As the government shutdown neared its end, an NBC/Esquire poll appeared trying to promote the idea of "New American Center." Salon's own Alex Pareene skewered it rather mercilessly, for various good reasons, not least of which was how the whole enterprise came off: “It seems like marketing for NBC and Esquire — we represent the sensible (and probably affluent) center! Don’t be scared of our political content, advertisers!” Pareene wrote. But there was more: “[I]t is clearly very psychically important to the elite political media that a reasonable center exist. A common-sense, centrist middle is an essential, foundational myth of the nonpartisan press.
And yet, as James Fallows pointed out in "Breaking the News," in 1996, today's elite media also thrives on superficial coverage of controvery, which makes it complicit in generating the very extremism it simultaneous deplores, condemns and needs to hold at bay in order to legitimate itself.
With such a profoundly self-contradictory practice, it should not surprise us that the poll was even more misleading than Pareene described. Polarization in some sense is real — and yet also partial, misleading and embedded in consensus as well. Tea Partyers ranting “Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!” may seem comical — but they also show just how broad a true consensus can be. In fact, they reflect two central (but routinely ignored) facts of American public opinion that have remained remarkably stable since the 1960s, despite all that's changed since then:
- It's not just the center vs. the extremes; there is broad consensus across the boards on the basic contours of government spending priorities — the historically most important dimension of political opinion.
- It's just that the center is not where it's supposed to be: It's not somewhere in between the two parties, it's well to the left of the Democrats in D.C.
These two facts are both in full force with respect to the ongoing post-shutdown budget battle. In fact, a sophisticated poll covering 31 budget items as well as revenue sources conducted around the 2010 elections found that, even then, Republican, Democratic and independent voters all agreed on much higher taxes and much deeper defense cuts as the most striking elements of how the budget should be crafted. But before we examine that poll, we need to put these two key facts into long-term context.
The first clear picture of this situation came from two pioneers of public opinion research, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, in their 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans," based on surveys conducted in 1964. Their most striking finding was profoundly paradoxical: While half the population qualified as ideological conservatives, based on questions about government interference and individual initiative, two-thirds of the population were operationally liberal, supporting an activist federal government when asked about specific programs or responsibilities — stable or increased federal government spending on education, housing and urban renewal, adoption of Johnson's Medicare proposal, and government responsibility to fight poverty.
In short, the American people were in some sense schizoid — opposed to big government in principle, but even more supportive of it in practice. Most strikingly, almost one-quarter of the population — 23 percent — were both ideological conservatives and operational liberals, and this figure skyrocketed to 46 percent in the Deep South states that Goldwater carried in the 1964 election.
In the final section of the final chapter of the book, titled "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology," Free and Cantril wrote:
The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms ...
There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.
Of course, such a restatement never happened. To the contrary, the white backlash to advancing civil rights provided a framework for sharply increased attacks on “big government,” which liberals were increasingly reluctant to defend unreservedly. And yet, despite the far more strident conservative tone of political discourse since then, support for government spending has varied somewhat cyclically since then, but only within a relatively narrow range, as recorded by the gold standard of public opinion research, the General Social Survey [data archives here].
The GSS asks about more than two dozen specific problems or program areas, asking if the amount we're spending is “too little,” “too much” or “about right.” Not only do most Americans think we're spending too little in almost every area — most conservatives also think the same. Indeed — hold onto your hats — even most conservative Republicans feel that way as well.
Take Social Security and Medicare, for example: two top “entitlements” that Republicans insist must be cut significantly, and that Obama has repeatedly indicated he would cut ... if Republicans would agree to raise revenues as well. Progressives long have argued that these programs need more revenues, not less spending, so it's not surprising that liberals surveyed by the GSS think we're spending too little on such programs. Combining GSS data from 2000 to 2012, and asking about Social Security and spending on “improving and protecting the nation's health” (GSS's closest match with Medicare), liberal Democrats thought we were spending "too little" rather than "too much" on one or both by a margin of 87.1 percent to 2.4 percent — a ratio of over 36-to-1. But all other groups of Americans held the same view, even conservative Republicans — just not by the same overwhelming amount. They "only" thought we were spending "too little" rather than "too much" by a margin of 59.2 percent to 13.1 percent— a ratio of 4.5-to-1. With figures like that — all well to the left of Democrats in D.C. — it's no wonder that conservatives in Congress always talk about “saving” Social Security and Medicare, and forever try to get Democrats to take the lead in proposing actual cuts.
One more thing: If you look at how much liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans agree with one another — regardless of the positions they take — you come up with figures for a cross-ideological consensus. It's the lower of the two percentages for each position taken. The conventional narrative has liberals and conservatives always, consistently taking opposite positions, but this example clearly shows that's not the case. If the conventional narrative were true, the lower percentage for each position would be zero. Instead, it comes to a margin of 59.2 percent to 2.4 percent, for a ratio of 24.7-to-1.
Of course objections can be raised to these results. For one thing, people are reminded that spending costs money, but they are not being asked to directly weigh spending more money to paying more in taxes. When people are asked if they want more government and higher taxes, or the opposite, results tend to be more conservative. But there's also evidence that people are generally more willing to pay for government programs the more specifically they are identified — even when they're asked to consider the costs. Even welfare, which is very unpopular in general, gains substantial support when people are asked specific questions about specific people in specific situations. (In a one-time GSS supplement in 1986, 98 percent of all respondents indicated that welfare recipients should get more money than they actually receive — author's analysis of data in "The Deserving Poor," by Jeffry A. Will.) In short — it's complicated.
Which is why it's best to take more than one approach. This brings us to the budget-crafting poll I mentioned above—courtesy of researchers at the Program for Public Consultation, a joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes, and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. In early 2011, PPC released the results of two waves of "deliberative" polling bracketing the 2010 midterms, which swept a wave of Tea Party Republicans into Congress, who in turn pushed for sharp cuts in domestic spending with no tax increases as a matter of principle. They presented their results in two reports, “How the American Public Would Deal With the Budget Deficit” in February 2011, and “Competing Budget Priorities: The Public, the House, the White House” the next month.
As PPC noted in the second report, there is a decided lack of clarity from standard polling about what the public wants: “When the public is asked about the budget most people express their displeasure with the idea of cutting spending in most areas, their displeasure with the idea of raising taxes, as well their belief that it would be desirable to balance the budget. This creates the impression that the public is simply a mass of contradictory feelings.” To counter this, PPC created a simplified budget process, meant to mimic the deliberative budget process, particularly with its consideration of tradeoffs.
The results of the process were extremely detailed, particularly compared to what pollsters normally produce. But the big picture was strikingly clear. Massive cuts to defense on the spending side, massive tax hikes on the revenue side — both positions well to the left of the Obama administration, as well as Democratic leaders in Congress. More specifically, on the spending side, the public favored an average net reduction of $135.3 billion for general defense spending ($109.4 billion), intelligence ($13.1 billion) and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ($12.8 billion), compared to increases proposed by both President Obama and the GOP-dominated House. This represented just over 92 percent of net spending cuts. When you add in cuts to military aid and strategic economic aid to U.S. allies, the total cuts involving what the pollsters described as “spending on American international power” came to 96 percent of the total — $139.4 billion. Yet, the public also supported modest increases in several liberal priority areas: job training, education, energy conservation and renewable energy, and pollution control. Their average net reduction of all spending — $146 billion — was far more than either the president or the GOP House proposed.
On the revenue side, the public increased taxes by an average of $292 billion—roughly triple the amount proposed by President Obama. Majorities increased taxes on incomes over $100,000 by 5 percent or more, and by 10 percent or more for incomes over $500,000. Majorities also increased corporate taxes and other excise taxes. Overwhelming majorities also favored raising estate taxes: 77 percent favored reverting at least to the 2009 levels, with estates over $3.5 million taxed at a 45 percent rate. These positions are generally so far left, they don't even appear on the spectrum of discussion in Washington.
The researchers also found broad agreement across party lines. Their first report noted, “Among a total of 31 areas, on average Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed on 22 areas — that is, all three groups agreed on whether to cut, increase or maintain funding. In 9 other areas there was dissensus.” That's not to say there weren't differences. Republicans cut much less from defense — $55.6 billion for core defense (versus $109.4 billion) — and much less overall — $100.7 billion (versus $146 billion) — than Americans as a whole. But even so, the position of Republican respondents overall was still dramatically to the left of the political conservation in Washington.
In fact, PPC noted:
It is striking that no group — Republican, Democrat, or independents — on average acted in ways that fit their respective media stereotypes. It might be assumed that Republicans would cut the most; Democrats would cut the least or even increase spending; and that independents would be in between. But on the contrary:
- Republicans cut spending the least, though still considerably ($100.7 billion, or 7.4%)
- Democrats cut spending more than Republicans ($157.3 billion, or 11.6%)
- Independents cut spending substantially more than either Republicans or Democrats ($195.5 billion or 14.4%).
Thus, everything the media and Washington's conventional wisdom tells you about the will of the voters is wrong. But don't forget the Tea Party! They, too, did not respond as expected. Sure, they were more conservative than Republicans overall, but they still come across as wild-eyed socialists compared to their D.C. representatives:
Those who described themselves as “very sympathetic” to the Tea Party (14% of the full sample), as would be expected, raised taxes and revenues less than Republicans in general, and less than Democrats and independents. Even so, on average, Tea Party sympathizers found a quite substantial $188.2 billion in additional revenues to reduce the deficit ($105.2 billion in individual income taxes).
Tea Partyers raising taxes? By more than President Obama? Welcome to the strangest world of all: Welcome to reality. Think I'm kidding? Then consider the next way that PPC chose to look at its data — a comparison of blue and red districts. Remember, these districts have become dramatically safer for partisans than in years past — a fact that's help push House Republicans ever further to the right, because fear of a primary challenge from the right is greater than fear of losing in the general election. And yet, PPC found surprising little difference between red and blue districts as a whole:
Overall, red districts and blue districts were very similar in the ways that they increased revenues.... What is surprising is that red districts on average increased revenues slightly more than did blue districts on average.
On average, red districts increased revenues by $295.5 billion, of which $155.9 billion came from increases to individual income taxes. Blue districts increased revenues by $286.4 billion, of which $153.6 billion came from individual income taxes. In red districts, more respondents increased effective tax rates on incomes over $500,000, as well as some other taxes.
The reason for this counterintuitive result, PPC notes, is the greater presence of independents in red districts (25 percent vs. 19 percent in blue districts). Because they favored higher taxes and deeper spending cuts, they tipped the balance to make red districts remarkably similar to blue districts. The differences were almost as modest on the spending side:
On average, red districts made spending cuts totaling $140.6 billion, while blue districts made cuts totaling $153.4 billion—a difference of $12.8 billion.
The rational for the House of Representatives is that it is “closer to the people,” and this is what Tea Party political representatives have repeatedly claimed as well, as they've fought to push the political spectrum sharply to the right. Meanwhile, back in the real world, nothing could be further from the truth. The main reasons are obvious: First, the independents who shift the balance so decisively do not vote in GOP primaries, so their voices simply don't count. This is the point of the PPC's red district/blue district analysis. Second, and even more fundamentally, nobody ever asks the public what they want in ways that allow them to articulate a coherent vision. This is the point of PPC's entire project, and their budget project in particular.
It should be pointed out that cutting the budget deficit much more than Democrats or Republicans does not make the public more left-wing in one very crucial respect: Cutting the deficit amounts to austerity economics, the opposite of the Keynesian approach, which keeps deficits high when the economy is struggling, letting public-spending demand take up the slack of missing private sector demand, in order to hasten recovery. Classic Keynesian policy calls for cutting back deficits only after economic recovery is well established — a point we are still far from reaching roughly three years after PPC's surveys were conducted.
Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean the public actually believes in austerity economics in the way that these figures might suggest, for at least three main reasons. First, as Free and Cantril's research showed, Americans have always believed in austerity economics at a symbolic, ideological level. This is what their findings about American's ideological conservativism were all about. But this finding — based on surverys in 1964 — did not prevent LBJ from winning a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, and thus cannot be taken seriously as a policy prescription. That's what their findings of operational liberalism are all about.
Second, there's the "the Beltway deficit feedback loop" described by Washington Post Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent back in April 2011 — the cumulative impact on public opinion of the Beltway deficit-cutting obsession eventually stifling the public's primary concern over jobs. Thus, the public that PPC was polling around the 2010 midterms was a public repeatedly primed to cut deficits by Beltward Democrats as well as Republicans.
Third, this priming was reinforced by the entire structure of the budget exercise as designed by PPC. There was nothing in PPC's approach designed to ask if people preferred to prioritize putting people back to work before reducing the budget deficit, or to provide accurate information about the macroeconomics involved. This is not to say that PPC is ignorant of this concern. Another PPC survey conducted in roughly the same time frame, just after the 2010 midterms found widespread minformation throughout the elctorate, with some of the most prominent examples having clear impact on people's view of the economy and economic policy. This includes underming their understanding of how effective economic stimulus has been. But that's a topic for a whole other article.
We've just been through a lot of facts and figures, but the bottom line boils down to this, an echo of what Free and Cantil discoved back in 1967: The real polarization in Americcan politics is a split between symbolic conservative intuitions on the one hand, and pragmatic liberal facts on the other. The more that confusion and unconfirmed, even unconscious biases abound, the more that conservative “common sense” carries the day. The more informed that people become, the closer they are to the problems that need solving, the more liberal they become — no matter what they call themselves, liberal, conservative, Tea Party or whatever.
Finally, it matters just as little whether pollsters label them cozy centrists or wild extremists. Sober facts bring us together. Unchecked fantasies drive us apart. This should be our focus as we move toward trying to fashion a way forward in the budget talks ahead. We need facts now, more than ever, to get our country — and our government — working again.