Paul Krugman links to a blog called The Monkey Cage, by a political scientist named John Sides. Mr. Sides points out something that many of us have known for a while: that while people in this country call themselves conservatives, on the issues they tend to come out as liberals. Sides points out that most polling simply asks people to self identify; if a person calls him or herself a conservative, they are marked down as such; their actual political views notwithstanding.
Sides explains the disparity this way:
This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government? For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle. In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.
But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government. These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics. Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms. Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people. As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.
via The Monkey Cage
There is another reason that Sides sort of approaches, but never really articulates. The right wing has a vastly greater message machine than the left, as he acknowledges. That machine has been demonizing the word “liberal” since at least 1969, when Spiro Agnew (or his writers) coined the term “radic-lib”, in an attempt to associate liberalism with dirty hippies, an association that continues to this day. Over the years, Republicans continued to use the term as shorthand for “radical”, “un-American”, “weak on foreign policy”, “irreligious”, etc. At the same time, they repeatedly defined the term “conservative” to be the equivalent of God, Mom, apple pie and the flag. Indeed, they have claimed ownership of the flag and patriotism, and that ownership has been largely conceded in our media (“Values voters” are fundamentalist Christian bigots; people who believe that we should feed the hungry or heal the sick are not “values voters”) .
Naturally, Democrats did what they always do. They took up defensive positions and ran away from the word and the label. Not a single Democrat, so far as I can recall, pointed out that it was liberals that gave people programs such as Social Security and Medicare (to name just the top two), that people continued to support as they began to self identify with the conservatives that wanted to destroy those very programs. After all, most people are not political junkies, and they get their cues from the media. Given the relentless demonization of liberals and liberalism; given the lack of any effective defense by liberal politicians, given the medias complicity with the Republicans in giving the word an unsavory connotation, it is truly remarkable that anyone continues to self identify as liberal. It is a tribute to our much maligned educational system that 30% of the population (probably a higher portion in the rational states) has resisted more than forty years of propaganda by the right and the mainstream media that it dominates and persist in applying the term to themselves. Even without a compliant media, the Democrats could pull the same trick and turn “conservative” into a dirty word, merely be associating the term with the actual policies of conservatives. Naturally, that has never occurred to them.