radical voters?

Two Berkeley graduate students, David E. Broockman and Douglas J. Ahler have conducted research that is already influential enough to become the subject of a column by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times. Based on their own large survey of Americans, Broockman and Ahler argue against the widespread premise that voters are more moderate than elected officials are. Instead, they argue, many voters hold ideologically inconsistent preferences. For example, someone may strongly oppose abortion (generally seen as a conservative stance) while favoring single-payer health insurance (coded as liberal). If you average that person’s preferences, she looks moderate, but she actually favors policies both too liberal and too conservative to get through Congress. Thus, if politicians shift to more moderate policies (e.g., partial restrictions on abortion and a mixed health care system, like the ACA) they will not increase their support. The unpopularity of Congress reflects its failure to satisfy a population that holds diverse, unpredictable, and often “radical” views:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom rooted in the ideological perspective, most citizens do not seem to wish the Senate were composed of 100 Olympia Snowes and Max Baucuses, the noted Senate moderates. But this does not mean that Americans are satisfied with the politicians who represent them either. Rather, because each citizen’s pattern of views across issues appears unique, each citizen is likely to be “disconnected” from the positions their representatives take in his or her own way, a situation which the election of more moderates—or more of any other one particular kind of politician—could not broadly resolve.

I would argue that ideological consistency is a problematic concept. It is highly debatable whether any given position on abortion or foreign policy fits better with a favorable or critical stance toward welfare programs. In a multiparty democracy, we would see a menu of many ideologies that could not all be arrayed on a single scale. For instance, we would probably have a viable libertarian party that seemed “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic ones, and a statist conservative party that was willing to use instruments like welfare to strengthen traditional values. Instead, our two-party system imposes a single spectrum that does not fit the variation in individuals’ views.

I would further argue that despite all the vituperation and philosophical posturing in today’s politics, the real policy options being considered by Congress all fall within a narrow range. For instance, the party that is supposedly socialist and deaf to limits on government would actually like to raise federal spending by a couple of points of GDP, at most. And the party that regards freedom as threatened by runaway government would really like to trim federal spending by a couple of points. Many perfectly reasonable policy ideas are considered untouchable in Congress.

As one of their methods, Broockman and Ahler show people seven options on each policy topic that ostensibly range from radically liberal to radically conservative (or vice-versa; they randomize the order). Thus to pick the first or the last choice shows that you are radical. But these are some of the ideas that they code as falling at an extreme end of the spectrum:

  • The government should institute a carbon tax or cap and trade system that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions over the next several decades
  • The United States should move to a system like Great Britain’s, where the government employs doctors instead of private companies and all Americans are entitled to visit government doctors in government hospitals free of charge.
  • The United States should have open borders and allow further immigration on an unlimited basis.
  • The education system should be fully privatized, with government playing no role in paying for families’ education expenses. However, private school tuition should be tax deductible.
  • Social security should be abolished entirely or made semi-voluntary, with the government potentially providing incentives for retirement saving but not managing individuals retirement funds.

These are indeed ideas that aren’t going anywhere in Congress (although the first one passed the House in 2009.) But they are also ideas that have intelligent proponents, that we would encourage students to debate, and that we might expect to be seriously considered in our legislatures.

In short, I don’t think the problem is that voters are “radical.” I wouldn’t want to see them become more “moderate,” if that meant that they entertained even fewer policy options or always preferred candidates who fell at the center of a simplistic left/right spectrum. I think Americans display a reasonable heterogeneity of views (although I abhor some of the popular ideas), and the main problem is our political process, which seriously considers only a narrow range of options and places them all on a simplistic left/right spectrum.

[See also “if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution“; ideology: pros and cons“]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.