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You Might be a Liberal (and not even know)

“But you don’t understand,” they say. “This is a conservative country. You liberals want all these reforms but you ignore the fact that most Americans disagree with you.”

As one of those liberals who is constantly haranguing Obama for not delivering on the progressive changes he promised in his campaign, I hear this argument all the time and not just from conservatives. Obama apologists insist that I just don’t understand how unpopular my ideas are. Obama is the president of all Americans—not just progressives. He has to lean conservative because America is conservative.

Well, that may be the conventional wisdom, but as is often the case it turns out that it’s actually just conventional bullshit. The pundits constantly repeat their mantra that “This is a center-right country.” They said it in 2004 when Bush was re-elected and republicans gained seats in congress, and back then it might have been justified. But they said it again in 2006 when democrats regained control of the House and Senate, insisting that the particular democrats who won only did so because they were more conservative. And I clearly remember on the night of the 2008 election, after Barack Obama won the presidency with a huge majority, that the pundits were still saying, “In spite of this, it’s still a center-right country.”

Why does this conventional bullshit exist? Two reasons. The first is that it’s useful for the establishment if everyone believes that most of the country is conservative. One of the core elements of conservatism is the resistance to change, and naturally those who benefit from the existing power structure have an interest in preventing any changes to it.

The second reason is poll-data, and it’s the cold, hard, indisputably factual nature of this data that continues to allow people to get away with the claim that most Americans are conservative. This is the Gallup Poll they’re always thinking of:

Thus far in 2009, 40% of Americans interviewed in national Gallup Poll surveys describe their political views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal. This represents a slight increase for conservatism in the U.S. since 2008, returning it to a level last seen in 2004. The 21% calling themselves liberal is in line with findings throughout this decade, but is up from the 1990s.

What gets left out of this picture is the all-too-obvious fact that the poll doesn’t actually tell us whether someone is conservative or liberal, but only the words they choose to describe themselves. There is a difference between a self-identified conservative and an actual conservative.

All right, you might be saying, but where is the poll-data that shows that the majority of the country is actually liberal? Well I’m glad you asked, because it just so happens that this data really exists. Media Matters did a study in which they collected poll-data which indicates what Americans think on an issue by issue basis. Now before you go saying that Media Matters is a totally biased, radical left-wing organization, you have to consider that they collected this data from the most reliable, unbiased polling organizations out there: American National Election Studies, Gallup, Pew Research Center, etc.

Any liberals who are seriously looking to win this argument with conservative friends ought to read the entire study in detail and memorize some of the statistics, but for those without that much of an attention-span, I’ll offer a [somewhat] more brief and hopefully more colorful presentation of the findings. I certainly won’t cover all that data but I’ll present a large enough sampling.

If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that when you ask about specific issues, the majority of Americans consistently take the more liberal position. That means that not only is America itself is more liberal than everyone thinks, but that many self-described conservatives are more liberal than they think as well. Wherever you think you might fall on the ideological spectrum, answer these questions honestly and see just how liberal or conservative you really are.

The Roll of Government

Everyone knows that Americans hate Big Government and would rather make it so small that you could drown it in a bathtub, right? This is probably the biggest unifying idea behind the entire Tea Party Movement. Let’s see how you (and America) really come down on this issue.

1. Would you say “The less government, the better” or “There are more things the government should be doing”?
2. Can the Free Market can handle complex economic problems without government involvement or do we need a strong government to handle complex economic problems?
3. Do you agree or disagree that the government should provide more services even if it means an increase in spending?
4. Agree or disagree: “The government should care for those who can’t care for themselves”?

How did you do? As for how America did, the results may surprise you. 58% said the government should do more things as opposed to 42% who think it should do less. 67% said we need strong government to handle the economy while only 33% said the Free Market can take care of itself. 43% agreed that the government should provide more services even if spending increases, but only 20% disagreed. Finally 69% agreed that the government should care for those who can’t care for themselves. It turns out that Big Government isn’t as unpopular as they’d have us believe.

Business and Unions

Businesses are good and unions are bad, right? Most Americans think government should stay completely out of the business sector and let the Free Market work its magic. Unions are an unnecessary burden on business-owners who need to be free to make as much profit as possible. Let’s see what you think:

5. Should government reduce income differences?
6. Should business strike a fair balance between profits and public interest?
7. Does America benefit from Free Trade, or is it harmed by the global economy?
8. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of unions?
9. Do you favor or oppose an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15/hour to $7.25/hour?

When it comes to income disparity, 47% said the government should take steps to reduce it but only 35% said it shouldn’t. 58% agree that business should strike a fair balance between profits and public interest, while only 38% disagree. 48% of Americans say the country is harmed by Free Trade agreements while only 25% say we benefit from the global economy. Much to my personal surprise, 56% of Americans have a favorable opinion of unions while 33% have an unfavorable view. And a whopping 84% favored the increase of the federal minimum wage while only 14% thought $5.15 was enough for those clods at the bottom of the social ladder.

Taxes

Everybody hates taxes. Surely we’re an extremely conservative country when it comes to taxes. That’s how republicans keep getting elected, isn’t it? Obviously if you ask Americans questions about taxes, you’ll see that the big-spending liberals are in a dismal minority.

10. Do you think your own taxes are too high, too low, or about right?
11. Do you think taxes for upper-income people are too high, too low, or about right?
12. Do you think taxes for corporations are too high, too low, or about right?
13. Which do you think is more effective in stimulating the nation’s economy: tax-cuts or spending on infrastructure?
14. Were the Bush tax-cuts worth it or not?

Well, not surprisingly, 53% of Americans think their taxes are too high, but wouldn’t you think that number would be higher? It turns our that 41% of people think they’re tax-level is about right (only 2% think it’s too low). As for the rich, wouldn’t most Americans say that rich people should get to keep most of their money and not be punished for their success? Well, only 9% think taxes for the wealthy are too high, while 66% think they’re too low (21% say they’re about right). As for corporations, only 5% think they pay too much in taxes while 71% say they don’t pay enough (19% think they pay their fair share).

The stimulus package was incredibly unpopular [right?] so I’m sure most Americans would rather have less taxes than more spending. Well, apparently 60% of Americans think spending on infrastructure is more effective than tax-cuts while only 34% think it’s the contrary (incidentally, the facts are on the majority’s side). As for those awesome Bush tax-cuts which exploded the deficit, only 39% say it was worth it while 53% said it wasn’t. I guess we’re not as taxophobic as everyone thinks.

National Security

Okay, now we’re getting to the area where conservatives have a clear advantage. Surely most Americans support strong defense spending and continued vigilance in the war on terror. Surely the benefits of this strategy outweigh the harms.

15. Is America more or less respected than it was in the past?
16. Is the best way to reduce the threat of terrorism to reduce our presence overseas?
17. Are we spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on defense?
18. Should the U.S. emphasize diplomatic rather than military efforts in fighting terrorism?
19. Agree or disagree: “The best way to ensure peace is through military strength?”

Even the hawks will agree that America is less respected now than in the past, with 65% agreeing and only 7% agreeing, but I’m sure it’s only because the rest of the world sucks and not because America is doing anything wrong. But wait—by a margin of 45 to 32, Americans say we ought to reduce our presence overseas, by a 43 to 35 margin they say we’re spending too much on defense, and 67% think we should emphasize diplomatic over military efforts in the fight against terrorism.

Don’t worry, conservatives. At least more people—49%—agree that peace is best ensured through military strength while a paltry 47% disagree. Although, the fact that the number of people agreeing with that statement is down sharply from 62% in 2002 might be cause for some concern.

Domestic Security

Everyone wants to appear tough on crime, so Americans must be conservative when it comes to issues of gun control and criminal punishment.

20. Do you think current laws governing the sale of firearms should be more strict or less?
21. Would you favor or oppose a law requiring people to obtain a police permit before buying a gun?
22. Which is more effective in dealing with crime: Attacking social problems or more enforcement?
23. Do you favor or oppose the death penalty?

In spite of the influence of the NRA, 56% of people think gun laws should be more strict and only 9% say less (33% say it should be kept the same). As for the law requiring a police permit, an incredible 81% are in favor with 19% opposed, which goes to show just how liberal people can be when presented with a very specific rather than broad question.

As for crime, 65% think it’s more important to attack social problems to just 31% who think more enforcement is the answer. As for the death penalty, it’s pretty much a dead-heat with opponents having just recently overtaken proponents by a margin of 48 to 47, but the trend is unmistakably drifting away from favoring capital punishment. Bunch of bleeding-heart libs we are.

The Environment

We may be bleeding-hearts, but are we tree-hugging hippies too? Surely the majority of Americans believe that the earth is doing just fine and all those environmentalist wackos are just ranting and raving about nothing. Ask yourself how much you care (a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all) about the following issues and see if America agrees:

24. Pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.
25. Air pollution.
26. Loss of tropical rain-forests.
27. Extinction of plant and animal species
28. Global warming

It turns out that when asked, 84% care a great deal or a fair amount about water pollution as opposed to 16% who care very little or not at all. 79% care about air pollution while 20% don’t. 73% care about rain-forests (thanks, Disney) while 27% don’t. 69% care about the extinction of plant and animal species while 31% are apparently speciesists. And in spite of all the campaigns to call it a hoax, 65% think global warming is a problem while only 34% don’t.

Okay, so if you ask people if they care about the environment, most will say yes. But what about the actual policies? When it comes time to put up or shut up, most people would probably put their pocketbooks above their environmental conscience, right? Ask yourself if you favor or oppose these measures:

29. Opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil drilling.
30. Setting higher emissions standards for automobiles.
31. Imposing mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
32. Spending more government money to develop solar and wind technology.

The results are the same. Americans oppose Alaska oil drilling by a margin of 57 to 41. They favor higher emissions standards by 79 to 18, imposing controls on greenhouse gases by 79 to 19, and favor more spending on solar and wind by a whopping 86 to 12.

To be fair, we haven’t yet asked anyone to pay for these things. Now ask yourself these questions regarding the environment and energy:

33. Would you be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment?
34. Would you be willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline if the money was used to research renewable energy sources?
35. Would you pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable sources?

Well holy hell, it seems that Americans are willing to pay. By a margin of 60 to 37, most Americans would be willing to pay the price for environmental protection. We’d be willing to pay more for gasoline in order to research renewables by a margin of by a margin of 64 to 33. And by a margin of 75 to 20, we’d be willing to pay more for our electricity if came from renewable sources. Wow, there may be some hope for us after all.

Immigration

Seeing as how the Arizona “Papers, Please” law still enjoys popular support, you’d think most Americans would be conservative when it comes to immigration.

36. Which is the best response to illegal immigration: Penalizing employers who hire illegals, increasing border control, or building more fences?
37. Would you favor or oppose a program providing a path to legal citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the country?

49% of Americans think the best approach to immigration is to penalize employers, with only 33% calling for more border control and a pitiful 9% thinking fences are the answer. As for the idea of a path to legal citizenship, it may shock you that 80% of Americans are in favor of this idea and only 19% oppose. We’re not even a conservative country when it comes to this.

Health Care

During the seemingly endless battle for health-care reform stretching from last year into this, we were told that the country is too conservative to introduce a public option. We were made to believe that Americans are petrified of any government involvement in the health care system. Are we really?

38. Is it the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage?
39. Would you rather maintain the Bush tax-cuts or make sure all Americans have access to health care?
40. Would you be willing to pay $500 a year or more to ensure that all Americans have health insurance that they can’t lose no matter what?
41. Given a choice between a health care plan that attempts to cover all Americans, a more limited plan that would cover some currently uninsured groups, or a plan that keeps things basically as they are, which would you choose?

The results would make Tea Party heads explode. We’re apparently a nation of socialists. 69% of Americans think it’s the government’s responsibility to provide health-care for its citizens while only 28% think it isn’t. 76% of us say that providing access to health care is more important than maintaining the Bush tax cuts while only 18% say otherwise. Amazingly, 82% of American would be willing to pay $500 or more to provide their fellow citizens with health care while only 6% would not. As for the competing plans, 52% want the strongest possible plan while only 24% want something more limited (I hope they’re happy with what they got) and a paltry 14% wanted to maintain the status quo. How we ended up with what we did is a testament to the influence of private insurance.

Social (Wedge) Issues

Okay. I’ve shown you that when you ask Americans about economic or security issues, most of them lean towards the liberal position. But we all know that a huge chunk of voters don’t give any thought whatsoever to those issues when they go to the polls. They vote based on their religious moral convictions. It doesn’t matter how much damage a candidate will do to their own financial interests—as long as they’re pro-life, that’s who gets their vote.

Indeed, when people self-identify as conservatives they’re probably thinking in terms of social issues. So when we ask people specific questions about these issues, this is where liberals must run into trouble. This is where we’ll find that we are in fact in the minority, that most Americans are not with us, and we’d better compromise on these ideals if we ever want to reach out to the broader population.

So for those of you who thought you were a conservative when you began reading this but are now beginning to have some doubts, I’ll offer you one last chance:

42. Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade?
43. Do you favor or oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion?
44. Do you approve or disapprove of Congress’ involvement in the Terry Schiavo euthanasia case?
45. Do you support or oppose embryonic stem-cell research?
46. Do you think women should have an equal role with men in business, industry, and government, or is a woman’s place in the home?
47. Agree or disagree: “Homosexuals should have equal job rights”?
48. Should gays be allowed in the military?
49. Should gays be allowed to adopt children?
50. Should gay couples be allow to marry?

As for abortion, America is solidly pro-choice, with only 29% in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and 62% opposed. 56% oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion while 35% are in favor. As for euthanasia, 76% say it’s none of the government’s business while only 20% think they were right to step in on the Terry Schiavo case. Regarding embryonic stem-cell research, 61% support it and 31% value cells in a Petri dish over the health of fully-grown adults.

When it comes to women, our mothers have taught us well—78% think their role in the public sphere should be equal to that of men while only 8% are still living in the 19th century.

Finally, we come to gay rights. The last of the persecuted groups to really come out and forcefully advocate for fair treatment still has a long way to go, but they’re getting there. Most people at least agree that gays should have “equal job rights”. 89% say yes and only 9% say no—while only 30 years ago that margin was still at 55 to 33.

What about other rights? 60% now say that gays should be allowed to serve in the military, up from 52% in 1994. Only 46% say they should be allowed to adopt, but that’s up from 38% in ‘94. And while only 37% of Americans now believe that gays should have the right to marry (because they haven’t read my blog post on the subject yet), that’s up from a mere 27% a decade ago. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but it bends towards liberalism.

Conclusion

If you’ve read to the end of this piece, you should congratulate yourself. Now you are inoculated against the argument that America is a center-right country and we should just accept whatever small amount of change we’re given because the majority is against us. The next time someone throws that at you, throw the link to the report from Media Matters back at them (or the link to this blog entry if you want to be that awesome).

If you think of yourself as a conservative but found yourself taking the liberal position on most of these questions, consider that you may only be reluctant to call yourself a “liberal” because that word has been demonized by the right-wing media for the last few decades. It’s been so demonized that many liberals have taken to calling themselves “progressives” instead, and while some insist that there’s an actual distinction there, I tend to use the terms interchangeably. But of course now they’re going after the word “progressive” as well.

It’s time for those of us who are not afraid to self-identify as liberals to push back and wear our label proudly. Not only are we liberal, but most Americans are liberal as well—even if they won’t admit it.

Only in this way can we shatter the conventional bullshit that America is a conservative country and the government must therefore govern conservatively. Once that Gallup poll data starts showing more people self-identifying as liberal than conservative, candidates who run on progressive platforms might realize that they don’t actually need to compromise those principles when they get to office—that if they just stand up and make the case for the kinds of changes liberals are calling for (single-payer health care, strict Wall Street regulation, comprehensive immigration reform, strong environmental protection, investment in renewable fuel sources, etc.) they’ll have the American people right behind them to take the fight to the establishment and to finally win.

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