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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

TDS Contributor Alan Abramowitz: Poll Shows Americans As Ideological Conservatives, Operational Liberals

Writing in HuffPo, TDS contributor and Board of Advisors member Alan Abramowitz has a compelling rebuttal to the GOP meme that their midterm victories signal a massive rejection of progressive principles and policies. Abramowitz, author of The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy, crunches data from the Gallup News Service Governance Poll, conducted 9/13-16, and explains:

…While Americans often support conservative principles in the abstract, large majorities of Americans continue to support an active role for government in addressing a wide variety of societal needs and problems.
…On matters of principle, Americans in 2010 leaned strongly to the conservative side. For one thing, self-identified conservatives greatly outnumbered self-identified liberals: 43 percent of Gallup’s respondents described themselves as conservatives compared with 37 percent who described themselves as moderates and only 20 percent who described themselves as liberals. In addition, when asked about the role of the federal government in dealing with the nation’s problems, fully 58 percent of Gallup respondents felt that the government was “trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” while only 37 percent felt that the government “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Similarly, those who felt that there was too much government regulation of business and industry outnumbered those who felt that there was not enough government regulation by a 50 percent to 28 percent margin. Finally, 59 percent of Gallup’s respondents felt that the federal government had too much power compared with only 33 percent who felt that the federal government had the right amount of power and a miniscule 8 percent who felt that the federal government had too little power.

Then Abramowitz addresses the respondents’ views on “specific societal needs and problems,” and finds,

…94 percent of the public felt that government should have major or total responsibility (4 or 5 on the scale) for “protecting Americans from foreign threats.” National security is one of the few areas of government responsibility that typically receives overwhelming support from Americans of all partisan and ideological stripes.
It is perhaps more surprising, given Americans’ endorsement of broad conservative principles, that 76 percent of Gallup’s respondents felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “protecting consumers from unsafe products” or that 66 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “protecting the environment from human actions that can harm it.” And it is perhaps even more surprising that 67 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “preventing discrimination,” that 57 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all Americans have adequate healthcare,” that 52 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all who want jobs have them,” or that 45 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “providing a minimum standard of living for all Americans” (versus only 33 percent who felt that government should have little or no responsibility in this area).
Even a policy as radical by contemporary standards as “reducing income differences between rich and poor” drew the support of 35 percent of Americans (versus 45 percent who did not see this as an appropriate responsibility of government). The only area where the large majority of Americans rejected a substantial role for government was “protecting major U.S. corporations in danger of going out of business” which drew the support of only 19 percent of the public.

All in all, hardly the slam dunk preference for conservative polices McConnell, Boehner and other Republican leaders say most Americans embrace. Further,

It wasn’t just liberals who supported governmental activism. Even self-identified conservatives frequently endorsed governmental activism on specific issues. For example, 63 percent of conservatives, along with 84 percent of moderates and 87 percent of liberals, supported a substantial role for government in the area of consumer protection. And despite strong opposition to recent healthcare reform legislation by conservative pundits and politicians, 33 percent of conservatives, along with 71 percent of moderates and 81 percent of liberals, supported a substantial role for government in ensuring access to healthcare.

Abramowitz devises an interesting scale depicting support for government activism among various demographic groups as indicated by the poll, and concludes,

Despite the dramatic gains made by the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm elections, support for activist government remains very strong in the American public. Evidence from the recent Gallup News Service Governance Poll shows that today, just as in the 1960s, Americans tend to be ideological conservatives but operational liberals. They endorse conservative principles in the abstract, but support efforts by government to address specific societal needs and problems. These findings suggest that attempts by congressional Republicans to weaken or eliminate government programs in areas such as consumer rights, health care, income security, and environmental protection would be politically risky. While such policies might appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party, they would almost certainly be unpopular with a majority of the American public.

Abramowitz makes the point that Ideological Conservative Operational Liberal (ICOLs?) voters have been a significant segment of the electorate for decades — which, come to think of it, may help explain why Republicans seem to prefer broad brush liberal-bashing to analyzing opinion data issue by issue.

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