What Those Words Really Mean

According to a post in Daily Kos, in 2010, 42 percent of the electorate self-identified as conservatives, while only 20 percent self-identified as liberals. By 2012, the gap had narrowed to a historic low, with only 35 percent of the Obama-Romney electorate calling themselves conservative, and a full quarter of the electorate (25 percent, the high water mark for the modern era), self-identifing as liberal.

These numbers are intriguing, although I doubt seriously that they signal a shift in political orientation. My theory (for many years now) has been that political terminology lacks much actual content–that the words used to self-describe political philosophy tell us very little about the actual policy preferences of the person using them. What they do tell us is which party that person identifies with. “I’m more like these people and less like those people.”

In other words, in a world where Republicans are seen frugal and self-reliant and Democrats are seen as welfare moochers and members of despised minorities, lots of voters will identify with Republicans. If, on the other hand, Democrats are seen as inclusive citizens who care for the well-being of their communities and Republicans are seen as selfish and bigoted, more people will identify as Democrats.

Credible research into the actual policy preferences of the electorate suggests that Americans are moderately progressive, very supportive of social programs like social security and Medicare, uneasy with abortion but unwilling to reverse Roe v. Wade, and increasingly willing to extend equal rights to GLBT citizens. To the extent that the Democratic party has been able to frame its message to align with those positions, more voters have identified with it. But the real shift hasn’t been better framing by the Democrats; it has been disastrous framing by Republicans.

Whatever one’s views about the actual policies pursued by Ronald Reagan, his GOP was a sunny, affirming party. To use today’s (unfortunate) terminology, it was all about how celebrating the “makers” would benefit the “takers” and all Americans would be better off. Today’s Republicans have painted a very different picture, a picture of a party that believes that the so-called makers are entitled to piss on the so-called takers.

The current image of the GOP–fair or unfair–is of a party unwilling to accept science, unwilling to allow women to make our own reproductive decisions, unwilling to extend equal rights to gays or any path to citizenship to immigrants. In short, it is an image of mean-spiritedness if not outright bigotry.

As a result, the term “conservative” no longer means “prudent and responsible.” And the term liberal–a term Republicans have trashed for at least a quarter of a century–no longer seems like an epithet.


  1. Sheila; you always make me proud, but this is a really good piece. Thanks for your continued dedication to the cause of informing the public in a positive way. Your friend, Max

  2. There was a time (I was a kid about nine years of age in 1964 when I began to follow politics; yes, even then I was something of a geek) when the Democratic Party had its liberal wing that advanced Civil Rights while its other wing protected segregation in the Solid South. In the Republican Party, originally founded to oppose slavery, that party’s liberal wing advanced an agenda that included Civil Rights and was a force against the Dixiecrats of the Solids South. Then LBJ pushed through key Civil Rights legislation (“I’ve lost the South for the Democratic Party for a generation” I believe he said, but he had guts, except about the Vietnam War) and Nixon saw the opportunity of grabbing those Wallace backers from the ’68 campaign. Republican liberals began to disappear. Dixiecrats moved over. Lewis Powell, not yet a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about how corporations’ rights should be advanced through Federal court decisions. Money poured into the coffers of both parties. That is the state of things today.

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