Thursday, July 26, 2007

Is it Time for a New Terminology for American Ideology?

One of the questions asked at the CNN/You Tube debate on Monday that stood out for me was asked of Hillary Clinton. The questioner asked Clinton whether she would consider herself liberal. Clinton's response was this:

"...Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, [liberal] has been turned up on its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century. I prefer the word 'progressive,' which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.
I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we're working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family."

The underlying point here is that no Democratic presidential candidate can call themselves a "liberal" and still expect to win the general election; Republicans have been far too successful in adding a negative connotation to the term. Many citizens who probably are "liberals" also shy away from the label since it generally takes on a negative connotation. In the latest CBS/NY Times poll, only 15% of respondents considered themselves "liberal" and 31% called themselves a "conservative." At the same time, 48% labeled themselves as a "moderate."

CCPS is currently putting together a survey on health care issues. We are allowed only a limited number of questions, so one of the first cuts I suggested was the ideology question. While you will get some debate from scholars such as Morris Fiorina, I tend to agree that the electorate is fairly polarized along party lines at the present. This means that party and ideology are highly correlated, much more than they were when you had a substantial number of conservative southern Democrats (most of them have now relocated into the Republican Party). If made to choose, I'd rather use the party identification question, because I think it will give a better sense of ideology since "liberals" who do not like the "liberal" label will still admit to being a Democrat. That is why in the same survey you have only 15% of the public admitting to being a "liberal," you have over 30% identifying with the Democratic Party. On the other side, slightly more citizens claim the "conservative" label than admit to identifying with the Republican Party. This shows just how much of a problem the ideology questions poses to pollsters and political scientists. "Conservative" and "liberal" are not just polar opposites on the ideological scale, they are unequal in their social acceptability. Consider two people on an ideological scale, person A is about the same distance to the left of center as person B is to the right of center. The problem is that because of the loaded nature of the term "liberal," person A is not as likely to use the "liberal" label to define him/herself as person B is to choose the "conservative" label. Thus, even if you have an equal number of people to the left as you ahve to the right, that will not be reflected in the ideological self placement question presently used by pollsters.

Some studies use answers to a series of questions about policy issues to place respondents on an ideological scale in addition to asking them to place themselves. These studies find that a lot more people actually answer policy questions in a liberal way than admit to being a liberal. For a really interesting breakdown of present-day American ideology using responses to policy question, see the comprehensive study conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press here.

Unfortunately, survey questions cost money and in most cases it is not feasible to ask 10 policy questions just to come up with a respondent's ideology. Thus, because "liberal" has become such a loaded term, it may be time for a new vernacular when it comes to describing American political ideology. I'm not sure what the new terminology should be, but in many other countries, terms such as "left," "center," or "right" are used instead of "liberal," "moderate," or "conservative." While it would certainly take some getting used to for politicians, pundits, journalists, and the public, the new terminology may provide a more meaningful way for people to think about their own ideology and a better way for pollsters to measure the concept.

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