Conservatives speak often of their outrage over what they perceive as godlessness and immorality. But it is liberal-thinking Americans who should be outraged. Republicans have long claimed that America is right-leaning; they tout the numbers of self-identifying conservatives over liberals.
But what they ignore is that many conservatives are socially liberal. They ignore the Catholics who in defiance of the Church, embrace contraception. Liberal-thinking Americans see their views consistently ignored in Washington and by the mainstream media.
In 2009, Brookings Institution’s senior fellow Pietro Nivola looked at the question of a right or left-leaning America and opined that,
The contents of platforms are but partial indicators of partisan positioning, of course, which is a multi-dimensional, dynamic process. Depending on the circumstances, political parties may gravitate toward their bases, or, in due course, drift away from them. Either party, or both, could retreat or depart from the markers they’ve laid down so far. A lot of factors influence such adjustments, not least the perceived success or failure of policies championed by the party in power, and the receptivity of the general electorate.
The receptivity of the general electorate. But what if the perception of this receptivity was skewed?
In September of this year, Democracy published an article by David Broockman & Christopher Skovron titled Politicians Think Voters Are More Conservative than They Really Are, examining the question of whether or not candidates champion the priorities of people in their districts.
They asked candidates “to estimate the percentage of the people in their districts who would agree that:”
- same-sex marriage should be legal
- the federal government should implement a universal healthcare program
- all federal welfare programs should be abolished
They compared their list of questions to a large national survey and “found major disconnects between voters and their would-be elected representatives.”
When we compare what legislators believe their constituents want to their constituents’ actual views, we discover that politicians hold remarkably inaccurate perceptions. Pick an American state legislator at random, and chances are that he or she will have massive misperceptions about district views on big-ticket issues, typically missing the mark by 15 percentage points.
This might be thought bad enough but the authors found that “the mistakes legislators make tend to fall in one direction, giving U.S. politics a rightward tilt compared to what most voters say they want. ”
The authors found,
- The typical conservative legislator overestimates his or her district’s conservatism by a whopping 20 percentage points. Indeed, he or she believes the district is even more conservative than the most right-leaning district in the entire country.
- Liberals also think their constituents’ views are more conservative than they really are, but are typically only off by about five percentage points.
- Most conservative legislators believe their positions on same-sex marriage and health care command majority support in their districts—but only two-fifths are correct. In contrast, liberal legislators usually share views with constituents, but one in five does not know it.
Much remains to be learned about why U.S. legislators think constituents are more conservative than they truly are, but researchers have found that politically active citizens tend to be wealthier and more conservative than others. Politicians who want to represent all the people in their districts need to keep this in mind.
Of course, this presumes that politicians WANT to have an accurate view of their constituents’ views. I think this is hopelessly optimistic. These politicians do not operate in a vacuum. The big players around politicians are right-leaning, from corporations to foundations and think tanks, from religious organizations like the American Family Association and Family Research Council to corporate-funded tea party organizations. These groups are all clamoring not only for right-leaning positions but FAR right leaning positions. And it is their money that is flooding these politicians’ coffers.
The authors write that “some research suggests that public opinion can influence what politicians do” and this may well be true. But letters and petitions carry less weight than corporate dollars and fear of the extremists who now make up their base.
Pietro Nivola observed that figuring out what the public wants can be a tricky process. “The devil is in the details,” he writes – that much depends on how you ask the questions – and “Public opinion can “be notoriously fickle or unstable.”
True enough. But polls do generally show a left-leaning America, particularly on social issues, but also on the question of war and environment. We are also now well aware of the strength of preconceived notions and the conservative tendency to shrug off any input that violates their precons.
All the petitions in the world will not break the tea party/religious extremist/corporate stranglehold on our government. These groups have money and they have a vested interest in forcing their views on Americans. In the face of poll after poll to the contrary, they insist they are only doing what Americans want.
Each day we see how these conservative politicians further convince themselves that not only are they doing the right thing by their constituents, but they are winning. We have learned through hard experience never to downplay the influence of cognitive dissonance.
Or the power of a mainstream media that is far from the conservative Shibboleth of a “liberal media elite” but rather a corporate media that has consistently taken the Republican side. So pronounced is this bias that in the rare cases the mainstream media finds some objectivity – as in Romney’s run for president – conservatives accused the media of plotting to give Democrats the victory. Compare media portrayals of the Occupy Movement as compared to the Tea Party Movement.
Liberal-thinking Americans – and this includes socially liberal conservatives – must struggle to have their voices heard in the face of political and media establishments determined to ignore them and corporate and religious establishments determined to delegitimize them. The trick lies first in realizing we have this power and second, in actualize it in the face of this resistance.