Schaller: U.S. isn't so conservative

Tom Schaller makes an interesting argument in his column today on The Sun's op-ed page, essentially attempting to debunk the conventional wisdom peddled by Karl Rove et. al. that the U.S. remains a center-right nation, Barack Obama's victory notwithstanding. The chief piece of evidence in the debate is the fact that roughly the same percentages of people identify themselves as liberal, moderate and conservative as they have for years:

The center-right talking point emerged because despite a 9-point net swing in the margin of Mr. Bush's popular-vote victory four years ago and Mr. Obama's four week's ago, the shares of Americans who in 2008 polls identified themselves as "liberal," "moderate" or "conservative" essentially held steady from 2004. Those describing themselves as "liberals" edged up from 21 percent to 22 percent, while self-described "conservatives" slipped from 45 percent to 44 percent, with "moderates" holding steady at 34 percent.

Schaller's contention is that this statistic is basically meaningless, in that "moderate" can mean a lot of things, as can "liberal" and "conservative." When someone says "modrate" they may lean liberal on a host of issues, or they may not.

The whole thing strikes me as a cousin of the argument over whether Maryland is a liberal state. There's no question that it's a solidly Democratic state, but what that means in various individual circumstances can vary tremendously. You've got, for example, Democrats Dutch Ruppersberger and Donna Edwards in the state's Congressional delegation. But would anyone argue that the two are philosophical soulmates? She and her constituents are pretty clearly liberal. He and his would, by most measures, be called conservative. There are plenty of Democratic legislators who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and plenty of others (particularly in the Legislative Black Caucus) that are fiscally liberal but pretty socially conservative.

The argument about just how liberal or conservative Maryland's electorate is gets raised all the time by groups like Progressive Maryland and Health Care for All, both of which claim that despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, the state's leaders are less liberal than voters on a whole host of issues. Things like the smoking ban or state funding for stem cell research poll through the roof in Maryland but had tough going in the legislature.

The trick, though, is the same as the liberal-moderate-conservative question in national polls: It all depends on how you frame the issue. Liberal advocacy groups routinely wave around polls showing widespread support for their proposals, even if they would mean higher taxes. But as evidenced by Gov. O'Malley's horrible poll numbers in the wake of last year's special session, voters are a lot less sanguine when tax increases are real and not hypothetical.

So is Maryland a liberal state? It depends on who you ask, and how you ask the question.

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