Political Animal


August 02, 2011 4:00 PM Wanted: more American liberals

By Steve Benen

Gallup released its latest report on Americans’ ideological leanings, and the results weren’t especially encouraging, at least not from a progressive perspective. Consider this chart:

The dark green line shows self-identified conservatives with a 41% plurality, followed by self-identified moderates at 36%. Liberals are a distant third, as they have been for a long while.

Matt Yglesias posts related data from the same poll, breaking this down even further. There are nearly twice as many conservatives (11% very conservative, 30% conservative) as liberals (15% liberal, 6% very liberal).

It’s important to keep some caveats in mind when looking at results like these. For one thing, the public’s understanding of what these words actually mean varies considerably, and not everyone who considers themselves “conservative” is on the same page as, say, Jim DeMint. For another, ideological identification often doesn’t match up well with policy positions.

And while we’re at it, one can look at the above image and note that liberals can be in the national basement while the American mainstream still backs Democrats in large numbers. In 2006 and 2008, for example, Dems enjoyed terrific success at the ballot box — and at the time, while the number of self-identified conservatives was a little lower than now, so too were the numbers of self-identified liberals.

But all of those caveats notwithstanding, results like these still paint a discouraging picture for the left and progressive governance in general. Indeed, the numbers help dictate much of how the parties operate.

Republican officials and candidates have a base of support that’s quite sizable. Democrats officials and candidates are equally cognizant of the fact that, nationally speaking, their base simply has fewer people. It helps explain why Dems are more eager to compromise and more willing to reach out beyond their base — they need to find more people.

John Cole is pretty discouraged about all of this.

Now, other polling shows that people genuinely support “liberal” policies, only if they are not labeled liberal. Hell, the majority of the public wanted tax increases in the debt deal, but we know what happened there. Will any Republicans be punished by the public for refusing to raise taxes? Of course not. Will Obama be punished for violating the beliefs of 21% of the public? I’ve got a blogroll ready to crucify him right now.

I don’t know how to turn this around. We’ve got crazy people running things, and a public that keeps electing them.

I don’t know how to turn this around, either, but I do know it directly affects candidates. Put it this way: at a national level, a Republican candidate expects to win over conservatives, who represent 41%, and then only needs less than a third of the moderates to get to 50%. A Democratic candidate can try to shore up the support of the nation’s 21% of liberals, but then needs to go out and make up the difference from moderates and conservatives.

Why does it seem national Dems don’t do nearly enough to keep the progressive base happy? I suspect this has a lot to do with it.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Civil Disobedience on August 02, 2011 4:10 PM:

    Great post here... tangible info that puts the struggle of the progressive movement in clear perspective.

    I'd love to overlay THIS chart with a chart that shows the breakdown of people who read versus watch 'American Idol"... I'm guessing we'd see a pattern. [snark]

  • SYPROG on August 02, 2011 4:14 PM:

    I don't think this is a HUGE deal. I think you need to think 'self-identified'...the whack jobs have done SUCH a good job denigrating the term 'liberal' that most people shy away from it. Eric Alterman has written two books on the subject!!!

  • Alex C on August 02, 2011 4:14 PM:

    typo : "sure up" -> "shore up"

  • c u n d gulag on August 02, 2011 4:17 PM:

    And those same statistics are used to explain how we're a center-right nation.

    And I tend to agree - because the right is so good at denigrating the left, and the left's position so poorly explained by the MSM.

    Here's another way of looking at it - would you say we were a nation of good drivers or bad drivers if I told you the following?

    Ok, so if I were talking about people in cars driving on the road, this means that about 2 in 10 of the people on the road like speed limits, and rules and regulations for the road.

    And 4 in 10 don't give a driving f*ck, because they either don't care, or actually like to run stop signs and lights, pass schoolbuses discharging children, blow through RR lights, drive over the median, pass on twisty 2 lane roads, and play chicken with tractor trailers.

    And a little less than 4 in 10 can't figure out which way of driving they actually prefer after they've seen the results, don't give a sh*t, or are told that driving like the ones directly above is NO DIFFERENT from the ones above that?

    Ok, good to know.

    And that's why Demorats keep steering to the right.

    If drivers aren't smart enough to tell the difference between caution and insanity, and the MSM tells them there's no difference, what option do the Democrat have?

  • Bill Egnor on August 02, 2011 4:20 PM:

    I think there is a downward skew because of the branding that the Republicans and Conservatives have put on the word Liberal.

    It is not just a misunderstanding of where that places one politically, there is a desire to avoid a word that has been given a negative context by 20 years of Right Wing Talk Radio.

    If they offered something like "Liberal and or Progressive" I think we'd find higher numbers.

  • Mikeg on August 02, 2011 4:20 PM:

    Having the conservative movement for 30 years demonize the term "Liberal" doesn't help these numbers.

  • Midland on August 02, 2011 4:20 PM:

    I would point out that for part of this situation you are reversing cause and effect. A lot of people who don not hold liberal views do not identify themselves as liberals for the same reason people who support feminism will not publicly admit to being feminists. The media and political establishment, cheered on by the conservatives, have turned both words into sneering or smirking epithets. Liberals are second-class citizens in the establishment political discourse. Even President Obama, who is so remarkably deferential and polite to every sort of person, doesn't mind his office leaking derisive comments about ungrateful or noisy liberal troublemakers.

  • DrBigJ on August 02, 2011 4:21 PM:

    Assuming this data is available to the Dems, why do the liberals focus almost all of their energy bashing Obama? I'm a Democrat but I'm sick of the whining and blaming one person - they are all responsible for the messaging and making the case to the voters. Eating your own isn't the answer but we sure are good at it

  • lou on August 02, 2011 4:23 PM:

    On an issue by issue basis I think the numbers of liberals and conservatives would come out much more evenly.

    I consider myself to be somewhat of a moderate. But when I take the political affiliation identification tests I come out solidly liberal even though I have a mix of what might be rated liberal or moderate or conservative views on various issues.

    Here in rural conservative land it appears that much of the personal political identity derives solidly from the need to conform with the majority of your family, neighbors, church members, etc. on a few hot button issues.

  • Live Free or Die on August 02, 2011 4:23 PM:

    Liberal is a dirty word. hill be taken out to lunch. After 20 years of demonizing the word liberal, what do people expect? Even liberal call themselves progressives. Liberals are associated with blacks gays and the minority poor. Poor whites are generally not liberal So really this poll is how many people will admit to being a liberal.

  • June on August 02, 2011 4:25 PM:

    I think Benen asks the wrong question with: "Why does it seem national Dems donít do nearly enough to keep the progressive base happy?" My question would be:

    "Why does it seem there's absolutely nothing national Dems can do to keep the progressive base happy?"

  • hornblower on August 02, 2011 4:26 PM:

    I cast my first vote in 1966 and have never voted for a Republican. If one of these clowns asked me to label myself I would refuse. Good policy not ideology is what gets my vote. Please don't get worked up by this nonsense. The people on this board already feel much too sorry for themselves.

  • Ohioan on August 02, 2011 4:27 PM:

    Republicans pander to their base, and Democrats "hippie-punch" in order to pander to centrists.

    That's why the crazies keep getting elected.

  • Brenna on August 02, 2011 4:27 PM:

    We may be moving into an era where people have to endure cuts to the entitlement programs in order to get their attention. My husband and I don't need them for a dozen more years and I'm wondering why I'm so worried.

    Are we sure we know who Obama is? Is it really possible to capitulate this bad and not be terribly embarrassed? Bill Clinton was strong; he stood up to the thugs.

  • Live Free or Die on August 02, 2011 4:29 PM:

    If you said that you were a liberal at my office you would be ostracized. If you said you were a conservative, you would be invited out for drinks. And people wonder why people don't admit to being liberal? What they should do is poll liberal policies and conservative policies, and then make the split.

  • Danny Gail McElrath on August 02, 2011 4:32 PM:

    I think a lot people are liberal without knowing they are. They support many positions which are actually the positions of liberals, but they don't know that. They have some vague idea absorbed from media and Republicans and many churches of a liberal as someone who is against them and wants to take away what they have and do some kind of evil things.

  • Chris-The Fold on August 02, 2011 4:33 PM:

    Yep you are right on Steve. Politicians go where the votes are. But our labeling system in America is so screwed up too.

    Example A: I support the right to bear arms, the right to a woman's privacy, legalizing pot, and same sex marriage.

    If I vote Democrat I'm a liberal. If I vote Republican, I'm a libertarian leaning conservative.

  • Mitch on August 02, 2011 4:34 PM:

    As others have noted, it's the word Liberal that people don't like, not the policies. Personally, I call myself a Progressive, if I have to label myself at all.

    I love you Steve, always have and always will, but stop caring about these damned polls. They mean nothing. Literally, nothing.

    You know what does matter? The accomplishments of our elected officials. Unfortunately they see these kinds of polls and buy into the "Center-Right" lie. And all of our accomplishments go down the drain.

  • neil b on August 02, 2011 4:44 PM:

    If a lot of those "conservatives" realized how radical and compromised so many "conservative" politicians are, they wouldn't support them. We can help to explain that to the public.

    BTW, segue to "the deal" if I may: it is not true Obama and crew always capitulated and gave away everything. They stood up to Boehner's two-stage crap, and forced something more to their liking and the national interest. Having the debt commission means an opportunity for someone there to pound on needed revenues too. So that's the new battleground and thing to watch: make sure they don't appoint worms to the commission. Pressure Reid, since he said "compromisers", to ensure some pro-revenue appointments.

    BTW, those rating agencies are agitating to downgrade us anyway for not cutting enough debt. That (combined with their deceptive covering for private big boys) smells like a rat, they are pushing the IMF style austerity on us, and is it even their business to consider other than "trustworthiness" and expectation of payment?

    "Press. nstarcha" !

  • PVB on August 02, 2011 4:45 PM:

    One of the reasons I believe that the self-identified "liberals" constitute a small population is that there is no coherent, consistent progressive narrative that defines what it is to be "liberal"; rather, the only coherent, consistent narrative that describes "liberals" is the one put forth by Republicans and conservatives. So how many Americans want to say up-front that "Yes, I'm an elite intellectual that loves big government and all I care about is the poor and disadvantaged, endangered species, and a weak military that will never go to war for any reason"?

    Until we loudly and clearly define liberalism or progressivism as the fight for rebuilding the middle class and for all those who want to someday be part of the middle class -- against the wealthy and corporate elites -- yes, we'll be stuck in the low 20%s of self-identified liberals for some time to come.

  • JW on August 02, 2011 4:46 PM:

    These conventional political tags ("liberal", "centrist", "conservative", "libertarian") are outdated, even antiquated. The poll is meaningless. Nowadays what delineates a liberal from another voter who calls himself a centrist? Is a libertarian who advocates slashing defense spending and withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan a liberal? Can a liberal also embrace certain tenets of a social conservative? What criteria is nowadays brought to bear to define the term? God knows the democratic party hasn't bothered to do as much since (at least) 1980. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. That fact alone goes a long way in explaining just how bankrupt this so-called data truly is.

  • Bob M on August 02, 2011 4:50 PM:

    Perhaps "kind" and "cruel" are the more appropriate modifiers.

  • Sauce on August 02, 2011 4:56 PM:

    The real parasites and welfare queens are the people that identify as Conservative; rural areas, the south etc. They all greatly benefit from taxes paid by the liberal coasts and the upper Midwest, areas that actually make money. They think their taxes are too high? Fine take away their Medicare, Medicaid and S.S., let's see what they do then. Let’s cut school funding, public education isn’t working for them anyway. They think subsidized private health insurance is too radical? No problem go barter a chicken for medical care. I'm tired of worrying about programs that ungrateful/ignorant people use, rely on, don’t want to pay for and then vote against when they elect the GOP. And I’m tired of trying to help people that are too stupid to help themselves.

  • plex on August 02, 2011 4:57 PM:

    The poll is based on peoples association with a WORD, not the POLICIES that word represents. If the Democratic party is basing their campaign on this analysis we're more fucked than I ever dreamed.

  • AK Liberal on August 02, 2011 4:58 PM:

    "...the whack jobs have done SUCH a good job denigrating the term 'liberal' that most people shy away from it."

    Or maybe self identified liberals just aren't very good at politics.

  • zeitgeist on August 02, 2011 4:58 PM:

    the explanations given by commenters show just how importance messaging is. The problem, cited over and over, is that "liberal" has been demonized. Setting aside the messaging failure that represents in itself, query why as W's favorables fell into the 20s the left was never able to demonize "conservative."

    yeah, yeah - blame the media. but the reality is that there was no organized effort on the left to do so like the right had made consistently, patiently over the decades since Goldwater. even today, Obama can't bring himself to actually blame conservatives and their anti-governing philosophy. Its just "Washington."

    The comparison of this identification poll with the liberal positions favored on issue polls shows clearly the power of marketing and messaging. Yet the Democrats all but refuse to fight that battle. It is unseemly, incivil, its not what governing should be about, it is beneath the very concept of good government.

    and the longer we (and our elected leaders and party operatives) think that way, the less chance we'll have of ever competing with the right.

  • SJLaw on August 02, 2011 4:59 PM:

    "Why does it seem national Dems donít do nearly enough to keep the progressive base happy?"
    That's NOT the problem. The problem is mistrust of government and large institutions. People like liberal ideas (many polls show this) but balk when you say we have a "government solution for that". Until liberals (I include myself as one) figure out a way to make government more workable and flexible, less seemingly intrusive and more accountable to people not corporations and lobbyist, then it will always be this way. We need liberalism 3.0 to fight back the revolution Reagan started 30 years ago. Obama called Reagan a "transformational figure" not because he agrees with him on everything, but because he changed how most American's view government's role. Reagan made it OK to say our government is a problem, not a solution. And at the end of the day the Rights can demonize it because itís easy to do so.

  • Tuttle on August 02, 2011 5:01 PM:

    Eating your own isn't the answer but we sure are good at it

    No, you're good at self immolation... and then blaming the dirty hippies for pointing out that only idiots douse themselves in gasoline and then play with matches.

  • Sauce on August 02, 2011 5:10 PM:

    To answer the question why they're aren't more so called liberals. That's what happens when you're demonized for 30 years and refuse to fight back. Old style liberals are extinct, a myth we read about in textbooks. IIRC, their weak kneed descendants call themselves progressives.

    Until liberals are not afraid to call themselves Liberal, these polls will never change.

  • Oldskool on August 02, 2011 5:11 PM:

    Liberals seem to enjoy eating their own. Just look at all the people on this site who are upset with Obama over the debt deal.

    And too, we haven't had a liberal president since who, Carter? Johnson? The rest have run as liberals and governed as moderates. Why? The opposition is tactically superior. They almost always repeat the same talking points with no gray areas and nothing breeds success like success, even when it's disastrous to the country.

  • rk21 on August 02, 2011 5:15 PM:

    Let me tell you something. I don't call myself a liberal and if I were asked I would say that I am a conservative (I actually agree with the republicans on being fiscally conservative and some of their philosophy). Yet I changed my affiliation from independent to Democrat. I voted for Gore, Kerry and Obama and will vote for Obama again although I think he has proven himself to be weak and ineffectual. Republicans today are mean, venal, insane and evil. It's a party where all the good people have left and now attracts only the lowest dregs of humanity. But I still don't call myself a liberal. The word means nothing to me. Conservative means cautious so I answer conservative. Why would I call myself a Democrat or liberal. No one wants to associate with people who always act like losers. They compromise their core principles at every turn. I may hate everything that republicans stand for but admire the way they are unapologetic and fight for everything and don't give an inch. Democrats make me despair every single day, with them it is always about how much are they going to give up today, who are the going to betray, please let it not be everything.

  • T2 on August 02, 2011 5:25 PM:

    The problem I see is that so called "progressives" walk off and pout when things don't go the way they want.........when the Rightwing doesn't get what the want, they yell and scream and then THEY VOTE.

  • Chris on August 02, 2011 5:27 PM:

    Whether they call themselves liberals or not, most Americans support a liberal agenda. Dems can win by running on and fighting for that agenda.

  • Cha on August 02, 2011 5:27 PM:

    The professional whiners are never happy. That's not how they make their money. They have plenty of suckers who are never happy, either, with any of the progress we've made. They ignore it like the plague and focus on the instant gratification.. not capable of looking at the long range picture.

  • mcc on August 02, 2011 5:29 PM:

    Has anyone done a poll where you ask people to identify moderate VS conservative VS "progressives"?

  • Alli on August 02, 2011 5:34 PM:

    Its Obama's fault. If he would just go barnstorming around the country explaining Keynesian economics we wouldn't have this problem. also, too Public option. Its not liberal's fault at all. They are in no way responsible for how the country views them and the DLC Third Way is keeping them oppressed.

  • scott_m on August 02, 2011 5:37 PM:

    It's a cognitive dissonance thing-- someone might

    1) Favor a variety of liberal policies
    2) Have a mental picture of a liberal as a mealy-mouthed effete or a DF flag-burning H
    3) Understand "liberal" as standing for a certain view of the world and decide to align against that view because of the mental picture in #2 without considering the actual policies of #1 that actually are reflective of a liberal worldview.

    Now I distinguish progressivism from liberalism. The liberal brand took it on the chin over the past 40 years but the policies have largely triumphed: civil rights, gay rights, women's rights (attacks on Planned Parenthood, etc. notwithstanding). The progressive label has not suffered damage, having been forgotten until a few years ago, but over the past 30 years, progressive policies have been routed: union rights, economic justice, progressive taxation.

    To win over the Cognitive Dissonant, we on the left need to stress that our policies are personally beneficial to this individual: minimum wage laws, health care laws, defending unions, defending pensions against corporate raiders, ...

  • zeitgeist on August 02, 2011 5:38 PM:

    the labels are of interest because our system of governance is inseparable from politics.

    but of more concern to me is the policy. to take a different label, it is very troubling that nearly every elected official - including Democrats, and especially Obama -- has used rhetoric in the past month that is decidedly anti-Keynesian. that makes it highly likely that the uninformed general public will (subconsciously because most have never heard the term Keynesian to begin with) be anti-Keynesian. language matters in forming beliefs.

    Observation 1: I have no idea why Obama would do this when it is akin to adopting anti-Newtonian or anti-Copernican rhetoric.

    Observation 2: can you really be a "liberal" and be anti-Keynesian?

    Observation 3: is it any wonder people dont self-identify as liberals when even Democratic leaders "talk" conservative? What role modeling do those in formative political stages have? Near as I can tell Paul Wellstone was the last of the old-style liberals.

  • alki on August 02, 2011 5:43 PM:

    @ zeitgeist......I think your comments are very right on. Its like liberals expect people to automatically understand that they are doing God's work and for that reason, should want to be a liberal as well. Its not just about doing good things or being on the right side of causes.....but like you say, its about the messaging. And Rs have that aspect covered completely.

    Its also the way liberals interact with conservatives. They are way too nice and reasonable. Obama has to be reasonable.....he's the president of all Americans. However, that rule doesn't apply to the rest of us. I post on a political thread.......and I am not at all reasonable with the conservatives who post there. And you would be surprised with how many insults conservatives will endure. I am so popular I can't keep up with all the posts in my mailbox. Seriously.

    Liberals don't have to lie and cheat but they need to push back as hard as conservatives push.

  • Sauce on August 02, 2011 5:45 PM:

    T2, I've voted in every election since 1988, midterms included. I came out in 2010 even though the story is we didn't. I drove to WI in 2004 to attend a Kerry rally because he didn't need to campaign in IL. I voted for Obama as Senator and President. Voted for Gore in 2000, Nader wasn't even a consideration. And Clinton, Clinton and Dukakis before that. I've sent money to the DCCC, DSCC, DNC, move on, act blue etc. So stop repeating the lie that "progressives walk off and pout". The problem is the Democrats we elect, and the way they keep selling us out. Obama and the rest of them do not deserve to be re-elected.

  • Sean Scallon on August 02, 2011 5:55 PM:

    You should have relayed this information to your readers before engaging in your apocalyptic hysterics over the last month and half. It might have led for a more rational dispensation.

    But as a conservative let me give you an alternative point of view which might cheer you up. 41% is still 41%, which means conservatives are a minority whose power is amplified electorally because it is more spread out across the country, especially in less populated areas which still have legislative districts and two members each in the U.S. Senate.

    Secondly, what the hell does "moderate" mean anyway? To me it means "less liberal" (on a scale which includes very liberal to liberal). I suppose given the demonization of the world "liberal" (in fact all of our political terms have been utterly corrupted considering what liberalism meant in Adam Smith's day) it is easier to say you are a moderate and still lean to the Left when push to come to shove (indeed the only way Liberalism will ever grow again is converting such persons the way conservatives once did. A liberal electorate has to be created, not assumed). That may be why individual Leftist policies may be more popular than the term "liberal" itself. So in all likelihood, you should presume you are really a majority.

    But this is what makes governing for Democrats so difficult, because any Democratic majority in Congress, the state house or any executive branch is going to include moderates and yes, conservatives, because they are more numerous and they have demands too and they use their leverage in the legislative process to get what they want. Sadly many of these "moderates and conservatives" basically are corporate candidates (Blanche Lincoln, Mike Ross, you know the type) who get elected only when there's an unpopular Republican President. Once upon a time there were a lots of economic populist/cultural conservative types in the Democrat Party but you killed them all off because you all insisted there was no high political future in the party who for anyone didn't support abortion rights. So you shouldn't be surprised when Democrat presidents like Carter, Clinton and Obama govern the way a Jacob Javits would run the country or the way a Lincoln Chaffee would run the country or a Bill Weld for that matter and maybe even Gerald Ford. This is what Roe vs. Wade has begat.

    And when you inherit huge budget deficits (as Clinton and Obama did), it is hard to convince people the thing that's needed is a new CCC. This is not 1933 where the fiscal situation allowed for an expansion of government because debt was slow as a comparison to GDP. Attempts to envision Obama as a new FDR were grossly unfair because of this situation. But, Obama could have saved a lot money by ending the wars and bringing the troops home which would have freed up enormous amounts of capital and reduced the price of oil. He chose not to do this. Instead he decided to bomb Libya. Ergo big deficits and high gas prices and a stalled economy. All of these are linked. It no accident nor coincidence that the Clinton boom years included both low oil prices and the reduction in defense expenditures with the end of the Cold War. By contrast Carter floundered because gas prices exploded in the last part of his Administration, the Cold War heated up again along with the hostage crisis and the economy tanked because of high interest rates needed to tame the inflation.

    But here's where it gets worse for conservatives. For all the elections won over the years, the American conservative lives in a country which hardly any conservative would recognize even if we went back as far as 1981 in areas of culture or diversity or morals or what have you. Only in a few areas, such as abortion and in gun control, have conservatives have shifted the debate in their direction (and even in abortion "red state" South Dakota voted down an outright ban on the procedure.) Culturally the American conservative is as isolated as that person has ever been. Talk radio, as it turns out, is a niche market which serves to propagandize not enlighten. Fox News does not make up for Fox TV and the Page 3 girls. Conservative and or libertarian movies (American Carol, Atlas Shrugged) flop at the box office. Evangelicalism is not Jonathan Edwards for most Americans, it is Rick Warren.

    What triumphed after 1981 was not "conservatism" in even in the broadest sense of the word but a sort mutated, hybrid version of liberalism and libertarianism which decreed 1). the nation could go off into its own cultural orbit wherever that went (even if it meant granny porn and reality TV) but nothing would be restricted; 2). Group rights would triumph over individual rights; 3). America is the World's Policeman and the indispensable nation; 4). Overall government will not be reduced but also stop doing anything new either and 5). The "market" will have the final say over everything in American life.

    So the 59 percent is what rules and of the remaining 41 percent, a good chunk of it is easily enticed to support any one of these decrees. Which leaves the real conservative an even smaller minority that what qualifies as the Left in the Gallup poll.

  • cmdicely on August 02, 2011 6:04 PM:

    But all of those caveats notwithstanding, results like these still paint a discouraging picture for the left and progressive governance in general.

    How? All it shows is that a particular word ("liberal") reached its (recent) lowest popularity in the mid 1990s and its (recent) highest popularity in 2007, and remains near that peak of popularity.

    If you compared that to polling on policy, I'd suspect that what you'd find is that the popularity of the labels (which, despite changing some over the time shown, is pretty darn constant for all three) has absolutely no relation to support for any particular set of policies or style governance, and thus is neither rationally encouraging nor discouraging for supporters of any particular kind of governance.

    The activist, grassroots left largely rejects the term "liberal" (largely preferring "progressive", as you do in your post when referring to anything other than poll results themselves [e.g., "progressive governance", the Democratic party's "progressive base", etc.]), while establishment Democrats, even those with fairly left policy preferences and voting records, also eschews the term, usually preferring terms without clear left/right connotations like "common sense".

    No one is really invested in the word liberal, so its lack of popularity as a label shouldn't be disappointing to anyone.

  • NealB on August 02, 2011 6:27 PM:

    Most people don't know the definitions of the words conservative or liberal, any more than they know what recession means. The only meaningful poll measuring liberal vs. conservative characterization would be those that get people's opinions on foreign and domestic policy issues put forth in terms that the average, sixth-grade intelligence-level, American understands. E.G. Would your rather your tax dollars was spent for wars or to help you pay your grocery bill? Would you rather government worked harder to provide a better education for your kids or to make sure investors make more money? Bankers or homeowners? Civil rights or keeping the terrorists away? Freedom vs slavery?

    The numbers would be reversed from these junk polls that ask people whether they think they're conservative or liberal.

    I'm as liberal as they come, but I always say I'm a moderate because I'm pretty sure my liberal views are middle-of-the-road views that most people, however stunted their vocabulary, would agree with.

  • 124th on August 02, 2011 6:27 PM:

    The problem is the term "Liberal". It has been vilified and turned by Republican spinmasters and the media into a pejorative. No one wants to be called a Liberal even if their political ideology is identical with Liberal beliefs
    for fear of ridicule and bullying.

  • Vince on August 02, 2011 6:54 PM:

    I would say that, my take, is that liberal has such bad name recognition for the same sort of reason that a majority of people believe that reducing the deficit will be good for the economy: our political discourse is overwhelmingly right wing.

    As far as the debt is concerned, all people have heard from all political stripes and all pundits is that the deficit is killing the economy. Why would most people think otherwise.

    That's one specific policy that is "conservative" (of course, conservatives in the real world don't care a damn about deficits). Far more broadly, however, liberal ideas and truly liberal politicians are virtually shut out of the national political discourse. The vast majority of prominent Democratic politicians, starting with Obama, sound a hell of lot more conservative than liberal. Democratic politicians score additional brownie points for denigrating their liberal base. This sort of thing dates back now to at least Clinton, so it has been going on for 20 years now.

    So, for 20 years or more, people basically have not heard anyone defend liberalism and pretty much only hear people, including Democratic politicians and "liberal" leaning pundits bad mouth liberalism. Is it any wonder no one wants to be associated with the word?

  • Donald G on August 02, 2011 7:00 PM:

    Brenna: In regards to Bill Clinton being strong and standing up to thugs, are you talking about the same Bill Clinton who brought in Dick Morris as his main political consultant in the aftermath of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution?

    The same Bill Clinton who then tacked right and appropriated Republican framing to reposition himself as a moderate, thus stealing momentum from the Republicans by presenting their ideas as his own, thus forcing the Republicans to move even further to the bat$4!7 right?

    The same Bill Clinton who "reformed" Welfare to the outraged screams of liberals and progressives and embraced the Defense of Marriage Act and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? That Bill Clinton?

    Bill Clinton was the Obama of the nineties with many of the same odious forces arrayed against him. He prospered by throwing the liberal, progressive wing under the bus and forging a "Third Way", and ended up being the beneficiary of a booming economy and Republican overreach in their persecution of him.

    If he were faced with today's challenges, even the Big Dawg would've been hard-pressed to prevail.

  • Sauce on August 02, 2011 7:08 PM:

    Overall I can't say I disagree with a lot of what you wrote. But I don't think abortion rights had much to do with the Democratic Party's loss of economic populism. The backlash to the 60's did that. The influx of Corporate Money did that. The profound shift from labor to business interests that the US populace has embraced did that. Abortion is an issue that captivates ultra-conservatives and it's really more about denying birth control and the subordination of women than anything else. If that theory was right the GOP would be shifting left, economically at least, with an influx of former Dems which they clearly are not. In fact I doubt many conservatives from 1981 would recognize today's conservatives. The bar has moved so far to the right that Reagan probably couldn't get elected in a GOP Primary.

    Obama had a chance to move the goalposts. Even with all of the roadblocks you mentioned he still could have put in place real liberal policies and chose not to. What's amazing to me is that within 10 years two different presidents had once in a lifetime opportunities to change the Political landscape and missed the opportunity. GWB and the GOP their moment after 9-11 but put the country in a tailspin. Obama and the Dems had it after the election in 2009 but chickened out and now there's no end in sight to our economic problems. We've been following Conservative policies, Obama included, for the last 10 years and things are only getting worse. I firmly believe if we had a Democratic Party that believed in Liberalism things would change for the better

  • Xavier on August 02, 2011 7:35 PM:

    How can this be when, according to the 2010 census, non-whites will make up the majority of the population by 2025?

  • 4jkb4ia on August 02, 2011 9:40 PM:

    The answer that DKos came up with, in comment after comment and diary after diary, before 2006 is that Democrats and liberals can't fit what they stand for on a bumper sticker. It gets back to Kate Zernike's article today about how even Tea Party supporters are varying levels of crazy, but all of them think they are supporting simple things like cutting spending. Conservatives have learned to repeat a number of very simple and vague things over and over. If you can support what you think that is, or you are just disgusted with the country right now, then you can say you're a conservative. But if you can reject that, you don't necessarily say you are a liberal.
    Also, the word liberal doesn't mean you are a DFH--but it can mean that you want to conserve the liberal moment of the 1960s and 1970s that fell apart. This is more urgent when a great liberal cause has to be restoring the middle class. There is a difficulty in making liberal mean progress instead of more government.

  • 4jkb4ia on August 02, 2011 10:07 PM:

    And because the liberal package is so broad, it is hard to incorporate all of it into one single politician, much less someone who is supposed to represent you.

  • berttheclock on August 02, 2011 11:29 PM:

    It does tend to be confusing, when, one considers the number of Progressives/Liberals who thought they were supporting a Liberal in '08, only to find he is a Liberal Republican, who believes, he will be accepted by RepuGnants.

    I really like Bill Maher's approach in openly admitting he is a Socialist, while, so many others deny they are really Socialists at heart, while accepting the many benefits in our system from forms of Socialism. I detest this recent bill signed into law by Obama, but, on the 17th of this month, money will be electronically transferred into both my wife and my bank accounts. So, I will accept this Socialistic lifeline and, next week, I will be at our local VA Hospital for a needed INR, another Socialistic benefit. Thank someone out there for some needed Socialism. Neither Liberal nor Socialist is a dirty word. Be proud to admit that.

  • Hieronymus The Troll Braintree on August 03, 2011 3:52 AM:

    Liberals down at 21%? No problem. The way to fix it is to call everyone who doesn't immediately agree with us on stuff a racist. That's what we've been doing for years and see how well it's worked?

  • bob h on August 03, 2011 5:56 AM:

    This is just testimony to the effectiveness of Frank Luntz making "liberal" a pejorative term.

  • NealB on August 03, 2011 7:07 AM:


    The poll question isn't about what anyone "calls" anyone else, it's about how they identify themselves. But you make a good point. If there was a poll that asked people to identify themselves as racist vs. not racist, the numbers would probably show that almost no one considers themselves to be racist.

    A more meaningful poll would ask whether people that know you consider you to be a conservative (racist but lacking the self-knowledge to admit it), moderate (racist and knows it whether they want to address the problem or not), or liberal (racist, knows it, and recognizes that it's a serious problem that they need to address in themselves and as a member of a larger political system and the world).

    As far as your concern about the political tact of naming racism what it is, it's impossible to work on a problem, much less solve it, until we identify the problem for what it is.