American Culture

Gallup poll provides for a dismal outlook for liberalism in US

Obama’s 2012 prospects: now for the bad news
John Cassidy, The New Yorker
December 30, 2011

“Consider yet another survey from Gallup, released on Thursday, which examined the ideological views of about a thousand people, who were roughly equally divided between Democrats, Republicans, and independents. (Actually, there were slightly more independents.) Despite this relatively even partisan split, forty-two per cent of the respondents described themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative.” Thirty-seven per cent described themselves as “moderate,” and just nineteen per cent described themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.”

If you think this sounds promising for the Republicans, I would agree with you, especially since fifty-seven per cent of the respondents described President Obama as “liberal” or “very liberal” and only twenty-three per cent described him as “moderate.” (Another fifteen per cent described him as “conservative” or “very conservative.”) When asked to categorize the Republican candidates in turn, the overwhelming majority of people described them as “conservative” or “moderate.” For Romney for example, the figures were forty-five percent and twenty-nine per cent. (For Gingrich: they were fifty-five per cent and eighteen per cent.) 

As a professed liberal, I find these poll figures rather disturbing.  I am disturbed not so much because the indication is that we liberals are perhaps rightly (pun intended) perceived as being statistically more “fringe” than conservatives, but because our challenge is thus just that much greater and spanning a much greater period of time than my inner optimist would like.  When considering the results highlighted in the quote above, the implication is that the conservative electorate in this country is actually more conservative than the slate of GOP candidates vying for the nomination.  For 57% to think Obama liberal (while the left often considers him right-moderate) would seem to indicate that 57% polled (from my left perspective) fall to the right of right-moderate, else their perspective wouldn’t lean that way.

57% are to the right of right-moderate.

I think we’re beyond hoping that an “independent” uprising at the polls will make the difference we need, or that a third-party candidate will save the day.  It’s time to seriously assess the social underpinnings of conservatism, the vital mechanism of how conservatives become conservatives, and find some way of effectively influencing that development.  My gut says this is the work of revolutionizing school boards, municipal governments and local, small (dare I say it), print media (if only as a driver to online sources) in order to effectively counter the conservative indoctrination of youth.  This isn’t the work of one election cycle, or even four presidential terms.  It’s a work to span the next generation (currently in diapers) and the generation they will bear.

Does this mean we should not be doing all we can in the present moment to influence presidential and congressional outcomes? To get back the paper ballot? Get corporate money out of politics? End insider trading in Congress? Jam the revolving door from Congress to lobby?  Terminate the endless march to endless war?  The list of present goals could continue ad nauseum.  Of course we should keep up the fight.  Our work right here, right now, is equally vital.

Even so, if we don’t start directing more focused effort on claiming equal ground on the shore-to-shore mental battlefield of ideological development, these numbers will remain conservatively skewed, maybe even become more skewed, not just for our grandchildren, but theirs as well.  To be fair, if we let poll numbers be a guide to success, I don’t propose that we aim for some 57% of some future generation to look at a president like Obama as conservative to very conservative.  I think we simply need to redress the balance so that 50% of any population would see moderate as moderate with only smaller percentages either side of moderate seeing the “opposition” as radically opposed.

Your thoughts on this are most welcome.  Admittedly, I’m late to the political awakening and a new-comer to the existing modalities of effecting grassroots change in consciousness.  As well, I’m just one blogger in a sea of pundits with far greater chops and resources.  I won’t radically change the prospects of generations to come on my own, but I can’t let that stop me from contributing what little I have to offer.

11 replies »

  1. I think this poll is too caught up in labels who’s meaning is skewed by a number of factors. Elected democrats almost all run from the label liberal, while republicans embrace their ideological label. Fox News also repeatedly disparages the word Liberal. This, while huge majorities of the American public do not support cutting our major social programs like Medicare and Social Security, want to see investigations of the financial fraud perpetrated by Wall Street, and really liked the floated idea of any age group being able to buy into Medicare. When all those and many more progressive ideas are supported by majorities of Americans, yet few like the word liberal, that word has clearly lost its meaning.

  2. @John: I do hope you’re right. According to a Think Progress article on a recent Pew Research poll (, “progressive” is currently the most favorable label. I’m curious as to how the Gallup poll would have turned out had “progressive” been used instead of “liberal.” Even so, that 57% of respondents would appear to fall to the right of the likes of the current GOP slate is a damning testimony of some kind. Of course, as I caught from a comment to an article elsewhere, the real issue could just be that people don’t know what words mean 😉 The hazard of me blogging off-the-cuff like that is I might occasionally come across as Chicken Little. Whether or not the sky is falling, I maintain some vestige of grim optimism when it comes to the nominally “progressive” agenda, especially since the issues cut across ideological lines.

  3. FWIW, I think that John E. is on point. Gallup is sticking with a label without placing any context on it. We’ve gone through thirty solid years of the right wing noise machine making “liberal” a dirty word and the mainstream media saying that we’re a center-right country. If you never hear anything else, you will accept that as common wisdom.

    My suspicion is that if you ask people if they agree with tenets of liberalism (i.e., equality for all, the right to education, health care, etc.) but strip it of any labels, you’d see that far more people believe in liberalism than don’t. Likewise, if you talk about the true tenets of conservatism (rather than the talking points we hear), like removing the social safety nets that have kept millions of Americans from sliding into destitution, you wouldn’t see a lot of self-identified Republicans agreeing with it.

    • Hi Nicole and John. There’s no question that you’re both right about the labels vs. issues question. I think a lot of Americans are more liberal than they really realize. From a pragmatic standpoint, though, energizing them toward change hinges on helping them adjust their self-awareness. After all, they often vote more conservative than they are for this very reason – for the last three decades the GOP has simply been winning the war for the vocabulary and the labels.

  4. The problem with progressivism is that it is actually the most judgmental and intolerant. Only liberals demand all people act in accordance with liberal/progressive ideologies. It also wants this to be a world democracy. liberals say everyone need a house, job, healthcare, education and the environment must be controlled in our way. This is a problem because different people have different definitions. If people favor the term progressive its only because the word itself is positive but i doubt they would identify with the progressive/liberal control of the world or anything for that matter. Democracy is a way for powerful to manipulate the population. Two wolves and a sheep arguing on what’s for dinner.

    • Jason, I don’t know what planet you live on, but I hope the weather is nice there. Take note of this from The Economist, which is hardly what we’d call a liberal rag:

      Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians”, to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished.

      I guess they didn’t mention this on FOX.

  5. What the 57% understand is that a government powerful enough to give you everything you want is (by definition) powerful enough to take everything that you have. The concept of equality of opportunity does mean unequal outcomes, which is a downside we have to accept if we don’t want to be controlled. The concept of equalizing outcomes definitionally involves controlling the population. Once you put in place a system, and politicians, with the power to control the population, they rarely stop at the spot you would like. The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of reward. But the inherent vice of socialism (logical extension of progressive redistribution/control policies) is the equal sharing of misery. For sure you get more equality with progressive economic policies….but at a cost of liberty and quality of living. Ask anyone who has escaped from Cuba or North Korea how much they value their equality with their fellow citizens, the utopian dream of equality without control has yet occur in any society. That is what the 57% understand — and what they are seeking to preserve — despite it being easy to be labeled foolish or lacking compassion to be willing to tolerate the inequalities of outcome that have to come with liberty.

    • Except that the 57% doesn’t understand what you just said, Adam. The US does not have anything resembling “equality of opportunity,” and there are precious few liberals or progressives who desire to enforce “equality of outcomes.” It’s the liberals who are pushing hard for equality of opportunity, not the conservatives.

      In other other words, you just built us a mass of ideological talking points upon a foundation of quicksand.

  6. I’d like any “reputable” polling organization to ask of 1,200 randomly selected American citizens a series of questions about liberal/progressive values. Some questions would focus on issues of power that Frank articulated in his post. Others would examine social values such as abortion, gay marriage, legalizing “illegals,” funding of the social “safety net” through taxation, and so on.

    Then I’d like the pollsters to ask this question:

    “Do you fear being identified as a liberal?”

    Any bets on the outcome of the last question?

  7. I think there is a larger issue to look at other than what label a person in which someone prefers to cloak themselves. We have a system that protects the status quo and focuses the public on issues that largely do not matter one way or another. Take the debate over gays rights for marriage. This largely does not effect the general public yet this issue is given equal focus with other issues such as the large deficit spending and constant weakening of our currency that both parties have contributed to for many years, plus the reduction of our civil liberties that both parties participated in over the years. This issue develops into a “us” versus “them” mentality while having little effect on the “us” group other than to offend their sensibilities. While we fight over a perceived moral issue we ignore foundational governance issues where both parties seem to try and only gain power and not be concerned with governing any more. This seems evident as the ideals that the current president spoke out against as a senator he now favors as a president, and the utter lack of conviction or vision that congress has suffered from for the last 6 years. Once we find a way to educate the public to the twisted useless, self serving entities both parties have become then we might be able to change some of the issues listed.