Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is the US More Liberal than Conservative?

According to the Norman Lear Center in the US, it is. This goes against the grain of much contemporary commentary suggesting that the United States is a fundamentally conservative, or at least Centre-Right, nation.

The Lear report found 34% of Americans are 'liberal', 41% 'conservative', which might support the notion that America is more conservative. However, crucially, the Centre - or 'purples' - occupied a significant 24% of the population, and this group leaned more to the Left. As a result, the US tilts to the Left more than the Right.

Interesting notion. However, I find the report, and commentary on the Huffington Post by Marty Kaplan, far from convincing.

Firstly, and most obviously, the poll was conducted during the build up to a what was to be a stunning victory by the Left. Given political sentiments are hardly etched in stone, it's quite likely that some individuals had found themselves either disillusioned with the ideals of the Right over the previous several years, or found themselves caught up in the liberal tide of the day. The very fact Obama won indicates a shift of sorts was already on the cards. Either way, this might suggest the US (or its Centre) is swaying to the Left now, but it says nothing about whether it might sway Right back again in a few years time.

Secondly, the response to the following question is telling:
Freedom is more important than equality.
To which a vast majority replied in the affirmative. Should one consider the United States' political leanings from an international perspective, then it most certainly isn't Centre-Left on this point alone, and that's not even considering the responses to guns and religion.

But to me, the most interesting thing is what this means for Moral Diversity. This is the notion that there are two broad strategies for approaching social life and cooperation: egalitarianism and authoritarianism - or Left and Right. These strategies are, to some extent, hardwired in our genes, so it's no surprise that in every liberal democracy there's some manifestation of the Left and the Right on offer - and not two opposing parties that represent a different mix of values.

According to Moral Diversity, it's expected that each individual has a range of sentiments that in sum tilt them one way or the other, but this doesn't mean we're likely to find individuals who are entirely Left or Right. This prediction is supported by the findings of the Lear report:
"Reds didn't always endorse the red position, and blues didn't always pick the blue position. There were four instances where the majority of reds endorsed the blue position (including the 55% of reds who said that 'foreigners immigrate to America for the chance to work for a better life'), and only one instance where blues endorsed a red position (52% agreed that 'freedom is more important than equality').
It's an interesting study, although I'd recommend a pause before taking to the streets declaring the culture wars over and the Left (or Centre-Left) the victor. Obama's policies and other concerns such as security and unemployment could easily disrupt the current balance of political sentiments in the US. Although Obama might have more chance than most of keeping the fulcrum in the Centre instead of pushing it Left only to have it snap back in four or eight years time. Guess we'll have to wait and see about that.


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