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March 25, 2005

Lock up your daughters and hide your bibles: the liberals are coming!

By Jim Dallas

Smarter people than myself, such as Ruy Teixeira and Chris Bowers have already blogged on this, but I've got a few comments following up the buzz over Christopher Hayes's article "How to Turn Your Red State Blue".

I would respectfully dissent from the thesis that the number of conservatives has actually gone up since the 1960s as the result of any kind of mass conversion. Rather, the amount of activity generated by conservatives and the number of "hard-core" ideologues has increased. This is important because it changes the inflection of the article.

Texas Party Self-ID and Ideological Self-ID
CBS/NYT polls pooled (based on data from Erikson, Wright, McIver)

Epoch D R I Lib. Mod. Con.
1976-1982 48.9% 17.8% 33.2% 18.2% 41.2% 40.6%
1983-1989 39.8% 28.3% 31.9% 18.2% 40.4% 41.4%
1990-1996 36.8% 30.9% 32.3% 19.1% 40.8% 40.2%
1997-2003 34.8% 33.4$ 31.8% 19.0% 40.9% 40.0%

(Approx. Pooled N = 4000 for Epoch 1976, 6000 for Epoch 1983, 9000 for Epoch 1990, and 8000 for Epoch 1997.)

The best numbers I have show basically no change in ideological composition in Texas since 1976 - and very little partisan change since 1983 - although in fairness, Texas has undergone massive demographic shifts in the last 30 years. However, other states show only modest shifts (Mississippi and Arkansas +5 more conservative; Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia unchanged; much of the north and South Carolina several points less conservative). Moreover, Chris Bowers' own national numbers, from exit polls (a different source) show basically no underlying shifts.

(Moreover, Chris's numbers suggest that liberal and moderate voters made up Ronald Reagan's margin of victory in 1984; had Ronnie's electorate looked more like today's, we might have had President Walter Mondale. Indeed, the massive decrease in Republican support by self-identified liberals is one reason why the last election was close - and had we had fewer defections, there's a good chance that we'd have won.)

Simply put, conservatism isn't growing, despite the major efforts being expended to make it happen. Indeed, liberals have been amazingly successful, in part because there's a slight bias towards being an ideological conservative and an operational liberal.

What's happened has been that the number of conservatives who have been "activated" has gone up considerably. This may be in part simply because of partisan shifts - when people are not cross-pressured by conflicting ideological and party cues. And undoubtedly, mobilization has had something to do with it.

Of course, I am not suggesting that prosyletizing does not work. I think part of the reason why conservatism hasn't actually become the vast-majority ideology (as opposed to the dominant, plurality ideology, which it is) has been its own excesses, as well as (let's give credit where credit is due) to the DLC and Bill Clinton for making conservatism look less appealing by comparison to a vibrant moderation.

(Of course, our success in undermining the growth of conservatism is contingent upon the DLC being worth a damn - and that means they need to put forth new ideas instead of threaten Michael Moore with castration. If they won't lead, we will!)

Where I'm going with this is, will "converting" people to progressivism work? I don't know. My gut feeling is that in order to acheive the amount of change that is contemplated by Chris Bowers is probably not possible in the short term.

It may be true that conservatives outnumber liberals two-to-one, but its also true that moderates tend to vote with liberals more than with conservatives. Acheiving parity, of course, requires winning an overwhelming number of moderates, which is no easy task (Kerry, after all, came up a little short even with a 10 point lead among the mod-squad). Accordingly, any gains we get will be more than welcomed and Chris's goal of "growing liberalism and shrinking conservatism" is laudible. But they won't make the difference by themselves.

A better strategy is to re-vitalize the Democratic Party, energize those who would-be activists who are sitting at home watching the boob tube, and make sure that we get every moderate and liberal and "left of right-wing" voter to the polls. That's basically what the GOP did in its hey-day, which I believe is quickly passing.

Let me re-emphasize the point about energizing people. I think there's a lot of latent liberalism floating around in America, that has yet to be tapped into. That's why I've previously recommended voter education. Note how this is different from prosyletizing in that it seeks to capitalize on "soft-ideologues" instead of convert new ones, and I think it's a lot more effective. Consider - what's more effective for religious prosyletizers - tapping into "latent religion" (people who went to church when they were kids, but stopped going in their young adulthood), or trying to win an argument with a committed atheist? The surest way to "grow liberalism" is fire up liberals and moderates-who-are-really-liberals-but-don't-know-it-yet.

(And yes, of course there've been atheists who've found Jesus, but that's not the majority of the people packing the pews on Sunday. More to the point, I know there are some hard-rightists that come over, but it's rare, and usually among the young and flexible. When I grew up and switched to the good ol' liberal brand, it was from the position of being a moderate who grew up in a moderate-to-moderate-conservative family.)

A few books on point which I will finish reading and which I encourage you to start. Most obvious is Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, which apparently the entire blogosphere has already read, but I've only gotten half-way through it.

Posted by Jim Dallas at March 25, 2005 05:06 PM | TrackBack


I think y'all are focusing on the wrong thing. Every statistic I saw is from presidential elections. Why not look at a bigger sample size like the congressional elections? There are over four hundred every two years. The issues for each of these campaigns are very similar. They can tell you national trends like the '32 Roosevelt landslide and the '94 congressional elections.

Voter self identification is kind of useless. They can call themselves a conservative and vote for Lloyd Doggett. What matters is the choice the voters make on election day. Do they vote for the more conservative or more liberal candidate?

Posted by: David Z at March 26, 2005 11:25 AM
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