This piece is written by Milan the Intern, not the usual Matt-post.
Before we jump into today’s column, some personal news: as you may (or may not) know, I’ll be moving to New Haven to start my freshman year at Yale in 54 days. Thank you all for making my gap year amazing — I could not have asked for a better first job! Never fear, I’ll still be here at Slow Boring, but I’m going to be shifting to part-time work starting in August in order to keep up with my studies.
Now, on to the column…
Lately I’ve been thinking about something that my 10th grade U.S. history teacher, Mr. Landwehr, would tell our class all the time: most Americans are moderates. Today’s post takes a deep dive into the American political landscape in an attempt to gauge the accuracy of Mr. Landwehr’s statement, which (if true) has major implications for political strategy.
To spoil the conclusion, he pretty much hit the nail on the head.
What does “moderate” mean?
When you ask people to describe their ideology, the vast majority say they are either moderate or conservative, and that’s been the case for a long time. And moderates and conservatives outnumber liberals in all 50 states.
It is worth noting that “moderate” doesn’t necessarily mean holding centrist opinions down the board. In fact, it’s more often the case that moderates hold a mix of left- and right-wing ideas — such as someone who opposes gun control but supports raising the minimum wage.
And voters often hold inconsistent views. For example, polling indicates that a strong majority of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. But majorities also favor banning abortion after the first trimester, which wasn’t allowed under Roe.
Now, you might say that this proves that ideological self-identification isn’t a useful metric. Perhaps people don’t really understand certain terms or what certain policies actually are and just say they’re moderate because it sounds nice and reasonable. Or maybe they’re turned off by the stigma around the word “liberal,” even if they hold left-leaning views.
We can test this theory by looking at support for progressive policies among self-identified conservative, moderate, and liberal voters. If ideological descriptors are not just noise, then we’d expect to see more support for progressive policies among liberals than among moderates and more support among moderates than among conservatives. And in this chart from David Shor, that’s exactly what you see.
There is a substantial age gap among conservatives. Younger conservatives seem to be broadly less, well, conservative than older ones. And polling indicates that large majorities of Americans favor liberal policies such as legalizing marijuana or same-sex marriage, even as self-identified liberals are outnumbered three-to-one.
In order to square this circle, political scientist James Stimson argued that Americans are “symbolically conservative but operationally liberal.” What that means is that if you ask people questions about big-picture values — about the ideal size of government or support for traditional values — most Americans will pick the conservative option. But if you ask people about specific issues — say, whether we should expand Medicaid — then they often choose the liberal option.
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