific “liberal” government programs – be they spending on education, environmental protections, regulation of business – the majority of voters consistently say they approve. But when asked to self-identify themselves as liberals, moderates, or conservatives, many of the same voters say they are “conservative.”

So here’s my guess, though we don’t have the data to prove it (yet): part of what appears to be a rightward shift is Republicans identifying more as conservatives and less as moderates, as Kilgore/Teixeira argue, and part of the shift is more people attaching themselves to the conservative label because they like the branding of conservative as sober and responsible, and at a time of growing deficits, like associating themselves with the brand.

The challenge for conservatives will be to resist interpretations  that assume America has made a rightward turn and is now (finally!) on the road to truly embracing real conservative values. It hasn’t. This election was far more a rejection of Democrats who failed to turn around the economy in short order and whose unified control of government made some moderate voters more uncomfortable than they expected in 2006 and 2008.

If I were a gambling man (and I’ve been known to make the occasional political bet), I would gamble that 42 percent marks a high-water mark for conservatives in the electorate. Simple reason: history shows that these things go up and down, and are pretty stable.

Finally, the demographics matter. According to a new study from Project Vote, turnout among key Democratic constituencies dropped off drastically between 2008 and 2010. Young voters, down 55 percent; African-Americans, down 43 percent. Hispanics down 40 percent. These groups, particularly young voters, and Hispanics, are the future of the electorate. When they come back and vote in 2012, it will be a whole different ballgame.


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