Thursday, November 04, 2010

Are Liberal Policies Unpopular? Debunking A Conservative Meme

There is a meme circulating in the conservative punditocracy (and it has kinda always been there), that Americans are mostly conservative in their thinking, that America is mostly a "center-right" conservative country, and that liberal policy is thus relatively unpopular in the country. When you look at the "wave" that characterized GOP gains in Tuesday's elections, it's easy to be tempted to think that there is some merit to this argument. But, as I argued in my previous posting, I don't think this is really what it is all that cracked up to be. For one thing, the most loony of the Tea Party candidates lost their races, and much more decisively than predicted. Sharron Angle is a case in point. And while Rand Paul, a prominent Tea Party favorite, won his race, that's not all that surprising in a reliably conservative state like Kentucky. And I'm prtetty confident that even Rand Paul will give some headaches to even hardcore Tea Partiers. I'm actually looking forward to how Paul and his fellow GOPers in the Senate actually interact. Now I have to admit that Marco Rubio is a clear exception to this trend (I generally find myself positively oriented to Rubio as a person, even though I'm no fan of his politics); but I've watched Rubio a little and I will go out on a limb and predict that, because he seems to be serious about actually governing, he will soften in the spirit of pragmatism and adopt a posture of compromise that will make him seem less appealing to Tea Partiers. Even still, it's worth noting that the Tea Party delivered victory for only 32% of its candidates up for election this time around. That's not a ringing endorsement of a movement identifying the US and Americans as a primarily conservative-leaning country. In fact, it tracks pretty much as one would expect with what might be considered rock-ribbed conservatives in the United States. I imagine that rock-ribbed liberals would poll about the same and maybe even a tad higher. In any case, I'd like to suggest an alternative explanation about this meme's notion that the election outcomes demonstrate the unpopularity of liberal policy.

I would put forward the notion that liberal policies are actually quite popular, but popular in a "good-for-me-but-not-for-thee" way. A majority of Americans, when polled individually, support many of the big entitlement programs -- for themselves -- but when they step back and look at the bigger picture (i.e. the costs of the programs they like for themselves), then people get skittish and start to differentiate between themselves and others and the others' entitlements to the benefits of such programs that they like. It's the "unworthy," subjectively determined, who make a good thing bad and who abuse an otherwise worthwhile policy. I saw this at work so clearly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when many conservatives, some of them family members and close friends, with uninsured or underinsured homes, demanded and expected federal compensation for their choices such that they could rebuild their homes and not have to suffer the consequences of their risky behavior; and yet I have heard these very same conservatives lambast food stamp recipients or other kinds of "bailouts." Sure, these people had their reasons beyond their own negligence to explain why they merited such benefits; but who doesn't?

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Health Care Reform, Mortgage Relief, Local Pork Projects, etc., are all very popular items among most people when they understand them for themselves and are asked individually to comment on them; but when individuals begin to think that they are too expensive overall, they tend to look at the unworthiness of these programs for others and get all indignant. Similarly, young people like their college educations subsidized; elderly people like their prescription drug benefits; farmers like their agricultural subsidies, people without insurance or with pre-existing conditions like liberal health care reform legislation; homeowners like mortgage foreclosure protection programs and mortgage assistance programs in economically tough times; the unemployed like their unemployment benefits and like them extended in tough economic times, etc. So, it's not really that liberal policies, in and of themselves, as policy, are unpopular at the individual level, it's just that because liberal policies tend to aggregate popular benefits in a broader way, people who are perceived as on the shorter end of being the beneficiaries of such programs, vent about them, making them seem to be unpopular. But they really aren't unpopular at the individual level; and it's precisely at the individual level where it matters most.

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