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Are Americans liberal?

March 31, 2008, 11:00 am

There is a school of historians and other scholars who maintain that we are, as a people, basically conservative. The story goes something like this: liberals are crazy social engineers who will make you tolerate all kinds of weird people—even gay ones!—and real America—which is, generally, construed as meaning white working class people—do not like you effete liberals doing that. As if shifts in sexual attitudes did not result from a massive cultural sea change, and instead happened because liberals starting sneaking condoms into school lunches.

I am willing to credit that conservative working-class people exist. But I do not believe they are the bedrock source of modern Republicanism nor, despite a kind of casual identification of white working-class people with “real America,” do I believe they represent America.

Why do I express doubt on these points?

(a) Poorer people vote Democrat, richer people vote Republican. No matter what cultural attitudes they may express, in the voting booth people seem to see “liberal” in economic, not cultural terms. As the linked artlcle, by McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal shows, over the past thirty-five years or so, there has been increasing real division between rich and poor, and it has gone along with increasing party polarization. And there’s lots more evidence of that nature on the way, as this preview of Larry Bartels’s new book seems to show.

(b) The American people are more liberal on both cultural and social issues than you’d think if you thought only about “the American people” in terms of Nixon’s “silent majority,” or Reagan Democrats. So say Pew.


This post born from a comment on this panel, which in q & a turned out to be a lot less historical and more political.

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