Ten Miles Square


June 20, 2012 11:10 AM “Liberal”

By Jonathan Bernstein

Earlier in the week I asked why liberals don’t use Democratic House and Senate primaries the way that conservatives use Republican primaries.

Nick Baumann believes it’s just about an ideology gap, and refers to Gallup’s charts which show that far more Republicans identify as conservatives than Democrats identify as liberals.

I’m pretty skeptical about this. It’s certainly true that there’s a big difference in self-identification, but it’s not at all clear what that means. It does not, for example, mean that the movement conservative position on most issues tends to be the most popular one. Instead, polling majorities on policy are all over the place.

I don’t want to say that the self-identification thing is totally meaningless. It certainly seems to reflect something out there, and it has consequences; in terms of primary elections, it’s certainly true that Republican candidates fight over who is “really” conservative while Democratic candidates don’t really do that. But does that have anything to do with issue content? Does it have anything to do with what we think of as ideology? I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence for that.

Again: the difference that I was talking about in Congressional primaries doesn’t seem to be there at the presidential level. For presidential nominations, both sides seem to me to have a more or less equivalent set of litmus test issues, and you really can’t get nominated unless you’re on the correct side of them — and I think it’s hard to make the case that Democrats are more flexible about it than Republicans, or more likely to nominate party moderates.

And as for the self-identification numbers, I just don’t think they’re worth very much. Something, yes, but not very much.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Tony Greco on June 20, 2012 2:00 PM:

    I agree with you about the limited significance of the ideological self-identification numbers. Still, it seems clear that a very large proportion of Republican primary voters--very likely a majority--are in practical terms fervent ideological right-wingers. I don't think you have a similarly large proportion of fervently ideological liberals--even "practical" as opposed to "self-identifying" liberals--among Democratic primary voters.

  • Sean Scallon on June 20, 2012 3:09 PM:

    "I don't think you have a similarly large proportion of fervently ideological liberals--even "practical" as opposed to "self-identifying" liberals--among Democratic primary voters."

    Maybe not now but I think it's changing. It's already happening in Wisconsin, the 2011 protests have started to result in an increase in Progressive primary challengers against incumbents and for open seats. You'll see more of this kind of activism if Obama wins or loses because what other step is there to take in a political context? You want more Democrats to be liberals than you have to elect them in the primaries. Look at how primary challenges drove the Republicans to the Right. There's no reason why, in a smaller electorate, it can't work for the Left. I happened to think Lamont's campaign in Connecticut in 2006 paved the way for Obama in 2008.

  • Mitch on June 20, 2012 5:53 PM:

    How much of this self-identification has to do with the fact that the word "Liberal" has been turned into profanity?

    I had an ex-girlfriend say once, "I know you vote Democrat, but I had no idea you were a LIBERAL." Her sweet voice practically oozed scorn as she said the dreaded L-word.

    It's no wonder that fewer Dem voters call themselved Liberal, as opposed to the vast majority of GOP voters taking the title Conservative.

    After all, the GOP has defined the word Liberal for decades. Pretty much like they define nearly anything involving American politics. The GOP makes a false statement, the Dems are too passive to make any corrections. Thus, Liberal is a bad word. And many people have no idea what it is even supposed to mean, beyond "supporting abortion and gay marriage."

  • boatboy_srq on June 21, 2012 9:40 AM:

    It's probably fairer to say that a plurality of Democrats would identify as "moderate": the progressive wing of the party is more fragmented and regional, and the Democratic umbrella has remained inclusive even as God's Own Party has purged bloc after bloc in No True Scotsman fashion.

    I disagree that the Dems are in a position to snag the "Progressive" mantle just yet. Of the two main parties they're the one that still tolerates differences in opinion on policy and on approaches to issues. With the GOP going full-metal wingnut that may be a liability, but it's far healthier than the "with-us-or-against-us" absolutism seen in the opposition.

    "Liberal," as Mitch points out, has (thanks to GOP Newspeak) become synonymous with "something vaguely bad, and probably related to commies, queers or feminazis." Say "liberal" in front of a GOPer these days and you'll get only a slightly quieter response than if you said "Auschwitz" in front of a Holocaust survivor. If the US is going to restore some semblance of sanity to the debate, the first and most important task is to stop the Reichwing from redefining the terms used in public discourse and rewriting the dictionary to suit their own mindset.