Under the headline “One study explains why it’s tough to pass liberal laws,” The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews highlights an “astonishing” new study:
Friend-of-the-blog Daniel Broockman and Christopher Skrovron, graduate students at Berkeley and Michigan, respectively, have released a working paper […] and the findings are rather astonishing.As Matthews notes, the disconnect between constituents’ actual views and legislators’ assumptions about those views is not attributable to a failure to spend time meeting with constituents:
Broockman and Skrovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.
Is it just that legislators don’t talk to their constituents? Nope. Broockman and Skovron tried and failed to find any relationship between the amount of time legislators spend in their districts, going to community events, and so forth, and the accuracy of their reads on their districts.I think there’s a fairly obvious, if not complete, explanation for the tendency of legislators, conservative and liberal alike, to believe the public is more conservative than it actually is: The news media does precisely the same thing, as I’ve explained many times. Here’s an excerpt from a January 2009 column:
[M]any political reporters seem to have an ideological, if not religious, commitment to bipartisanship and centrism. But -- and here's where things get really problematic -- they don't really have any idea of where the "center" is.Later that year, I addressed a contributing factor: The media (and political) elite tend to over-interpret the significance of the fact that more Americans are describe themselves as “conservative” than “liberal”:
A 2007 Media Matters report demonstrated that despite the near-constant insistence by members of the media that this is a conservative or "center-right" country, "Americans are progressive across a wide range of controversial issues, and they're growing more progressive all the time."
Since then, the evidence that this is a progressive nation has only increased. Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, including Barack Obama's landslide victory last November. Democrats control both houses of Congress, with the largest majority either party has enjoyed in decades. Public polling continues to show widespread support for progressive policy proposals.
And yet the news media continue to insist that America is a "center-right" nation. They offer increasingly tortured justifications for this position, like Tom Brokaw's invocation of the total land mass of counties carried by John McCain -- as if the number of rocks and trees and blades of grass in counties McCain won is more important than the number of people who preferred Obama.
The notion of America as a fundamentally conservative nation is so ingrained in the minds of our media elite that CNN's John King found himself arguing that "the electorate voted for Barack Obama but still perceives him to be a liberal. ... The last thing you want to do if you want to keep them four years from now is to alienate them with a liberal agenda." Of course, another possibility is that if the electorate voted for Barack Obama while perceiving him as a liberal, maybe the electorate is liberal, too. But that thought didn't seem to cross King's mind.
Just this week, Politico's Glenn Thrush provided another example of false media assumptions about the public's policy views. Thrush wrote that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's support for public funding for contraceptives would play into Republican efforts to portray her as a "Bay Area liberal" pursuing a "far left agenda." Just one problem: Public funding for contraceptives is really, really popular. How popular? Eighty-six percent of Americans support such funding, according to a 2005 poll conducted by a Republican polling firm. Pelosi's support for contraceptive funding doesn't make her look, as Thrush indicated, "far left" -- to the contrary, the conservatives who oppose it make up a tiny, far-right minority of Americans.
[Mika] Brzezinski also pointed to (similarly useless) polling about whether people describe themselves as "liberal" or "conservative." Her reliance on such polling about labels shows how badly out of touch she is. Labels like "liberal" and "conservative" just don't mean much to most people, both because most people don't think in terms of political science nomenclature and because the terms have been twisted and distorted by politicians and the media so much that they've lost much of their value. Poll questions asking people to describe themselves as "pro-life" or "pro-choice" are similarly flawed. Who isn't "pro-life"?This is a common dynamic: Ask people to describe themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” and you’ll get a roughly even split; perhaps even results that suggest America is conservative on the issue. Ask them if abortion should be banned and you’ll see far different results. Ask if they favor “stronger gun control” and it may seem the public rejects regulations on guns. But ask them more specific questions about high capacity magazines, assault weapons, and background checks, and you’ll find strong to overwhelming support for such policies. Ask their views on “big government” or “free markets” and you might think the public is economically conservative -- but ask what they think about Medicare, the minimum wage, raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and countless other specific policies, and their answers will be to the left of much of the Democratic Party. The consistent pattern is that conservative labels may be popular, but conservative policies are less popular than liberal policies. But the reporters, pundits, and politicians take the public’s reaction to labels at face value rather than assessing their views more deeply.
So, yes, Brzezinski can find a (badly flawed) Gallup poll that says more Americans self-identify as "pro-life" than "pro-choice." But that poll confuses more than it clarifies. If Brzezinski focused on what people actually think about abortion rather than lazily relying on a flawed poll about labels in order to justify her contention that most Americans agree with Palin, she would find something quite different. Palin thinks abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape. That position is not only out of the mainstream among all Americans, it was convincingly rejected by voters in South Dakota -- one of the most conservative states in the nation -- just three years ago.
And, yes, Brzezinski can point to polls that show that more people self-identify as conservatives than liberals. Does that mean, as Brzezinski suggests, that most people share Palin's views? No. Most people disagree with Palin about gay rights, about health care, about just about every major issue -- often by huge margins. Yes, a plurality describes themselves -- as Palin does -- as "conservative." But relying as Brzezinski does on such labels is lazy, superficial, and highly misleading. It is astounding to think that someone who covers politics for a living would not understand that.
One regularly-occurring example of the news media’s overestimation of the public’s conservatism is the way politicians are described. Elected officials with far-right voting records, like Lindsey Graham and Brian Bilbray, are routinely described as “moderate” or “centrist” Republicans, while those with far more centrist voting records, like Diane Feinstein, are described as among the “most liberal.”
Now, you might wonder if politicians overestimate the conservatism of their constituents because the news media does so -- or if it is the other way around? Both. The two groups’ misperceptions reinforce each other in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Now, take another look at Matthews’ summary of the study:
Broockman and Skrovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write.Conservative politicians massively overestimate the conservatism of their constituents, and behave accordingly. Meanwhile, liberal politicians also overestimate their constituents’ conservatism, though not as severely. Sound familiar? It should: It’s a dynamic we see over and over again. Republicans stake out a far-right position on taxes or entitlements or deficit reduction; Democrats counter with proposals that are at best slightly to the left of center and often a bit to the right of center; and the whole debate lurches to the right. Conservatives pretend FOX News and Rush Limbaugh are counterweights to “liberal” news outlets like the New York Times and MSNBC, and liberals largely go along with the imbalanced comparison, essentially stipulating that the center is halfway between the Times and FOX.