Netroots lefties

by Henry on February 26, 2009

The New York Times has an article today talking about a new alliance between netroots-type left bloggers, MoveOn and SEIU to start challenging conservative Democrats in primaries. The fact of this alliance plausibly doesn’t fit well with arguments that I and others have made to the effect that netroots types are not especially left-leaning. And the reason that it doesn’t sit well is that I and the others were wrong. Netroots blog readers may identify themselves as being a mixed bag of ideologies. But in fact, they’re very strongly and coherently to the left.

These graphs, taken from Eric Lawrence, John Sides’ and my paper on blog readers and polarization, illustrate this pretty well. Start by looking at a graph showing how readers of leftwing blogs, rightwing blogs, and people who read both identify themselves when they are asked where they fit on the liberal-conservative spectrum.

netroots1

There are a fair number of left-leaning blog readers who identify themselves as strongly liberal. But there are less of them then there are of readers who identify themselves as only somewhat liberal, or as centrists. But self-identification here is misleading, as we can see if we look at a scale measuring blogreaders’ attitudes to a number of hot-button political issues such as abortion and the Iraq war, where left and right disagreed strongly at the time the data was gathered (nb that this scale has more points at which readers’ ideologies may be located than the first one).

netroots2

Here, we don’t see anything like an even spread between those who are strongly liberal (i.e. inclined to take the ‘liberal’ position on all of these issues), and those who are moderate liberals or centrists. Instead, left blog readers tend to clump heavily at the strongly liberal end of the spectrum, with pretty well no centrists worth talking about. If we look specifically at readers of netroots blogs, such as Daily Kos and Crooks and Liars (rather than readers of leftwing blogs as a whole), we see roughly the same pattern.

netroots3
What this suggests is that readers of left wing blogs are much more liberal (when you look at their attitudes to hot-button political issues) than they identify themselves as being. Hence, a claim that I thought was true – that netroots types didn’t have a coherent ideology – is in fact false (or at the least, somewhat misleading). Hence too the plausible viability of coalitions between netroots types and others to try to move the Democratic party to the left.

{ 72 comments }

1

StevenAttewell 02.26.09 at 4:36 pm

So it’s not that they don’t have a coherent ideology, it’s that they’re not very conscious about their ideology, or I would argue, their political identity.

Not surprising, given that most left of center bloggers set up shop out of frustration with traditional left-of-center groupings, that it would take them a while to solidify their political identity.

2

Yarrow 02.26.09 at 4:44 pm

it’s that they’re not very conscious about their ideology

Or it’s that some but not all of them know that what most folks in the U.S. call “strong liberal” is actually pretty centrist. The whole damn whole world was against the Iraq war.

3

Timothy Burke 02.26.09 at 4:54 pm

A lot of the paper seems to me to be about a pattern that’s been observed elsewhere (say, in readerships of political books as reported through Amazon).

But on this specific disparity, between self-reported political identification and issue-oriented political conviction. Don’t you think that the gap between hot-button preferences and self-description is something interesting in and of itself? Rather than treating this as a kind of revealed-preferences gotcha!, it might be that:

1) The presumption that people arrive at their views on hot-button issues via a coherent ideology which they either conceal or do not recognize that they hold might be wrong; it may be that positions on hot-button issues are clustered for some other reason–say, for example, “culture”, broadly speaking. (e.g., that your feelings on single issues are determined by some sense of habitus in a way that your articulation of a general political philosophy is not)

2) That the hot-button issues are associated with each other as a matter of history, e.g., that they gained an association because of a past ideological case but as the ideology has decomposed (which is reflected in self-descriptions of ideological affiliation), the issues have remained bundled. Sort of like how anticlericism and leftism were intensely bundled together in French politics for a long time even after arguably the specific ideological premise of that bundling had ebbed to some degree.

3) That you’re measuring two different levels of political belief which are often contradictory, but that knowing which level will actually occasion political action at any given moment is difficult to predict–that “overall identification” and “issue identification” are like “quantum physics” and “solid-state physics”, operating at really different levels of the political. After all, you’re looking at “homophiliac” political blogs–overall blogs looking to draw readerships who identify with the general views of the authors. I wonder if this wouldn’t look radically different if the blogs you were looking at were explicitly single-issue driven, and if netroots readers would appear or speak differently when you find them operating in that context.

4) Or, I guess, I’d just say that any time you find a gap in self-representation and behavior, it’s more interesting to ask, “So why do people identify in the way that they do, if it’s not a good description of actual behavior” rather than saying, “The self-description is false, the behavior is true”. One possibility that relates to the debate you guys are reviewing in the paper is that people hold out the possibility of being deliberative as an ideal, but when it gets to specific issues, recognize that the ideal does not exist in actual practice at the moment. It’s a bit game-theoretic: they’d like to be tit-for-tat altruistic in political deliberations, hence the self-description as “centrist” or “open-minded” or “somewhat liberal”. But when it comes to an issue where an actual decision or action is at stake, they recognize that their opponents are not going to play the game with the same principles, and so close down an openness to deliberative politics.

4

LizardBreath 02.26.09 at 5:04 pm

2: What Yarrow said. I’m nowhere near the furthest left among people I’d interact with and recognize as reasonable, there’s a lot of room on the spectrum left of me. But I’m far enough left to be at the limits of measurement for this kind of survey of the American electorate, and someone who I’d think of as very ‘centrist’, well to my right, would still be at the limits of measurement.

If you wanted to decompose the Daily Kos readers a little more, you’d need to ask some more social spending/economics questions – -I bet you could get the readership of a lot of liberal blogs looking much less monolithically left by asking them about labor issues.

5

Ted Lemon 02.26.09 at 5:21 pm

I’m a bit surprised that you are lending such credibility to these “hot button” issues. I think they are essentially manufactured issues, and that’s why you don’t see strong identification with them. I don’t mean to propose some kind of right-wing conspiracy. It’s just that as a consequence of the perverse incentives present in journalism (tell a story that sells, rather than telling the story that matters), issues that draw a strong emotional reaction from opposing and vocal minorities are the ones that get the most attention in the press, and thus emerge as “the issues people care about.” So we have the pro-choice/pro-life polarity, the pro-gay marriage/anti-gay marriage polarity, and so on.

In fact, I think peoples’ choices are much more practical than that, and that’s why you don’t see strong identification on these issues. We’re against the war in Iraq because it’s expensive, even if we’re not against it because it’s immoral. Sure, many of conservative voters would vote for an anti-choice candidate, because they don’t disagree that abortion is immoral, but that’s not *why* they’re voting for the conservative candidate, and it didn’t stop some of them from voting for Obama in this election – if they voted against him, it was because he is too liberal, not because he is pro-choice.

I think it’s this disconnect between what people are reported to take seriously, and what people actually take seriously, that accounts for the statistical anomaly you’re seeing.

6

Rich Puchalsky 02.26.09 at 5:21 pm

Quoted from your paper: “The best way to understand blog readers’ choices is to consider them as providing political information, thus allowing us to borrow from existing accounts of how citizens acquire political information.”

No, I don’t think so. I think that fundamentally these blogs provide an ideology. You may think of yourself as “leftist”, “liberal”, or “centrist” but if you read a netroots blog regularly, you will either agree with the basic worldview or stop reading.

I would guess that the “which blogs do I read” reporting is untrustworthy, also, because it doesn’t say why people read them. Some people read right-wing blogs just to keep track of what they are doing in a hostile sense. Some people say that they read them because they are invested in their self-image as someone who is even-handed, but in actual fact the frequency with which they read one side is a lot less than the other.

7

salacious 02.26.09 at 5:23 pm

“that netroots types didn’t have a coherent ideology”

The netroots is a group of political activists within the Democratic party. Activists are in most cases more radical than the general population. So, unless it was a self-consciously moderate group a la the DLC, it would be very surprising if they didn’t show up far to the left on an absolute left-right scale. In some sense, then, the netroots did have a coherent ideology.

This sense, however, doesn’t capture what most people were aiming for when they observed that the netroots weren’t particularly ideological. Instead, they meant that the netroots didn’t insist on certain positions for a whole set of traditional intra-left disputes. The only issue where orthodoxy was essential was opposition to the Iraq war. Beyond that, squabbling about Afghanistan, free trade, etc, was fine as long as it didn’t get in the way of electing lefty candidates. These issues all had lefties on both sides, so disagreements probably aren’t going to show show up strongly on a left-right scalar spectrum, but they still represent significant ideological incoherence.

8

gl nelson 02.26.09 at 5:24 pm

Timothy Burke:

“But when it comes to an issue where an actual decision or action is at stake, they recognize that their opponents are not going to play the game with the same principles, and so close down an openness to deliberative politics.”

You’ve nailed it.

For your consideration: Should we be experiencing guilt because right-wingers are 1/ overwhelmingly misrepresented by the mainstream media (an illusion, I believe, often based on confusing truth and accuracy with the conservative view of reality) AND now, if the above study is correct, 2/ losing ground in the blogosphere (still debatable, despite the study) and are 3/crouching in their talk radio foxholes hoping to incite a popular uprising?

9

Russell Arben Fox 02.26.09 at 5:41 pm

Tim’s four alternative explanations for the apparent disparities really exhaust the topic, so I’ll just add my two cents in support of #1 and #2. It is my experience that on both the left and the right, a lot of the specific policy positions taken by many people in response to the “hot button” issues, however defined, are not derived from their considered (and for all any of us know, accurate) self-articulation of their own beliefs, but rather are outliers, inherited from their historical experience and cultural habitus, and grafted (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much) onto that self-articulation for purposes of coherence and consistency. Not that coherence and consistency are or necessarily should be trump values for everyone, but more often than not I see people trying to put it all together, with–for me at least–humorous results. One of my great delights when I teach political ideologies is explaining to anti-war liberals why so many idiosyncratic conservatives are on their side and actaully seem to have better arguments to boot, or explaining to pro-life conservatives why one of their strongest intellectual resources–Catholic natural law teachings–point towards a near-socialist economy.

10

Ben Alpers 02.26.09 at 5:50 pm

The only issue where orthodoxy was essential was opposition to the Iraq war.

And even that could be fudged on occasion. When the Congressional Progressive Caucus tried to insist on defunding the war in February 2007, MoveOn quickly got behind the Democratic leadership’s bill to continue funding. And though there was some dissent among the Netroots blogs, their readership basically stuck with MoveOn and the less anti-Iraq War position of the party’s congressional leadership against the Progressive Caucus.

11

Jim Harrison 02.26.09 at 6:17 pm

I have a problem with notions of ideological coherence that apparently reduce it to statistical clumping. Surely you can’t define a people’s political outlook accurately by merely counting how they vote on a few issues without asking why they vote that way. The Communist Manifesto calls for income tax and universal education. I’m also in favor of these things. So should I be addressed as comrade?

I’m inclined to distinguish lefties and liberals in the following minimalist way. The lefties are hostile to capitalism and would like it to be replaced by some radically different system while the liberals are defenders of capitalism who want to see it reformed. Now it may be that I underestimate the proportion of netroot folks who are leftist in my sense. Maybe the Kossites really are waving the red (or black) flag. I haven’t seen any evidence for that thesis, however.

12

novakant 02.26.09 at 6:28 pm

“Coherent ideology” – what is that even supposed to mean nowadays?

13

Henry 02.26.09 at 6:28 pm

Quick responses:

Yarrow and Lizardbreath – this is right. This scale does not purport to be the True and Onlie Measure of left vs. right – like all scales of this sort it is positional based on the specific issues, and if different questions had been asked (e.g. respondents’ attitudes towards the Glorious Communist Revolution), different outcomes would have emerged. That said, it does give at least a snapshot of where people stand on some of the most hotly debated issues in the mainstream of US politics (while we might ideally like to see that mainstream defined rather differently, it is as it is).

Timothy – this isn’t a ‘revealed preferences gotcha’ – it’s more a ‘I was wrong so I’m getting myself gotcha.’ The issue of differences between self-identification and actual positions on issues gets a _lot_ of debate in political science. Here, when we are talking about alliances on issues, I do think that there is a good case that attitudes towards issues is a better predictor of ideological compatibility than broad identification. But I could be wrong.

Salacious – I have seen people argue for that particular kind of non-ideological interpretation. But I have also seen people (including Kos if I remember correctly) argue for the other too – that not only are the netroots pragmatically partisan (they care more about winning seats than ideological benchmarks) but that they are an alliance of people from quite different ideological perspectives, all disgusted by the Republican party. Perhaps they _started_ as people from diverse perspectives (our data can’t get at causality), but they by and large haven’t ended up that way, and I suspect (though certainly can’t prove) that many or even most of them weren’t that way to begin with.

14

c.l. ball 02.26.09 at 7:42 pm

While I am sympathetic to the argument against inferring ideology from specific policy positions, this is not especially damaging to Henry’s arguments here. He is looking at blogs and polarization. Whether the clustering at extremes is due to ideology-based cognition or custom/habit/history, the fact is that there is a polarization among blog-readers to a greater degree than among non-readers of blogs, based on data collected in Oct-Nov 2006.

As Henry has noted before, what this means is that attempts by Obama and the Democratic party to run a centrist line will encounter resistance from the netroots, who are more activist than non-readers. That is, centrist policy positions, whether ideological rooted or not, will be resisted by the netroots.

Henry’s argument in Boston Review coincides with what the critical posts above are saying: the left netroots needs to build a coherent ideological framework if they wish to have a long-term impact. Matt Bai has argued along similar lines that bloggers and dot-com liberals became disenchanted with the lack of a coherent Democratic ideology compared to the clear conservative Republican one. But it is not clear what their actual “argument” is.

The only area where I part with Henry is that I am not sure we should make too much of the finding that right-wing bloggers participate less than left-wing bloggers. The mean gap is 0.3, and 2006 was a year where many right-wingers were demoralized.

The position based ideology scale is explained in Henry’s paper: “The ideology scale is a simple additive scale based on questions asking respondents whether they would
support a ban on “partial-birth” abortions, funding for stem cell research, withdrawing troops from Iraq, raising the minimum wage, and extending capital gains tax cuts.” (p. 14, fn. 13). I agree that this is thin stuff to rest a liberal v. conservative belief-system on, but I think it is based on roll-call votes in the Senate.

15

c.l. ball 02.26.09 at 7:44 pm

In the last sentence above strike I think. The footnote says it is.

16

Martin Bento 02.26.09 at 8:02 pm

Maybe this also reflects the difference between the self-image of the bloggers and the positions that they have been forced to take. The progress of the Bush presidency and the debate about it has pushed many of them further left than they started, even while this still violates their self-image (self-images being slower to change than positions). For example, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, and Matt Stoller all started out barely if at all left of center. Remember Marshall in Salon bitterly ridiculing Scott Ritter for suggesting there were no WMDs in Iraq, something Ritter clearly knew more about than he did? While that was fundamentally a question of fact, it’s pretty clear that what was driving Marshall was an emotional commitment to the legitimacy of the US government and therefore to its assertions.The first discussion I had with Stoller, he dismissed me as a DFH for questioning the unalloyed good of free trade. Heck, I remember tearful pleadings in this very comments thread that if we did not assume good faith on the part of Bush regarding Iraq, we were just horrible people demonizing our opponents. Lots still think that way, though few outside the right still would argue it about Bush.

These people gravitated towards the center because they accepted the conventional view that wise people belong in the center, ridiculing the extremists of both sides. They also tended unreflectively to accept conventional views. As they became more sophisticated, saw whose account of the Bush admin was accurate, and actually had to engage people on their left, they were forced further left. But their emotional self-image is still moderate, not radical, and this probably applies to many of their fans as well.

17

Matthew Kuzma 02.26.09 at 8:54 pm

The problem is that this study doesn’t even engage the left-wing positions. So you take a bunch of really stupid right-wing issues like abortion and the iraq war, throw in global warming and gay marriage. On each of those issues you have the wack-job-right beliefs and sensible positions. In order to guage left-wing affiliation, you need some actual left-wing ideas, like say communism or population control. But simply being against the idiotic policies of the Bush administration doesn’t make you left-leaning.

18

Henry 02.26.09 at 9:27 pm

Matthew – as stated above, we don’t seek to make any normative claims, nor are we really trying to parse out differences on the left in a very detailed way. But if you’re making an empirical claim (that people who are on the ‘left’ in the graph are at actually at the ‘center’ of US debate) rather than a normative one (that people on the ‘left’ are obviously right on the issues), I think you are wrong. None of these positions are unusual positions for Americans to hold. But it _is_ somewhat unusual for Americans to hold _all_ of these positions at once. And this is where blogreaders differ from, say, watchers of CNN news (see the graphs in the paper); the latter have a distinct leftward tendency, but are _nothing_ like as clumped towards the left. Similarly, blogreaders are much more ideologically to the left or to the right than Fox News watchers are to the right. Now the best way to interpret this is _not_ to say that blogreaders are far left (this is a frequent misunderstanding of this kind of graph). It is to say that left blogreaders are far more ideologically coherent, in the sense that they are much more likely to hold _all_ the leftwing positions that we can get at in this simple scale. And in this sense, being against all the ‘idiotic policies’ is left-leaning by definition.

c.l. ball – there is forthcoming work from Benkler et al that finds very strong divergences in the degree to which left- and right-wing blogs exhort their readers to cough up funds and engage in political action. This may of course itself be a result of the parlous state of the right over the last few years, but at the least I think it is a pretty important intervening variable (and, I suspect, more than that, but obviously, to use the usual copout, More Work is Needed).

19

Laura Clawson 02.26.09 at 9:27 pm

I’ll begin by admitting I haven’t been able to absorb the whole paper yet due to a cold — I skimmed, but I’m certain I missed things.

As others have noted there’s the question of what counts as left vs. right, and my feeling is there are a lot of people who are solid liberals on Daily Kos etc but relatively few people truly on the left.

I think there’s also an interesting question of who we are as individuals vs. who we are as bloggers, and the relationship between embracing pragmatism in our writing and what we’d actually like to see in the world. Which may be a cop-out or a sell-out or some such, but I think it’s real.

20

Mon 02.26.09 at 9:35 pm

I am a left-leaning libertarian. (Among other things, as with my misunderstood guru Hayek, that means I do not oppose *all* safety net programs; I just may prefer, say, a Cato solution.) Both by blogging and with $$ I have supported Accountability Now.

The military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and the lobbyist swinging door in the Beltway, should allow many of us to put other differences aside and support govt reform. Hence, I do not care if Kos is with AN, or any other “leftist” is; true patriots need to organize to fight the gravest corruption of our govt.

21

Henry 02.26.09 at 9:36 pm

Laura, that is probably right on both counts. One thing that would be interesting would be to have a much bigger and wider set of questions, and see, for example, what the differences between netroots types and Democratic Underground readers are (also, maybe Nation readers, In These Times readers and others in an ideal world, but there are probably not enough of these to show up in a random survey). I suspect that the differences would be pretty substantial. One of the annoying things about our research is that it is has been misinterpreted as saying that blogreaders are wild-eyed radicals, which is not what our results show (as said above, our findings have more to do with ideological consistency than with radicalism in any absolute sense). My co-authors did get barracked last year on dKos by BarbInMD for a piece which they wrote and which she misinterpreted as an attack (I emailed her about this but never heard back).

22

Henry 02.26.09 at 9:39 pm

And on the pragmatism stuff, I think that Rosenblum’s arguments about partisans as pragmatists is relevant here – to actually win elections, you have to make compromises, and this is a good feature of partisanship, if one that is often underappreciated.

23

David Weman 02.26.09 at 9:55 pm

“But I have also seen people (including Kos if I remember correctly) argue for the other too – that not only are the netroots pragmatically partisan (they care more about winning seats than ideological benchmarks) but that they are an alliance of people from quite different ideological perspectives,”

But that was spin. Fairly benign spin, but still spin.

Kos and others wanted to push back against how they were portrayed in DC, so they emphasized how they were different from (sterotypes of) various other lefties. There weren’t any much data, and ideological and centrist are somewhat vague concepts, so I wouldn’t say they were dishonest, but they were spinning.

And it worked to some extent. For example, Bai (who’s fairly dimwitted and easily spun) changed his tune.

24

novakant 02.26.09 at 10:19 pm

left blogreaders are far more ideologically coherent, in the sense that they are much more likely to hold all the leftwing positions

But you have to differentiate between the potpourri of positions currently held by people described as leftwing and positions that are coherent because they spring from a shared political ideology. I don’t think there is a coherent political ideology either on the left or the right today, we’re talking more about family resemblances.

25

ScentOfViolets 02.26.09 at 10:49 pm

Isn’t this just yet another version of ‘The Worlds Smallest Political Quiz’? Particularly when something like:

we look at a scale measuring blogreaders’ attitudes to a number of hot-button political issues such as abortion

is considered a valid question to determine the degree of liberalism/conservatism?

I’m with Yarrow at 2 and Matthew at 17: from what you’ve given, these are terrible questions to use in your measurements. I’d also say from my own observations (of various statistical data, not anecdotal) that the typical ‘moderate’ American is far to the left by these measures. Of course you’re going to see some skew!

Why don’t you actually present each question along with the reasoning that goes along with it explaining why it is a measure of left/right? As Matthew says, being opposed to right-wing idi0cy is not a proxy for liberalism. Indeed, that’s one of those pernicious memes that needs to be actively sought out, staked through the heart, and burned. After which the ashes are scattered to the four winds and a priest of a very strong denomination is brought in to read the exorcism rites.

26

Henry 02.26.09 at 11:34 pm

bq. the typical ‘moderate’ American is far to the left by these measures

Actually they are not. And please, please, read the comments above. This is _not_ a measure of left/right in any absolute sense as I have repeated with some insistence. To have that, you would have to have some universal notion of ‘left’ and ‘right’ which I, for one, have absolutely no idea of how to construct. Instead, it is a measure of ideological _coherence_ that looks at a number of issues that are the focus of partisan contention in the US, scales ‘em and determines whether people tend to clump on the one or the other side. And most people who are not readers of left or right wing blogs tend to scatter – that is, they hold some _mixture_ of the left and right wing views. That is an empirical fact. NB also that this doesn’t imply that the ideology is necessarily intellectually coherent on either left or right – merely that it reflects partisan divisions which have been constructed in certain ways.

I think that there is an underlying logic to at least some of these objections which is that people feel that it isn’t leftwing to hold the ‘left’ position on these issues, because that position is obviously the sane and moderate position to hold. Which is a reasonable normative claim – but it is not what this graph is trying to measure, or what this post is about. What I am interested in is _not_ whether the netroots are extreme left (they are obviously not in my eyes, but that is also a function of my subjective notions about where the left and right positions are) but in whether there is a politically coherent set of views among netroots type that can serve as a basis for coordinated and ideologically targetted action. And that’s all.

27

gl nelson 02.27.09 at 12:19 am

Henry:”I think that there is an underlying logic to at least some of these objections which is that people feel that it isn’t leftwing to hold the ‘left’ position on these issues, because that position is obviously the sane and moderate position to hold.”
I sense a link here with Timothy’s “But when it comes to an issue where an actual decision or action is at stake, they recognize that their opponents are not going to play the game with the same principles, and so close down an openness to deliberative politics.”
Someone else can carry the ball from here.

28

ScentOfViolets 02.27.09 at 12:49 am

the typical ‘moderate’ American is far to the left by these measures

Actually they are not.

Uh-huh. ‘Abortion is a hot-button issue’. Actually, no, it’s not. You would have been more accurate to say to say that some people on the far right consider it a hot button issue.

And please, please, read the comments above. This is not a measure of left/right in any absolute sense as I have repeated with some insistence. To have that, you would have to have some universal notion of ‘left’ and ‘right’ which I, for one, have absolutely no idea of how to construct. Instead, it is a measure of ideological coherence that looks at a number of issues that are the focus of partisan contention in the US, scales ‘em and determines whether people tend to clump on the one or the other side.

See, that’s the problem; that’s exactly what I read it and understood it to be. It seems that more than a few people disagree with you on whether this is really the case, given the questions you are using.

Please read what I am saying, okay?

And most people who are not readers of left or right wing blogs tend to scatter – that is, they hold some mixture of the left and right wing views. That is an empirical fact. NB also that this doesn’t imply that the ideology is necessarily intellectually coherent on either left or right – merely that it reflects partisan divisions which have been constructed in certain ways.

Your ‘empirical fact’ is an interpretation based upon a categorization that may or may not have some validity/utility. That’s what people are trying to tell you.

I think that there is an underlying logic to at least some of these objections which is that people feel that it isn’t leftwing to hold the ‘left’ position on these issues, because that position is obviously the sane and moderate position to hold.

They’re saying that to the extent that they’re moderate positions, you can’t use them to calibrate a coherent set of positions. That is all.

What I am interested in is not whether the netroots are extreme left (they are obviously not in my eyes, but that is also a function of my subjective notions about where the left and right positions are) but in whether there is a politically coherent set of views among netroots type that can serve as a basis for coordinated and ideologically targetted action. And that’s all.

Well, can you give specific examples of the questions you asked, and the responses they elicited? I strongly suspect the clumping you’re seeing has little to do with a ‘coherent set of views’ .

29

bigcitylib 02.27.09 at 12:58 am

I have read posts on objectively far right forums in which the author touts the fact that forum readers come from “all sides of the political spectrum, all walks of life”. Exaggerating your own centrism is a rhetorical feature of political debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere. I’m not sure I see anything surprising in this study.

PS. I like ALL kinds of music. Country AND Western.

30

ScentOfViolets 02.27.09 at 1:03 am

Let me elaborate on what I mean by ‘moderate’ – it’s the median or majority opinion of the electorate over time on a variety of actions and issues. Thus it is the moderate position to oppose a war in Iraq – and always has been. What changed is not the people, but the information available. So being for an invasion because Saddam was actively assembling nuclear weaponry and had every intention of using it – that would be pretty reasonable if it were true. Being against staying in Iraq when it’s found out that there are no WMD, especially the nuclear kind, well that’s a moderate position too. And both responses are actually measuring the same thing.

This is the sort of stuff you have to sort out, and I don’t see that you have. This is where you can get notions that ‘Netroots blog readers may identify themselves as being a mixed bag of ideologies. But in fact, they’re very strongly and coherently to the left.’, when in fact they are not.

31

Ginger Yellow 02.27.09 at 2:47 am

About the only interesting information I can discern from those plots is that lefties are far more likely to read righty blogs than vice versa. I really don’t see how you can make any inferences about “centrists” based on them. Maybe there’s more pertinent data in the full study, but if so, why not present it? The middle of that plot doesn’t represent centrism in any real sense, but rather people who go against “orthodoxy” on a handful of issues – Broderite centrism, if you like. That’s not centrism. It’s being left wing on some issues (say, social ones) and right wing on others (say, foreign policy or economics). Ron Paul is not a centrist, but he’d look like one in that study. This is why most useful plots of political ideology have two or more axes.

32

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.09 at 3:21 am

I probably shouldn’t pile on, but I think that a lot of these objections come from your analysis (which I quoted above) that these blogs most primally provide “political information.” Actually, I think that there is now such a thing as a specifically netroots-identified ideology. It’s an ideology of the angry moderate, so to speak, the moderate liberals and centrists who were pissed off by the Bush years and became, in a sense, radicalized. It has its own rhetorical stances, its own issues, increasingly its own analysis. And one of those rhetoric stances is a rejection of specific single-focus issues that were once used as signals for the cultural left.

If your survey asked about, let’s say, the bankruptcy bill, I’d bet that you’d get a huge marker of netroots-identified people knowing and caring about it and most other “left” people being ignorant of it, or at least not thinking it was particularly more important than many others.

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ScentOfViolets 02.27.09 at 3:46 am

Rich, what would be some examples of those marker issues of ‘the old left’? And would they be categorized as cultural, political, economic, or something else?

The things my right-wing relations think of as examples of ‘liberalism’ are what I think of as examples of bad historical color; bra-burning feminists in an Oliver Stone biopic, say. I suspect that more than a few of them believe that large bronze peace symbols worn on a leather thong are still de rigeur when liberals meet at their secret liberal headquarters in San Francisco. Now, that may just be a regional thing; Lynyrd Skynyrd still gets daily airplay in Missouri’s Boothill. But otoh, and perhaps not so coincidentally, Limbaugh hails from Cape Girardeau.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 5:25 am

ScentOfViolets – you are saying, if I understand you, that there is, at any moment in time, a ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ position that people, given the available information, should treat as such. This is a reasonable definition of moderation, albeit one that is very hard to operationalize given that people very often don’t converge on such a position, and start from very different sets of information and ways of interpreting that information. Whatever which way, your approach is not the approach that we are using here, or that political scientists use with respect to more complex matters in Congress etc. And there is a good case to be made that political scientists,_qua_ political scientists, should not be in the business of judging what is a moderate or sensible political view in absolute terms.

Instead, we implicitly start from the position that there are important cleavages in US politics – stark divergences of opinion on controversial topics which can be captured through looking at roll call votes or survey answers. Abortion is most certainly such a cleavage, and is one where there is little likelihood of convergence on a ‘moderate’ position, however defined.

If we look at Congressional votes and other parts of the political process, we do see a number of key political divergences on issues such as abortion, (in 2006) the Iraq war etc. And there are patterns to these divergences – Congresspeople’s votes on these issues tend to be correlated. In this, highly limited sense, you can talk about how ideological coherence provides a kind of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ And when you see, for example, the political science mapping of Congresspeople’s ideological positions, they are using much more sophisticated versions of the basic idea that we use here to figure out whether Obama is to the ‘left’ of Hillary Clinton or vice-versa. Of course, roll-call votes give them a lot more data to work with than we have here – this is a real issue.

But – and this is key – this ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t measure _absolutes_ – they are relative terms. It plausibly makes sense to say that someone who is pro-choice anti-Iraq war and was against Bush’s tax cuts is more ‘leftwing’ than someone who is pro choice and anti-war, but favored the tax cuts, and that this person is more leftwing than someone who is anti-choice, pro-war, and liked the cuts. So you can make useful relative judgments. But you can’t and shouldn’t simply map these relative judgments onto absolute notions of whether someone is ‘far left’ or ‘far right. Furthermore, these relative notions of ‘left,’ ‘right’ and ‘center’ have _no systematic relationship whatsoever_ with sensible moderation of the kind that ScentOfViolets is interested in. Congresspeople whose votes on a set of issues are an equal mixture of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are close to the center of the scale – but they aren’t necessarily adhering to some sensible and plausible set of positions here. Depending on the issues you scaled, Ron Paul could indeed be at the center. So too, could Congresspeople who effectively flogged their vote to the highest bidder. So to say that someone is at the center of our small scale or indeed a larger one of the kind that Congress scholars use is not to say that they are better than those at the extremes (indeed, it may reflect relative incoherence in the ‘moderate’s’ views).

So – when I say that leftwing blog readers are more left wing than their self-identification would suggest, I am saying something like the following – these readers are much more prone to consistently adopt all of the ‘leftwing’ issues on the scale than are, for example, non-blog readers. This is _not_ to say that they are on the far left of American politics. That depends on the issues that are being scaled (and in this scale, there is no plausible evidence). Nor is it to say that their values are out of the mainstream. It may be that there are significant majorities in favor of each one of the positions that they adopt when considered singly, but that relatively few people adopt all the positions at once. Nonetheless, it is _entirely_ fair to say that the median leftwing blogreader is much further to the left, when measured in terms of ideological coherence, than is the median non-blogreader, and that leftwing blogreaders tend to clump together around the most liberal point in this particular issue space and that non blog-readers are far more scattered and diverse. Thus, on this measure, netroots readers are ideologically coherent, and well to the left of the average American. Which is all I am trying to say. If you prefer different definitions of moderation etc that is your business – but these are not the definitions I am using, and attempts to map the one onto the other are likely to result in considerable confusion.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 5:27 am

And Rich – this is I think mostly a terminological dispute rather than a real one – what you term ‘ideology’ is embedded in the kinds of ‘information’ and ‘learning’ that we are talking about here.

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John Quiggin 02.27.09 at 5:30 am

Following on from some previous comments, there’s a big difficulty in the scale. Quoting from your paper “Among blog readers, the median leftwing reader is at the leftmost point,
just as is the median Democratic senator, while the median rightwing reader is just to
the left of the median Republican Senator. In this sense, blog readers are slightly less
polarized than US Senators. However, the ideological dispersion of senators is roughly
similar to that of blog readers. Left blog readers are thus somewhat more homogeneous
than Democratic senators, and right blog readers are slightly more homogeneous than
Republican senators.”

If I read this right, the scale essentially fails to discriminate any points to the left of the median Democrat.

When I read the self-identification of netroots bloggers, I take them to be saying that they aren’t leftwing relative to Democrats in general, not that they are centrist in the sense of, say, Joe Lieberman or Olympia Snowe. This is entirely consistent with wanting to get rid of rightwing Democrats, since, at least given a Dem majority, that will tend to move the median policy outcome further towards the median Democratic viewpoint.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 5:53 am

John – this isn’t quite right – what the scale doesn’t do is to provide us with a lot of information about who is to the left of the median Democratic _senator_ rather than Democrat _tout court._ And that is a function of how the survey is designed. The relevant questions are designed to replicate roll call votes so that the data on ideology can be roughly comparable with that of the Congress literature. This means, on the one hand, that issues which Congress/Senate haven’t voted on are excluded (furthermore the questions we have are a very small subset of those). But there is still a fair amount of variation that is captured within the admittedly limited terms of US political discourse among elected politicians. More importantly, when you look at this kind of scale, the median Democratic senator, believe it or not, is quite substantially to the left of the median Democratic voter on these kinds of scales. This is the opposite of what I think you believe to be true, if I interpret your comment correctly (maybe I’m not quite getting it). Senators are quite polarized indeed, which has some interesting broader implications for politics. As Paul Pierson says

bq. One of the striking findings in Larry Bartels’ recent book14 is that if you take a pair of Republican and Democratic Senators elected from the same state (forget about the House, gerrymandering and all that), there is a huge difference in policy perspectives between Republican and Democratic senators representing exactly the same electorate. It makes a much bigger difference to shift from the Democrat to the Republican in that state than to shift from, say, Mississippi to Oregon. This is so, even though the same electorate is choosing those politicians.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.09 at 6:07 am

“what would be some examples of those marker issues of ‘the old left’? And would they be categorized as cultural, political, economic, or something else?”

Let’s see: Marxism and socialism. Going to New old left: race and sex. More specifically, a rejection of left mainstream institutions that netroots people believe have become ossified and/or compromised and part of the system. Look at what Kos writes about NOW, for instance. You can see this most easily in little cultural mini-items, analogous to the supposed love for NASCAR being a cultural marker. Take NPR, for instance. Netroots people generally detest NPR, while non-netroots lefty people are thought to still love it. (I have no idea whether they actually do.)

Issues that I think of as specifically U.S. netroots-left-identified: opposition to war without pacifism — specifically to aggressive war. Opposition to torture, and to various governmental abuses, without them being included within an overarching theory of governments and how they fail. A close concern with certain kinds of financial / class issues: bankruptcy, unions (though there there’s overlap with the rest of the left), retirement. A connection to science: e.g. environmentalism seen particularly as a science-driven issue rather than a mythic one.

Does that sound right?

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krhasan 02.27.09 at 9:57 am

I describe myself as left of centre politically, but when asked whether I am liberal or moderate I choose the latter. My college-going son, otoh, calls himself liberal, yet when we both answered a simple questionaire (Washington Post’s “Compass”) we were at exactly the same point i.e. “liberal”. A more detailed questionaire (“Which presidential candidate’s views are closest to yours?”) did separate us – he was closer to Obama whereas I was offered Bill Richardson, even though I never even thought of supporting him.

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John Quiggin 02.27.09 at 9:58 am

Henry, I’m not that surprised to find that Democratic senators are to the left of Democratic voters, though I suspect its more a matter of consistency in supporting the Democratic line rather than of being a lot more radical than the median Democrat on any particular issue. And as discussed above this is probably true of the netroots as well.

But all of that is consistent with a netroots story that says something like “we aren’t particularly leftwing as active Democrats (for example Democratic senators) go, we just want the Democrats to be as disciplined and effective as the other side in pushing a centre-left policy line, and in rejecting deals with the Republicans”.

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mpowell 02.27.09 at 12:58 pm

This comment thread has been a very strange experience, watching a series of people misinterpret the claims being made here and Henry responding to each in turn.

But if you just look at what Henry is starting out with, the whole argument/study/conclusion makes a lot more sense. If we’re trying to answer the question of whether a netroots/MoveOn alliance makes sense, the thing that matters most is the consistency with which netroots bloggers and readers line up on the hot button political issues that MoveOn, etc are pushing.

On the other hand, describing the results as demonstrating that the netroots are strongly and coherently to the left is a claim that is only true in the very limited sense that Harry means it. Normally, I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a researcher to define his terms in whatever way makes the most sense to him especially if he is clear about what he is doing. But there are good reasons for limiting the degree to which this is allowed, and I wonder if the strong reaction here indicates that political scientists spend some time thinking about this issue. After all, I don’t see any reason for them to reinforce the (silly!) idea that the center of US politics is ‘moderate’ in any meaningful sense and I think that’s what might end up happening in the minds of non academic observers.

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Ben Alpers 02.27.09 at 1:01 pm

A couple thoughts…

1) I think Rich is onto something…and it’s not just the Old (and New) Lefts, but also old-fashioned liberalism against which the netroots (in part) define themselves. Two central old-style liberal issues which the netroots either care less about or actively disagree with old-fashioned American liberals are gun control and campaign-finance reform.

2) John Quiggan @40 also seems on the mark when he suggests that by measuring left and right in terms of Senate roll-call votes the study is actually measuring Democratic and Republican partisanship. And there’s no doubt that the netroots are fiercely partisan and identify themselves that way. In that sense, this study reinforces a conclusion reached by Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller’s in their 2005 study for the New Politics Institute The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: “Progressive blogs are far more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than conservative bloggers are to identify with the Republican Party. This leads to greater contact between progressive bloggers and the Democratic Party than conservative bloggers have with the Republican Party.”

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Henry 02.27.09 at 2:18 pm

As mpowell implies, I _should_ have been more careful in saying up front what I meant by ‘left.’ Part of the problem here is one of translating from the more specialized vocabulary of political science (where most people are comfortable with scales of this kind, know what they do and do not tell you etc) into the vernacular of everyday conversation. This is also something that plagues, for example, the use of scales to determine who is the ‘most liberal’ senator etc (even when the exercise is an honest one, rather than an effort to suggest that the Democratic presidential candidate du jour is a dangerous lefty). To say that Obama was to the ‘left’ of Clinton in terms of roll call votes is to say that his vote on the relevant issues was to the left in the sense discussed above. But the issue space defined by Congressional votes is not the only possible issue space obviously, there may be forms of partisanship that are not captured by it, ‘centrist’ politicians on the scale may merely be opportunists or politically incoherent swayers with the wind and so on.

On the broader questions of partisanship that John Q. and Ben are talking about, the single smartest analysis I’ve ever read is an old one from Mark Schmitt from the days of the Lieberman race, which is so damn good that I’m going to quote the whole thing.

It seems to me that Noam Scheiber and Garance Franke-Ruta are both making too much of the distinction between “netroots” and traditional Democratic interest groups, especially the possible “split” between netroots liberals and organized labor.

It’s as simple as this: Interest groups think like interest groups, netroots want to think like a party. They are two different ways of operating and thinking in a political world, not two different constituencies competing for a zero-sum quantity of influence.

The key fact adduced as evidence of a breach is that unions have endorsed seven of the most vulnerable northeastern House Republicans, seats that the netroots are enthusiastic about taking back for Democrats. Is that evidence of an ideological divide between labor and the netroots? Does labor have a problem with the Democratic challengers for those seats?

No. It’s evidence of nothing of the kind. It’s simply a function of the way interest groups work, the way they have to work. I used the example of environmental groups in my column in the Prospect in June, but it applies to organized labor just as well. The one thing they know is that to get anything done, they need bipartisan support. They have to be able to go into the offices of Republican members of Congress from districts where labor has influence and ask for their help. And when the member says, “If I’m with you on these three things, will you endorse me in the fall?” they need to be able to say Yes. They need to be strategic about it, they shouldn’t sell out for peanuts. But they can’t say, “Oh, gee, we like you and we need your help, but we are a Democratic interest group after all.” That would be malpractice. And these groups can all point to good things they’ve gotten done, or terrible things they’ve prevented, as a result of offering these incentives.

So labor’s not stupid or mistaken to endorse Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, just as NARAL’s not stupid to endorse Lincoln Chafee. Sure, both know that their causes would be better served by changing the majority, but neither can give up the retail trade of your support for our endorsement that is their basic way of doing business. But as I wrote in my column, “at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan — at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation” (or, substitute “labor laws” or “abortion rights” for “environmental regulation.” Perhaps I should have said, amongst their priorities are such diverse elements as…) Of course it’s hard to know when that line has been crossed: after Gerlach, Shays and a dozen other Republican moderates with good records on labor, environment and choice lose this year, then how are these interest groups going to continue to function in the normal bipartisan way? Will they define moderation down, endorsing Republicans they wouldn’t touch in the past but who are now the best the party has to offer? Or will they accept that their cause is best served by operating within the single party that is pro-labor, pro-environment and largely pro-choice?

Netroots, on the other hand, doesn’t need to worry about bipartisan deals because it doesn’t have a cause. Instead, it is a vision of what the Democratic Party ought to be: Liberal, sure – up to a point. (Ideology barely begins to explain why some politicians – Brian Schweitzer, Harry Reid – are netroots favs). Fights back. Responsive. Broadly critical of corporate power. It is not a faction looking for influence in the Democratic Party, as Scheiber puts it, but the vanguard of a strong and cohesive party.

While Garance is right to point out that the netroots can’t substitute for the voter mobilization that labor produces (and doesn’t even try – this is not a voter turnout operation), there are also shortcomings to the traditional advocacy-group model of voter turnout. Only a party can do the kind of serious targeting that the Republicans do, not finding voters through membership lists but locating people who fit the economic and demographic profile of Republican voters.

There’s a lot to be said for a strong and cohesive party, even apart from questions of whether Democrats win elections or not. For one thing, as Scheiber does note, it puts different issues on the table. Interest groups, for as many as there are, leave hundreds of important issues un-spoken for. That’s why the bankruptcy bill was such a good example of the value of netroots. Members had voted for that bill several times before, and they had not heard a word about. Sure, there was a little effort by bankruptcy lawyers, but they seemed like a petty, interested party. (Although most were so busy that losing business was the least of their worries.) Near bankrupt families simply had no one to speak for them in Washington, and no power if they did. There are more such collective-action problems than there are solutions. And so a politician goes through life thinking that there are a few issues on which he has to deal with engaged and interested constituents that will endorse him or not, rank him on scorecards, mobilize voters, and then lots of other issues that no one pays attention to, and on which he can just go with his cash constituents. Netroots totally changes the logic of this – an issue he thought was invisible suddenly becomes a key marker of Democratic Party principles. And that’s a good thing.

I didn’t mean this to be so laudatory of the netroots world, because it’s not without its problems. But the era of interest-group politics is dead, and the strong party that the netroots advocates foresee will take its place, and while that won’t be without some disruptions, it will be to the good.

It is interesting to note that SEIU has taken the route of going in with the leftwing of the Democratic party rather than trying to triangulate – it has responded to the dilemma that Schmitt described by becoming a bit more like the netroots on this. But the sense of partisanship that Schmitt talks about is close to what John and Ben are trying to get at if I understand them rightly. What these numbers tell me (I think) is that this broad partisanship goes together with a more ideologically coherent bunching on the issues than I thought was the case (which is not, of course, to say that netroots people may not strategically concede on some issues to make overall advances). And while this is a relatively small issue scale that we are using here, I would be prepared to bet significant amounts of cash that the divergence between the median left blogreader and the median non-blogreader would only increase if we had more issues on the scale.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.09 at 2:38 pm

“Two central old-style liberal issues which the netroots either care less about or actively disagree with old-fashioned American liberals are gun control and campaign-finance reform.”

Thanks, Ben — I knew that I was forgetting some things. Yes, those seem to me like a classic area where questions designed to measure standard left/right polarization might run aground.

I guess that, to me, a good chunk of this discussion seems concerned with how to define the left, and how to measure adherence to it. I think that the netroots is vital enough — or, possibly, the rest of the left in the U.S. is non-vital enough — so that it can define its own specific left ideology, and therefore should really be given its own set of markers. If you had a questionnaire about “left issues” and gun control was on there, people in the netroots might give answers that led you to say, ah ha, some of these people are really moderates, or not very connected to the package of left issues. But it wouldn’t really be true. The degree of ideological adhesion that actually exists would be missed.

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ScentOfViolets 02.27.09 at 3:19 pm

Henry, I don’t think we’re communicating very well here. You claim that, for example, people on the left think global warming is real, and that one’s opinion on the validity of global warming as a theory can be used to reliably order people on a left/right scale.

I’m sorry, but that makes absolutely no sense. Now, this question might be a good question of relative rightness, but it simply isn’t symmetrical wrt to leftness(the same thing with your ‘hot-button’ issues like abortion: wanting to ban it may be considered a symptom of rightness, but it’s inverse simply does not apply.) So you may think you can use questions to impose some sort of relative ordering. But really, you can’t. Here’s a little gem I picked up first at the science blog list and further explicated at Obsidian Wings: That chimpanzee who severely mauled it’s owner? It seems that in the post-mortem, the Primate Safety Act was finally passed. Which I had known, as I said, from reading the science blog list. What I didn’t know was that, according to Hilzoy, Democrats voted for it 247 – 2, Republicans against it 76-93. Huh? The Captive Primate Safety act was voted along partisan lines? In what universe would something like this be considered a partisan issue decided by ideology? And you’re telling me that you could use responses to the question of whether or not the act was passed to grade people along a left/right continuum?

Combining the two questions together, I could have a hypothetical statement to the effect that various left-leaning blog readers claim that they’re ideologically diverse, but as the questions on global warming and primate safety clearly show, they’re much more homogeneous than they would have others believe. I think we would both agree that you have to vet the questions a little more carefully than that.

Now look again at what other people are saying: ‘I describe myself as left of centre politically, but when asked whether I am liberal or moderate I choose the latter. My college-going son, otoh, calls himself liberal, yet when we both answered a simple questionaire (Washington Post’s “Compass”) we were at exactly the same point i.e. “liberal”.‘ Doesn’t that indicate to you that maybe your test lacks a certain amount of precision? Perhaps in the laudable pursuit of accuracy?

Finally, when you say this:

As mpowell implies, I should have been more careful in saying up front what I meant by ‘left.’ Part of the problem here is one of translating from the more specialized vocabulary of political science (where most people are comfortable with scales of this kind, know what they do and do not tell you etc) into the vernacular of everyday conversation.

It seems that you aren’t really addressing the question of homogeneity as your sample population is using the term at all. Clearly they aren’t using your specialized definition.

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ScentOfViolets 02.27.09 at 3:39 pm

I guess that, to me, a good chunk of this discussion seems concerned with how to define the left, and how to measure adherence to it. I think that the netroots is vital enough—or, possibly, the rest of the left in the U.S. is non-vital enough—so that it can define its own specific left ideology, and therefore should really be given its own set of markers. If you had a questionnaire about “left issues” and gun control was on there, people in the netroots might give answers that led you to say, ah ha, some of these people are really moderates, or not very connected to the package of left issues. But it wouldn’t really be true. The degree of ideological adhesion that actually exists would be missed.

Indeed. In a nutshell, this is something along the lines of Colbert’s ‘Reality has a well-known liberal bias.’

My own personal agenda is simply the feeling that what gets marked as ‘liberal’, the issues, the reasoning, the people . . . simply isn’t. Thinking that global warming is a real phenomena does not make one a liberal. Thinking that invading a country under false pretexts at the cost of trillions of dollars and millions of lives for no discernable gain is lunacy does not make one a liberal. Thinking that schools ought not to be privatized, or that it should be illegal for private individuals to own chimpanzees, gorillas, etc does not make one a liberal.

I want in short, to obliterate the meme that ‘America is a center-right nation’.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 4:14 pm

ScentOfViolets – If you want to get into the legislative questions, this stuff gets technical very quickly. The underlying theory here relies on the idea that senators’ and congresspeople’s ‘ideal points’ in a given issue space can be calculated by looking at their votes over many, many roll-calls. Poole, McCarty and Rosenthal’s _Polarized America_ provides the best and least jargonistic introduction that I can think of. Some votes are treated as ‘errors,’ some not, depending on whether they appear to be random variation or not.

But I think that this isn’t what you are getting hung up on here. Let me give a simplified and dumbed down version of what I _think_ you are arguing here (yes – this is dumbed down, but I think that it is at least useful so that you can say what this summary doesn’t get about your argument). I think you are arguing something like the following. On most of these issues, there is a non-crazy position and a crazy position. People answering these questions, and ending up on the left on our scale, are really all just taking the non-crazy position, while the batshit right wingers over there are taking the crazy one. Therefore, all we can say is that the people who appear to be on the far left pole are non-crazy, not that they are genuinely left wing or ideologically coherent.

But if you want to look at this in relative terms, which is what our data tells us about, then the ‘crazy’ (inverted commas deliberate – I am still wearing my pol-sci hat here) is widely distributed. The median American voter is a mix of ‘crazy and ‘non-crazy’ positions. So the point here is that the median left-blog reader is _quite different_ from the median American citizen – he or she is not close to the central set of positions on these (and I would strongly predict, other) issues. And that is a pretty important difference. You may argue that the ‘leftwing’ position on this _is_ the moderate position, properly considered. And that is a perfectly legitimate claim. But it rests on an implicit normative argument, about what is crazy right wing nonsense and what is a reasonable position to take, that I have _no business taking_ as a political scientist. When I am writing as a blogger, it is a different matter of course, and I do allow myself strong opinions as demonstrated by ample empirical evidence.

To put it a different way – there is a _lot_ of variation both among American voters and American politicians on limited scales such as this one, and on more detailed instruments too. Political scientists want to capture this variation, using statistical instruments, and argue that it provides us with some insight at least into where people’s positions rank in relative left-to-right terms (or in two dimensional issue spaces, but that is another world of hurt). This has clear limitations, as discussed above. But it does provide us with useful knowledge. This knowledge may not map well onto your sense of what is sensible, plausible moderation, and what is not, but that is not what these instruments are suppose to do. They don’t try to capture what is ‘sensible’ or what is ‘reasonable’ (given that nearly everyone _believes_ themselves to be sensible and reasonable no matter how far out they are, this would be a heroic claim). Instead, they try to capture the underlying logic of observed substantial variation in the positions American citizens, activists and voters take on various political issues.

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mpowell 02.27.09 at 4:17 pm


It seems that you aren’t really addressing the question of homogeneity as your sample population is using the term at all. Clearly they aren’t using your specialized definition.

This is a good point in that the netroots people may be describing themselves perfectly accurately, just not using the terminology Henry is using. But I didn’t take him to be blaming them so much as acknowledging that he had come to a judgment regarding their political views too hastily. ScentOfViolets I’m still not sure you’re engaging Henry properly here. I understand that you’re quite upset(many of us are!) about the way that the political views of the American Congress are broken down into Left, Right and Center, with no regard for the mapping of those views onto a broader political spectrum. But you have to recognize that Henry is using a language that is very particular to a branch of political science that uses these terms without making any claims as to the actual content of these views. In fact, my understanding of the recent studies of congressional voting habits is that congressmen’s voting habits can be almost fully described by a single dimension vector which these scientists have labeled as ‘right’ or ‘left’.

But I do wonder if there is still some legitimate criticism not be offered here regarding this choice of terminology. I do believe (and I don’t think that Henry would even necessarily disagree) that the Republicans have been able to hijack our political discourse by branding moderate ideas as liberal, leftist, socialist and communist and shifting the so-called Overton Window relentlessly to the right through a variety of techniques. This kind of political science that Henry is participating in is exposed to the general public enough, that I wonder if better terms that don’t reinforce this theme could be found.

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michael e sullivan 02.27.09 at 7:30 pm

Henry: “But it rests on an implicit normative argument, about what is crazy right wing nonsense and what is a reasonable position to take, that I have no business taking as a political scientist.”

The problem with your “I am a political scientist” frame is that there is no such thing as an objective position on politics.

You’ve essentially accepted the beltway consensus about our political spectrum, when part of what’s shaping these things is just how skewed the beltway consensus is. Movement conservatives have invited just about every useful right-wing idiot into the coalition and insisted that we take them seriously by jaming their opinions down our throats on right-wing financed media, so a place at the table is available for nearly every wingnut position on the right that can garner a significant percent of the populace in favor of it. You have to get to the David Dukes before you can’t assume your issues will be discussed in the NYT or in congress.

But on the left, pretty much anything to the left of the median democratic position is considered off the table, crazy, unacceptable and unworthy of debate outside of the netroots. This, even when some of these positions actually have the support of a majority of voters, not merely more support than many right wing positions that won’t come off he GOP platform until you pry it from their cold, dead hands.

It’s no surprise that according to a set of mainstream debated talking points, democrats are more ideologically coherent than republicans. There simply aren’t any sane people who would ever adopt many of the movement conservative positions, while every last one of the standard “left” positions is at least reasonable.

There is no real problem with your paper as political science research, and I think you are mistaking the nature of people’s criticism. There is a *real* problem with your paper as a public document that makes little attempt to dispel the obvious misinterpretation that readers of left-reading blogs are farther left than readers of right wing blogs are right. No matter how many times you try to say otherwise, the labeling you have chosen for your graphs is basically saying *that*.

This is also, in my opinion responsible for the difference in labeling versus response to your study. I’m pretty sure most of the people who identified as centrist or center-left did so because they regard the position you classify as “left” to be centrist positions, and reject the beltway bipartisanship fetish which holds that even though most of your current republican politicians are voting like john birchers or brownshirts, you have to average the democratic and republican positions to find the “center”.

That’s the very media consensus that has allowed the crazies and kleptocrats to take over the republican party and mostly get away with it. You are getting so much pushback on this because a defining feature of the netroots is a motivated centrism that is *against* the very consensus of what we are supposed to be debating that you are taking for granted (and so, implicitly supporting) in your analysis.

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LizardBreath 02.27.09 at 7:49 pm

It’s no surprise that according to a set of mainstream debated talking points, democrats are more ideologically coherent than republicans.

What I understand Henry to be saying, though (and I found it fairly surprising), isn’t that democrats are more ideologically coherent than republicans, but that left-wing blog readers are more ideologically coherent than democrats.

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Jim Harrison 02.27.09 at 7:52 pm

As with so many discussions on this site, what we have here is another example of the way that disciplinarity trumps simple reason. Those of us who aren’t Masons and don’t feel the need to give the secret handshake at every available opportunity look at the distribution of opinion on the web using a traditional set of categories that reflects historical experience instead of some dubious statistical woo.

It’s nutty to call most of the folks one encounters on netroot sites leftists because doing do leaves us with no term for the real leftists that do in fact exist. There are people who dream of revolutionary change and aren’t shy about promoting the radical transformation of the economic, political, and social systems of the U.S. This attitude contrast sharply with the specific positions and rhetoric of most contributors to Kos or Eschaton. Defending traditional civil rights and constitutional government are liberal rather than leftist activities.

If you could put methodologies on trial for war crimes, I don’t see how survey sampling could evade the noose.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.09 at 8:17 pm

I agree with some of the other commenters to a limited extent, but I don’t see the need to define what the left is or what a reasonable or unreasonable position is. The point is that to measure the cohesiveness of a particular group, it would seem like you’d have to examine the specific issues that that group holds as cohesive. If every commenter on Daily Kos agrees strongly on the netroots issues, it doesn’t seem to me to be very important whether they disagree on gun control, or what the generically left position on gun control is. That issue isn’t alive for them vis-a-vis what they’re doing on that site. And if you want to compare their beliefs to, say, Senatorial voting records, find a group of Senators that people agree are “left” for Senators and see for which issues there’s a lot of agreement between the two groups on and for which there isn’t.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 8:54 pm

You’ve essentially accepted the beltway consensus about our political spectrum, when part of what’s shaping these things is just how skewed the beltway consensus is.

Sorry – no. And if you really think that this is what this is about, you’re on crack. Read the fucking discussion. Try to find one place, just one place where I even hint that the center of this distribution is the right and appropriate place to be, and that there is something wrong with being on the left side of this distribution. You won’t find it – but you will find discussion of how centrists on this scale tend to be politically incoherent, perhaps (when they’re politicians) opportunistic etc. If you want to read this as an expression of Beltway wisdom, well I can’t stop you. But I can say that it has a lot more to say about the baggage that you are bringing to this discussion than the post or the paper. If I appear to have lost patience, that is because it is difficult to say the same thing again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and keep on coming up against the same deep incomprehension.

Defending traditional civil rights and constitutional government are liberal rather than leftist activities.

What is becoming increasingly clear to me is that a lot (most?) of this is being driven by angst about being described as on the left. Taking off my political science hat, this is some mighty peculiar shit that Does Not Compute for me. Speaking in terms of the everyday meaning of the language, Kos type people are clearly on the left. Liberals are on the left. This doesn’t mean that they’re social democrats, let alone sekrit Communists. But they are to the left of the average American. This is a feature, not a bug. Repeat after me. There is nothing wrong with being on the left. It’s the good place to be. The center – especially the American center – is a weird and often horrible place, populated by unwitting slaves of defunct ideologies, sincere people who just don’t get it, stupid folks, Beltway Zombies, opportunists, and the occasional principled, nice, intelligent person who happens to be there because that is where they are. I don’t want to be at the center. I don’t know why, except for purely rhetorical purposes, you want to be – but that is your problem. Talk to your counsellors about it – but this is your hangup, not mine.

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Jim Harrison 02.27.09 at 9:18 pm

I don’t care whether somebody calls me a leftist or a liberal or whatever. Unfortunately, the fundamental rhetorical move of the American right is to lump liberals who favor a basically capitalist political economy with Marxists and others who don’t. That piece of framing is absolute fundamental to American politics and explains why it makes sense to resist the kind of lumping favored by Henry. It isn’t that this sort of labeling hurts my feelings. The labeling is part of the problem with American politics.

In my experience, few people have a worse understanding of genuine politics than empirical political scientists. Henry’s disdain for “purely rhetorical purposes” is typical. As if politics weren’t rhetorical from stem to stern. Sheesh.

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LizardBreath 02.27.09 at 9:21 pm

What is becoming increasingly clear to me is that a lot (most?) of this is being driven by angst about being described as on the left…. Speaking in terms of the everyday meaning of the language, Kos type people are clearly on the left. Liberals are on the left. This doesn’t mean that they’re social democrats, let alone sekrit Communists. But they are to the left of the average American. This is a feature, not a bug. Repeat after me. There is nothing wrong with being on the left. It’s the good place to be.

I think this is a vocabulary problem; not one I can really straighten out, but I can at least gesture at it. I use the word left and leftist pretty much like you appear to, as a direction on a scale: as a Democratic voter, I’m on the left; Hillary Clinton is to the left of Olympia Snow; and so on. The fact that Hillary Clinton is pretty centrist doesn’t make describing her as ‘on the left’ rather than ‘on the right’ incoherent. But there’s a not uncommon usage of ‘left’ and ‘leftist’ as identifying a particular position on that scale, very far from the center; people who are left of center but not that far from the center are liberals, and describing them as leftist is simply wrong, kind of the way that calling a conservative a libertarian would be wrong. (I’m not describing this usage perfectly, because it’s not the way I naturally use the terms. But I’ve run into it.)

I think what you’re seeing as angst is an attempt to correct your usage: blogreaders aren’t leftists, mostly, they’re merely liberals. If they were real leftists, they’d be much more active or ideological or something than they are in practice.

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Henry 02.27.09 at 10:10 pm

In my experience, few people have a worse understanding of genuine politics than empirical political scientists.

Perhaps so, Mr. Bigshot Political Strategist. But given the awesome success over the last few decades of the ‘shucks no! We’re not Commies or Libruls, just decent, ordinary Technocratic Centrist Moderates’ tactic, I’d personally be inclined to forego the Dukakis Possum Tactic in favor of growing a pair. ( A gender-appropriate pair, of course)

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Martin Bento 02.27.09 at 11:01 pm

I don’t have a problem with the characterization of “Left”, but I do question that of “coherence”, which to me suggests a strong logical link, not just a correlation. I think we’ve discussed before in this forum that being pro-choice and anti-Iraq war were strongly correlated positions, though there is no logical necessity that this be so (one could construct links, but one could also make counter-arguments). I would say, then, that someone who embraces the set of Left or Right positions as a whole rather than combining them is ideologically consistent, but not necessarily coherent. In fact, I think neither of these sets currently are very coherent, for partly different reasons. However, if they are not coherent, there is that much more reason to explain the consistency.

If I care strongly about drastic economic inequality, Sandra about abortion, Kalia about civil liberties, and Dmitri about the political abuse of science strongly enough to become politically engaged, at least to the point of venting on blogs, we can all be more effective if we form a coalition. We will do this most effectively if we agree about each other’s issues. This agreement will be most effective if it is “sincere”; that is, if we actually and probably subconscious adopt one another’s views, rather than simply pretending to do so. We have all been through the evolutionary arms race between deceivers and deceived after all. Even talking to one another creates pressure for conformity, as dissension will usually have some social or psychological cost. For example, I recently agreed with the Republicans that the final version of the Stimulus bill should have had 48 hours of review before signing; I believe Obama campaigned on that, it was why Feingold voted against the Patriot Act, etc. The only counterargument I could see was that Obama had to meet his arbitrary and self-imposed President’s Day deadline, which seemed to me very weak. But taking this position meant I had to argue alongside people I regarded as trolls and idiots against people I respected: never a pleasant thing. It would have been easier to be “coherent” if less coherent in terms of my actual beliefs.

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Martin Bento 02.27.09 at 11:07 pm

Another thing people seem to object to here is the characterization of positions they regard as simply sensible as “left” positions. I’m with Henry on this. If they fall on the left side of the median position, it is fair to call them “left”. Although it is problematic that we use “left” and “right” with both relative and absolute meanings, Henry is being clear about which he is using. Where I differ with Henry and some of the commenters is the willingness to conflate “sensible” and “moderate”. Neither the abolition of slavery, extending the vote to women, nor permitting interracial marriage were “moderate” positions when first advanced; they were very extreme. At this point, I think most of us would call them sensible. And this relates to what I said before, many people here with left of center positions feel the need to have their positions identified as towards the center rather than the left on the apparent premise that being more moderate makes them more legitimate. I would question that.

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Martin Bento 02.27.09 at 11:57 pm

PS, by “here” in the last paragraph above, I mean in the blogosphere, not necessarily on this particular blog, thought that may apply too.

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PhysicalScientist 02.28.09 at 12:20 am

you wrote: “What this suggests is…”
uh-oh.

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ScentOfViolets 02.28.09 at 12:36 am

I think you are arguing something like the following. On most of these issues, there is a non-crazy position and a crazy position. People answering these questions, and ending up on the left on our scale, are really all just taking the non-crazy position, while the batshit right wingers over there are taking the crazy one. Therefore, all we can say is that the people who appear to be on the far left pole are non-crazy, not that they are genuinely left wing or ideologically coherent.

No, this is not what I am saying. Go back to where I described a lot of people who formerly approved of the invasion of Iraq. They’re moderates – and always have been. Well then, why the reversal of positions? In a word, pragmatic considerations. Prior to the war, they were told that invasion would be cheap and easy (we’ll be greeted as liberators!), and that if this wasn’t done, the Evildoer would nuke Pocatello, or Laramie, or Cedar Rapids, or maybe Branson. Besides which, said Evildoer was responsible for 9/11. Of course, post- invasion, it comes out that there were no WMD’s, that far from being a cakewalk, occupation is money and manpower intensive, and according to our trusted news outlets, Saddam wasn’t responsible for 9/11 after all. Not a big surprise that the average voter changed their opinions about the invasion. Also not a surprise – the big difference between the netroots and the average citizen was that the DFH new all this beforehand; the unwashed masses only being clued in afterwards.

Do you see how this will affect the results of your survey? And how this applies to vast range of issues? Joe Median will vote according to the information he has available, his political proclivities notwithstanding. Indeed, what distinguishes the far right in this respect is that additional information does not matter. Global Warming is made-up science. Saddam really was a ‘gathering threat’, etc. Despite impartial information to the contrary. So, your homogenization of opinion on certain issues might very reflect nothing more than being possessed of a certain minimal amount of information.

I don’t claim that this is only one consideration that has been neglected, btw, or even the most important. I am saying that I don’t see anywhere in your paper where you’ve accounted for these sorts of issues.

But if you want to look at this in relative terms, which is what our data tells us about, then the ‘crazy’ (inverted commas deliberate – I am still wearing my pol-sci hat here) is widely distributed. The median American voter is a mix of ‘crazy and ‘non-crazy’ positions.

Wearing my stat hat, I think that there is some confusion here – there is a difference between the ‘median’ opinion, and the opinion of the random median voter. In fact, the median opinion on a variety of issues is pretty well known, and is moderate to liberal. This does not conflict your claim that the median voter is a mix of different ostensibly left/right opinions; it merely means that, say, one person could be firmly anti-gun control and also believe that global warming is a real phenomenon. To put it another way, statistically, the ‘average person’ is a myth. Nor does the distribution of opinion necessarily reflect a grab-bag of ideological opinion; it could quite easily instead be the result of a mix of information, some highly partisan, some not.

So the point here is that the median left-blog reader is quite different from the median American citizen – he or she is not close to the central set of positions on these (and I would strongly predict, other) issues. And that is a pretty important difference. You may argue that the ‘leftwing’ position on this is the moderate position, properly considered. And that is a perfectly legitimate claim. But it rests on an implicit normative argument, about what is crazy right wing nonsense and what is a reasonable position to take, that I have no business taking as a political scientist. When I am writing as a blogger, it is a different matter of course, and I do allow myself strong opinions as demonstrated by ample empirical evidence.

.

Again. Please. Read what I actually write; I said quite plainly up above that the ‘moderate’ or middle position was defined by majority opinion over time on various issues. I made no attempt at a normative argument at all.

To put it a different way – there is a lot of variation both among American voters and American politicians on limited scales such as this one, and on more detailed instruments too. Political scientists want to capture this variation, using statistical instruments, and argue that it provides us with some insight at least into where people’s positions rank in relative left-to-right terms (or in two dimensional issue spaces, but that is another world of hurt). This has clear limitations, as discussed above. But it does provide us with useful knowledge. This knowledge may not map well onto your sense of what is sensible, plausible moderation, and what is not, but that is not what these instruments are suppose to do. They don’t try to capture what is ‘sensible’ or what is ‘reasonable’ (given that nearly everyone believes themselves to be sensible and reasonable no matter how far out they are, this would be a heroic claim). Instead, they try to capture the underlying logic of observed substantial variation in the positions American citizens, activists and voters take on various political issues.

Hey, I’m all for doing good science myself. And no, what you attribute to me up above? That is not what I am thinking or what I had said before. Really, you’ve got to actually read what I write. Let me say this again – your tools appear to be defective. They don’t measure what you think they are measuring. They have both range and bias issues.

How did you happen to select these particular questions anyway?

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Henry 02.28.09 at 2:07 am

ScentOfViolets – there is something fundamental I am not getting about your underlying claim, so I will abstain from further argument. The questions were a part of a collaborative survey instrument that others came up with – as noted above, they were chosen to make them roughly comparable with Congressional vote data.

Martin – yes, you are quite right that there is no necessary intellectual coherence between these various positions. There is a whole cottage industry in political science discussing where voters’ attitudes on these issues come from.

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roy belmont 02.28.09 at 3:39 am

Now that gender’s been officially introduced to the thread, might I suggest the vocabulary may be causing some of the the problem, if not most of it, by forcing the fit of far too much that doesn’t, can’t, and won’t ever.
Male/female gender distribution appears to be linear, as it has only two points. For a lot of people there’s hardly any distribution toward the middle of that linear graph. Men are men, women are women. Anyone who doesn’t actively take up the role of their biologically-assigned gender is a freak. This attitude is fading into obscurity, somewhat.
Experience, and science, says that real gender distribution clustered at the ends of the poalrity, and in fact isn’t linear at all.
Trying to make it so does two things:
It confirms a polarity that doesn’t really exist for those whose insecurities are assuaged by it. As in I’ve got an exterior package therefore I’m a man, I’ve got boobs and an interior package therefore I’m a woman.
But it leaves those who don’t fit comfortably in either distinct category feeling undefined, incomplete, or left out etc.
Real gender distribution is diamond-shaped, not linear.
Some people who don’t fit the polarity stereotypes have pronounced mixed gender characteristics, lots female lots of male, but some have none. There’s as much difference between those two groups in the center as between those with pronounced male and pronounced female characteristics at the ends.
The categories exist before self-identification or experience can refute them, which can get problematic and marginalizing for the extremes in the middle of the line, who are not in the middle of anything really.
Shoehorning people into inadequate gender categories isn’t that different from shoehorning people into inadequate political categories.
And it just may be more accurate to think of the spread in both instances as 3-dimensional not 2-, with a lot more points of polarity, but I don’t have the vocabulary or imagination to describe what that might look like.

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roy belmont 02.28.09 at 3:42 am

“real gender distribution isn’t clustered”

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ScentOfViolets 02.28.09 at 5:02 pm

ScentOfViolets – there is something fundamental I am not getting about your underlying claim, so I will abstain from further argument. The questions were a part of a collaborative survey instrument that others came up with – as noted above, they were chosen to make them roughly comparable with Congressional vote data.

I’ll try to think of a better example. Meanwhile – to repeat my other statement – how do you get that ‘moderate’ voters aren’t really liberal or left-of-center? I call myself a moderate for the good and sufficient reason that my opinions on a number of subjects match the opinions of the general public. So it seems that my definition agrees yours when it comes to relative placements along a left/right axis.

Like most people, I don’t favor criminalizing abortion – a moderate position.

Like most people, I am against school vouchers – a moderate position.

Like most people, I am against the current occupation of Iraq – a moderate position.

Like most people, I believe that global warming is a real phenomenon – a moderate position. [1]

And so on and so forth. And yet, you claim that public opinion is nowhere near that ‘liberal’. What is the source of this discrepency? Is this a matter of asking the right questions in the right way? Because a lot of this seems pretty straightforward, for example the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll that asked this question:

“With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

Am I making a suspect statement when I claim that not wanting to criminalize abortion is a moderate position when the figures to the above question came back: pro-choice 53%, pro-life 44%? This is why I am rather disgusted with attempts frame the above positions as ‘liberal’ rather than ‘moderate’, btw. It has a lot less to do with partisanship, and a lot more to do with accuracy. It smacks of a rather nasty technique being used to thwart the will of the people. It is, in short, undemocratic.

[1] Let’s look at that last, since it illustrates what I was trying to say earlier:

Executive Summary

Overall, a large majority of the American public is personally convinced that global warming is happening (71%). Surprisingly, however, only 48 percent believe that there is consensus among the scientific community, while 40 percent of Americans still believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists over whether global warming is occurring.

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Henry 02.28.09 at 9:05 pm

ScentOfViolets – This has nothing to do with the way that the question was asked. These are standard questions, which have been worked and reworked to death, and are not (in contrast to many public opinion poll questions) skewed so as to produce politically loaded results. The point – as made in a comment way upstream, is that even if all of these positions and more are held by a majority of respondents, _only a relatively small minority of respondents holds all of them._ And furthermore, this is politically significant – when political scientists look at these kinds of statistics, they find that people who do have coherent ideologies in this sense differ from the majority in the muddled middle in all sorts of interesting ways. So yes, if you hold these views, you may consider yourself to be a moderate, but in an interesting and politically consequential way, you are in fact an outlier considerably to the left of the median American. It’s this which you don’t appear to get. And as an aside, it is perfectly possible for someone’s position on abortion to be leftwing/liberal (in the sense that it is a position far more likely to be taken by liberals than by conservatives), and also in the mainstream (in that it is not an unusual position for Americans to take). That many people perceive the two as incompatible is a very odd fact of American culture for me.

And I think that a lot of the confusion springs from a confusion between two different uses of the term moderate. You would like moderate to mean something like ‘sensible, prepared to accept valid evidence and change their views accordingly.’ And that is a common language use of the term which is perfectly fine. But it shouldn’t be confused with another common language use of the term – people who are moderate in the sense that they are close to the median.

The scale we use says _absolutely nothing_ about moderation in the first sense of the term. But that’s not its purpose. It tells us about the second. And for these purposes, not only is it perfectly valid, but it captures a lot of interesting variation. Americans, contrary to what you seem to think, vary a _lot_ in the degree to which they believe these things. And that variation is politically important. You say you have shown why this is statistically flawed – but as best as I can understand, your argument rests on an incomprehension as to what the scale is supposed to accomplish.

So, if your problem (as it seems mostly to be) is that you and others who you believe to be moderate in the sense of being sane, sensible and rational are being misdescribed, you shouldn’t worry. Our findings have _absolutely no bearing_ on whether you are moderate in that particular sense of the term, nor are they intended to. The measures of left and right we are using here are trying to capture something quite different. However I have found this an interesting conversation (not only with you) in that the presumed identity between ‘moderate as sane and rational’ and ‘moderate as towards the center of the political spectrum’ seems to be extremely widespread among Americans. That is something that I find odd, but that I hadn’t especially appreciated before, and will be posting on at length in the future.

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ScentOfViolets 03.01.09 at 1:43 am

Sigh. Henry, I think you’ve jumped the shark. You originally said this:

But – and this is key – this ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t measure absolutes – they are relative terms. It plausibly makes sense to say that someone who is pro-choice anti-Iraq war and was against Bush’s tax cuts is more ‘leftwing’ than someone who is pro choice and anti-war, but favored the tax cuts, and that this person is more leftwing than someone who is anti-choice, pro-war, and liked the cuts. So you can make useful relative judgments. But you can’t and shouldn’t simply map these relative judgments onto absolute notions of whether someone is ‘far left’ or ‘far right. Furthermore, these relative notions of ‘left,’ ‘right’ and ‘center’ have no systematic relationship whatsoever with sensible moderation of the kind that ScentOfViolets is interested in.

And I have told you – what? – three or four or five times now that when I say ‘moderate’, I mean what the majority of the population thinks on a given issue. Not what you keep attributing to me. Like this:

I call myself a moderate for the good and sufficient reason that my opinions on a number of subjects match the opinions of the general public. So it seems that my definition agrees yours when it comes to relative placements along a left/right axis.

or this:

Let me elaborate on what I mean by ‘moderate’ – it’s the median or majority opinion of the electorate over time on a variety of actions and issues.

And yet, you say:

And I think that a lot of the confusion springs from a confusion between two different uses of the term moderate. You would like moderate to mean something like ‘sensible, prepared to accept valid evidence and change their views accordingly.’ And that is a common language use of the term which is perfectly fine. But it shouldn’t be confused with another common language use of the term – people who are moderate in the sense that they are close to the median.

When I encounter this level of refusal to read what is clearly stated multiple times, I’ve got to wonder just how wedded the individual is to an idea. And I just had an entire post about what I’ve bolded, with cites.

Now, until you can actually admit that you were wrong, that I’m using this word in exactly the same way you are, I really don’t see why I should continue this conversation. I’m not going to spend any more energy responding to someone who doesn’t bother to read what I write, who prefers to manufacture my position for me rather than answer substantively.

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Henry 03.01.09 at 5:03 am

umm no. You are actually using a mixture of these two definitions, which is part of the reason that I found it so difficult to come to grips with your argument. E.g.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by ‘moderate’ – it’s the median or majority opinion of the electorate over time on a variety of actions and issues. Thus it is the moderate position to oppose a war in Iraq – and always has been. What changed is not the people, but the information available. So being for an invasion because Saddam was actively assembling nuclear weaponry and had every intention of using it – that would be pretty reasonable if it were true. Being against staying in Iraq when it’s found out that there are no WMD, especially the nuclear kind, well that’s a moderate position too.

and

My own personal agenda is simply the feeling that what gets marked as ‘liberal’, the issues, the reasoning, the people . . . simply isn’t. Thinking that global warming is a real phenomena does not make one a liberal. Thinking that invading a country under false pretexts at the cost of trillions of dollars and millions of lives for no discernable gain is lunacy does not make one a liberal. Thinking that schools ought not to be privatized, or that it should be illegal for private individuals to own chimpanzees, gorillas, etc does not make one a liberal. I want in short, to obliterate the meme that ‘America is a center-right nation’.

and

No, this is not what I am saying. Go back to where I described a lot of people who formerly approved of the invasion of Iraq. They’re moderates – and always have been. Well then, why the reversal of positions? In a word, pragmatic considerations. Prior to the war, they were told that invasion would be cheap and easy (we’ll be greeted as liberators!), and that if this wasn’t done, the Evildoer would nuke Pocatello, or Laramie, or Cedar Rapids, or maybe Branson. Besides which, said Evildoer was responsible for 9/11. Of course, post- invasion, it comes out that there were no WMD’s, that far from being a cakewalk, occupation is money and manpower intensive, and according to our trusted news outlets, Saddam wasn’t responsible for 9/11 after all. Not a big surprise that the average voter changed their opinions about the invasion. Also not a surprise – the big difference between the netroots and the average citizen was that the DFH new all this beforehand; the unwashed masses only being clued in afterwards. Do you see how this will affect the results of your survey? And how this applies to vast range of issues? Joe Median will vote according to the information he has available, his political proclivities notwithstanding. Indeed, what distinguishes the far right in this respect is that additional information does not matter. Global Warming is made-up science. Saddam really was a ‘gathering threat’, etc. Despite impartial information to the contrary. So, your homogenization of opinion on certain issues might very reflect nothing more than being possessed of a certain minimal amount of information.

You want to claim _both_ that these are moderate positions in the sense that they are held by a majority of the population, _and_ that they are moderate in the sense that they represent ‘reasonable’ (your term) positions on things like the invasion of Iraq from people who (unlike right wing crazies) are prepared to change their minds when the facts change. Or else, if you didn’t mean this, somebody has been editing your posts on the sly (and I _swear_ it wasn’t me).

And with that, goodbye from me …

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ScentOfViolets 03.01.09 at 5:34 am

Henry, I quoted myself, giving an explicit definition. More than once. You ignored it. More than once. End of story. Y0u got no leg to stand on here. Nor does what you quote back up your claim that I’m using more than one definition; I certainly don’t see how ‘Thinking that global warming is a real phenomena does not make one a liberal.‘ is using another definition when in fact, the majority of the populace do indeed think global warming is a real phenomena. (I’ll also not that – gasp – having a ‘reasonable’ opinion and having the opinion of the majority agree with don’t necessarily conflict. Strange, I know, but true.) So you can’t claim that you were confused by definitions that were at cross-purposes.

And with that, since you obviously have no intention of admitting you made a gross mistake, more than once, which everyone can see for themselves, I think we’re quite, quite through here. You do realize of course that the way you have conducted yourself here will influence people’s opinions of what you post in the future. Especially given the fact that you’ve admonished others to read what you write rather than attribute to you the positions they wish to challenge. There’s a word for that, starts with an ‘H’ . . .

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Henry 03.01.09 at 8:40 pm

ScentOfViolets – bleh. The one thing that you are correct about is that I made a mistake here – charitably seeking to discern some sense in a quite incoherent set of arguments, so that I could respond to them. I shan’t be making it again. Goodbye.

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michael e sullivan 03.03.09 at 5:23 pm

“Sorry – no. And if you really think that this is what this is about, you’re on crack. Read the fucking discussion. Try to find one place, just one place where I even hint that the center of this distribution is the right and appropriate place to be, and that there is something wrong with being on the left side of this distribution.”

That isn’t what I meant.

I don’t know what your exact political positions are, but everything I’ve read from you here and in the past suggests that you are crammed over on the left side of your graph like almost everyone else who’s worth reading for information (as opposed to enemy tracking).

The point is that your graph and the decisions you made to create it, has a rhetorical effect, whether you intended it or not. And whether or not those questions were the right choice for the problem you were trying to address as a researcher.

That rhetorical effect is to implicitly accept the beltway frame about where the edges of debate are.

Can you not see that at first glance, this picture is not saying “readers of left blogs mostly follow a coherent set of positions” but instead “readers of left blogs are almost all at the far left of the spectrum, while readers of right blogs stretch evenly from moderate to right wing”? Clearly your full text does not support that interpretation, but because of the labels you’ve chosen, it’s what the picture says to anyone who doesn’t read the whole thing.

It looks just like something some right-wing hack would link to as “evidence” that left bloggers are a bunch of radical DFHs. That would intellectually dishonest, of course, but it wouldn’t matter. It would be effective, because the picture’s false apparent claim takes 2 seconds to comprehend, while comprehending the real claim requires reading the paper and a modicum of social science familiarity.

And having read more, and knowing what you are really saying, I still can’t look at your graph without having to consciously ignore the obvious visual interpretation.

I don’t think you are David Brooks, I just think you didn’t consider what the public result of this graph would be, and you seem to be arguing here as if that public result is irrelevant.

I’m pretty sure that’s why you are taking so much flack in this thread.

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michael e sullivan 03.03.09 at 6:10 pm

“I don’t want to be at the center. I don’t know why, except for purely rhetorical purposes, you want to be – but that is your problem. Talk to your counsellors about it – but this is your hangup, not mine.”

I don’t want to be at the center either. I’m very much on the left (liberal more than socialist, anti-authoritarian would be most accurate). But I do concern myself with how things play in the center, and I am convinced that one of the key ways our politics gets pushed rightward is by the media’s blatant and illegitimate claims about where the center is.

I would like to combat that. My goal is to pull the frame of our debate leftward until the real brownshirt, racist crap on the right is off the table, and some sensible and popular social democratic and left libertarian ideas are back (or newly) on it.

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