The irrelevance of the liberal 'brand'
There is perhaps no surer signal that Democrats are about to suffer a terrific defeat than to see liberals begin discussing how to define, redefine, or otherwise burnish their "brand." So far as I'm concerned, this falls firmly in the "doesn't matter" category of American politics. In 2004, all liberals could talk about was the power of the conservative brand, and George Lakoff became an icon because of it. In 2006 and 2008, better branding didn't save Republicans from being devastated in the polls, leading Democrats to the first 60-vote Senate majority since the 1970s. So much for brands.
But it is an excuse to discuss an interesting political science paper (pdf) a reader sent in. In it, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson try to untangle an apparent paradox at the heart of our political affairs: "We wish to understand why the American public, in the aggregate, supports 'liberal' public policies of redistribution, intervention in the economy, and aggressive governmental action to solve social problems, while at the same time identifies with the symbols -- and ideological label -- that rejects these policies." In other words, how does a country that self-identifies as conservative keep moving its policy to the left?
To figure it out, they pull together new sources of data to estimate ideological self-identification in the decades before pollsters routinely asked whether we were liberals or conservatives. Here's what they find:
Conservatism, in other words, always outpolled liberalism, but liberalism really collapses in the '60s. Their explanation for this isn't entirely satisfying. In effect, they say that the Great Society created some popular universal programs like Medicare, but also, in its efforts to fight poverty and assure civil rights, created "a new clientele of liberalism, the poor -- and the nonwhite." After that, they say, politicians who were liberals gave up on the label, and so conservatives were able to define it.
Maybe that's right. Maybe not. The polling data tell a general story about the term's decline rather than a specific story about the reason for the decline. But what the article makes clear is that it really doesn't matter. Consider this poll, taken on the eve of the 1936 election, when FDR won 60 percent of the vote and Democrats took almost 80 percent of the House of Representatives. It's a Gallup survey, and it asked, “If there were only two political parties in this country -- Conservative and Liberal -- which would you join?”
So on the eve of an overwhelming victory for liberalism -- a victory not just at the polls, but in policy -- the country still called itself conservative. In the decades after that, the country would call itself more conservative, but it would become more liberal. It would elect politicians to oversee the vast expansion of Social Security, and the passage of the civil rights bills, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It would march toward equality for both African Americans and women, and, it seems, for gays. It would even come to see conservatives defend both Medicare and Social Security as their own.
The word "liberal" is not popular, it has never been popular, and I do not expect that it ever will be popular. But liberalism -- and the politicians who support it -- are doing just fine. Not in any given election, of course, but over time. It's not obvious that a stronger brand has done much for the right, nor that it has seriously hampered the left. Branding might be important. But product matters more.
Posted by: stonedone | October 12, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: itstrue | October 12, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: slahanas | October 12, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: stonedone | October 12, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: krazen1211 | October 12, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: RonChusid | October 12, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: gregspolitics | October 12, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: HemiHead66 | October 12, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PJx45 | October 12, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: HalHorvath | October 12, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pihto999 | October 12, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TheSchaef | October 12, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: WWWoDEMOCRATZoORG | October 13, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: reach4astar2 | October 13, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse