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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Part II — The new CAP report on American Political Ideology reveals the existence of a substantial group of “ambivalent” or “inconsistent” voters – Here’s what Democrats need to know

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part TDS Strategy Memo, written by Andrew Levison. It presents an important perspective that extends the innovative analysis in the Center For American Progress’ recent report “The State of American Political Ideology 2009.” This item was originally published on April 8, 2009.
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Americans who endorse a seemingly incompatible combination of conservative and liberal-progressive ideas are not simply “confused”, “ambivalent”, or “inconsistent.” Many are expressing a coherent social ideology that Democrats need to better understand.
For most ordinary Americans, opinions about business, government and economic issues are not learned and mentally organized into the kinds of coherent ideological frameworks taught in freshman economics or political science classes. On the contrary, for most Americans many of their opinions about economic life are gradually built up out of daily experiences in the world of small and medium sized businesses and during real world interactions with bosses, customers, suppliers, co-workers, sub-contractors, city inspectors, bookkeepers and so on and through the informal exchange of opinions shared within the workplace.
As these individual experiences and conversations are gradually synthesized into more general attitudes, there are typically five distinct kinds of cognitive frameworks or schemas that develop (1) a specific cluster of opinions about what appear to be “facts” or “common sense” about business and economic life, (2) a cluster of opinions about various positive principles and values that are inculcated by the business world, (3) a cluster of opinions expressing generally positive generalizations about markets and business (4) a cluster of opinions about the limits of markets and the proper role of government and (5) a cluster of opinions about the role and values of the “rich and powerful”.
For most ordinary voters, these five cognitive frameworks or schemas operate largely independently of each other. There is little conscious examination or effort to insure consistency. Invoking one opinion within a particular cluster generally activates a number of other opinions within the same cluster but generally does not invoke the other cognitive frameworks related to economic life.


Efforts have been made to systematically study and map Americans’ cognitive frameworks related to economic life in real-world settings, an effort primarily conducted within the field of cognitive anthropology. But progress has been extremely limited because the collecting, conducting, transcribing and coding of extended, open-ended interviews is an extremely labor-intensive and expensive process, one that academic funding sources have generally not been willing to support.
In political science, on the other hand, studies based on ethnographic, “in the field” interviewing techniques are extremely rare and most studies of public opinion data focus on relatively narrow topics rather than the full range of voter attitudes toward economic life.
One classic study of public opinion that did take a comprehensive approach toward understanding public attitudes toward economic issues was Herbert McClosky and John Zaller’s “The American Ethos: Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy” which appeared in the mid 1980’s. The study was an attempt to understand Americans’ basic views about the economic system and to evaluate if the rise of Reaganism actually signaled a sea-change in American opinion toward free-market conservatism. The American Ethos examined such an unusually wide range of economic opinions that it was possible to identify in it elements of all the major cognitive schemas noted above.
1. Opinions based on “Common sense”
Some opinions reported in The American Ethos, for example, actually expressed what people basically saw as “facts” or “realities”, about issues like competition, private property and the profit motive. 88% of the respondents in one study, for example, agreed that “It is having to compete with others that keeps people on their toes” and 81% held that competition “leads to better performance and a desire for excellence”. Similarly, 54% of the people in one sample agreed that “the profit system teaches people the value of hard work and success” and 85% agreed that “Giving everybody about the same income regardless of the kind of work that they do would destroy the desire to work hard and do a better job”.
Average citizens do not consider opinions like these as necessarily expressing their personal values or philosophy. Rather, they see them as statements of “common sense” or “just the way things are”. People do not necessarily think that these social facts are entirely desirable or always the appropriate things to encourage. But they perceive them as realities about social institutions and human conduct that it is simply foolish to ignore.
2. The positive values of business
At the same time, many people also strongly approve of some of the key values and characteristics of small business. Independence, hard work, ambition, self-discipline and individual initiative are considered positive character traits by most Americans and lead to support for a variety of small business values. 95% of the people in one sample agreed that “there is nothing wrong with a man trying to make as much money as he honestly can”. 78% agreed that “under a fair economic system people with more ability would earn higher salaries” and 58% agreed that “the way property is used should mainly be decided by the individuals who own it”.
Although these views have significant social implications, the specific questions make it clear that they are more accurately seen as generalizations from small business experience and not the expression of a formal ideology. The questions focus on particular individuals and express beliefs about how such individuals should be treated, rather than views about society as a whole.
3. Positive views about free enterprise
McCloskey and Zaller did find a variety of more general social or ideological attitudes favoring free enterprise and the free market. 63% of the respondents to one survey agreed that “the free enterprise system is generally a fair and efficient system”. 84% agreed that “private ownership of property is necessary for economic progress” and 82% supported the view that “our freedom depends on the free enterprise system”.
Seen in isolation, these opinions might appear to be ideological statements based on a clearly held and fully consistent conservative economic philosophy. But when viewed in the context of the other opinions McCloskey and Zaller studied, it becomes clear that, for many Americans, they are more reasonably understood as informal extensions or generalizations of their specific, common sense views about small business. This kind of belief system differs radically from views based on a formal ideology because it is rooted in common sense observation rather than abstract theory.
4. The limitations of the market and the need for government
This difference becomes dramatically clear when McClosky and Zaller turn to consider the attitudes of most Americans toward the free market as an economic system and toward people’s opinions about the proper relationship between the market and government for society as a whole. It quickly becomes clear that the same “common sense” that makes many people accept many seemingly conservative propositions about the values of work, rewards and incentives also makes them completely unwilling to accept the notion that markets can actually be left to themselves or do not need extensive government oversight and wide-ranging regulation.
McClosky and Zaller noted that even in the 1950’s only 25% of the American people believed that “Most things would run pretty well by themselves if the government just didn’t interfere”. In the late 1970’s, 85% rejected the idea that, by itself, business would “strike a fair balance between profits and the interests of the public.” In that same year, a plurality agreed that “government regulation of business is necessary to keep industry from getting too powerful,” and 62% held that “The way business is behaving, we need the government to keep an eye on them”.
5. Attitudes toward “the Rich and Powerful”
At the same time that McClosky and Zaller found majority support for the right of an individual to become wealthy and do whatever he or she wished with their wealth, 67% also agreed that “corporations and people with money really run the country”, 72 % agreed that “when it comes to taxes, corporations and wealthy people don’t pay their fair share and 55 % supported the proposition that “in the American court system, a poor man usually gets treated worse than a rich man.”
The essential distinction in this area is that Americans are seen to have the right to become wealthy, but not to use their wealth to gain unfair advantage. People have a very distinct reaction to the term “the rich and powerful” than they do to the terms “people who have become rich” or “wealthy people”. It is the combination of both wealth and power that triggers this particular “populist” schema and distinguishes it from the cluster of attitudes about wealth alone.
After reviewing this and a wide variety of other data, McClosky and Zaller concluded the following:

“Popular support for laissez-faire capitalism appears surprisingly weak even at a relatively abstract level”… [only a] small group – perhaps 10-20 percent – wants a return to laissez-faire and a sharp reduction in government regulation of the economy. The balance – a substantial majority of Americans – seems reasonably satisfied with the present intermingling of business independence and government intervention”

When McClosky and Zaller presented this conclusion in the mid-1980s, it seemed startlingly at odds with the Reagan-era common wisdom that the American people had actually become much more conservative and supportive of a radical free-market point of view. But this basic conclusion has been repeatedly reconfirmed by other major studies since that time. Substantial numbers of Americans do have strongly positive opinions about small business and approve of a number of the social and personal values that are associated with it. But the same “common sense” perspective that leads them to this view makes them also strongly reject the idea that free markets are ideal or self-adjusting and can be left to operate without substantial regulation and oversight by society as a whole. The common sense perspective that leads to the belief that many small business values are beneficial to society also leads to the view that, by its nature, business is entirely governed by “the bottom line” and will inevitably ignore or undermine goals or values that Americans think are “important”, “good” or “right” if they conflict with profitability.
It is this perspective that best explains the apparently anomalous results in the American Political Ideology 2009 study. A critical segment of ordinary Americans do not have rigid ideological views; they have variety of conceptual schemas that operate at different levels of analysis and specific topics. They can look at six municipal workers standing around a sewer pipe and react by thinking that “government is invariably wasteful and inefficient” and they can then see a TV report and applaud the food inspectors who catch a shipment of salmonella-tainted meat thinking that “government regulations are necessary to protect workers and consumers.”
In fact, one can map the questions on the Center for American Progress study into the five cognitive schemas outlined above.

1. Common sense “facts” about economic life
Government spending is always wasteful and inefficient – 61% agree
Government regulation of business does more harm than good – 43% agree
2. Positive values of business
Government programs for the poor undermine individual initiative and responsibility – 48% agree
3. Positive views of the economic system
Limited government is always better than big government -55% agree
Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth – 57% agree
The primary responsibility of corporations is to produce profits and returns for their shareholders, not to improve society – 44% agree
4. Limitations of the market and the need for Government
Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers – 73% agree
Government investment in education, infrastructure and science are necessary to insure America’s long-term economic growth – 79% agree
Government has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick and the elderly – 69% agree
Government must step in to protect the national economy when the market fails – 59% agree
5. The role of the “rich and powerful”
Rich people like to believe they have made it on their own but in reality society has contributed greatly to their wealth – 60% agree
Government policies too often serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy – 65% agree
The gap between the rich and poor should be reduced, even if it means higher taxes for the wealthy – 62% agree
(Note: there are six questions in the CAP survey that have not been included above because they are focused on specific reforms — health care, unions, social security, free trade, renewable resources and tax cuts – rather than on attitudes toward business and government in general)

Once it is realized that these five schemas can be invoked and operate on a substantially independent basis, it becomes clear how many individuals can simultaneously agree with some or even all propositions in each category without feeling inconsistent. In fact, trade unionists and others who work with blue-collar and other ordinary Americans on a continuing basis can easily relate examples of individuals who – in the course of a single, long, free-flowing conversation – will express views consistent with all five schemas, and will not be troubled by any conflicts between them unless logical contradictions are explicitly pointed out. These people are not foolish, unintelligent or permanently “confused”, “ambivalent”, or “inconsistent.” Instead, they have developed a variety of cognitive schemas and perspectives at distinct levels of analysis that they have learned and internalized at various times and places during their lives and which they apply to particular situations as they arise.
They generally believe a coherent set of ideas: (1) that many aspects of economic life are just “the way things are” (2) that small business encourages many positive values (3) that markets are in general preferable to central planning (4) that extensive and substantial regulation of business is necessary and (5) that the rich and powerful have disproportionate power in society which must, at times, be constrained.
This suggests that – while the results of the CAP study do indeed indicate that progressive ideas are currently more popular than conservative ideas – the relationship between the two ideologies cannot be conceptualized as a simple “either-or” proposition. A large, and indeed pivotal, group of voters simultaneously holds a number of strong and sincere “pro-small business” views, while simultaneously supporting active government intervention in many areas. A too-rigid approach dividing voters into ideologically pure “liberal-progressives” and “conservatives” will fail to speak to and engage this critical voter group.
A more effective approach requires a strategy that is based on a clear vision of what these non-ideological voters are like and how they combine their individual viewpoints into a personal “philosophy.” A previous TDS Strategy Memo “How Democrats Can Do a Better Job of Communicating with Young White Working-Class Obama Voters” presented a brief ethnographic portrait of one subgroup of these voters. But more research of this kind is desperately needed to support the development of successful progressive and Democratic political strategy.

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