Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Obama made America more conservative (but Trump is probably making it more liberal)

In America, there are about as many conservatives as there are liberals. That means that, if you are a liberal, you are going to need to convince some conservatives to become liberal in order to get anything done - because of the whole "democracy" thing.

But maybe not. I sometimes hear liberal activists say that that if only conservative Americans could get a taste of how awesome liberal policy actually is, they would "come to their senses" and become liberals, without us ever having to talk to them.

By this logic, all we need to do is just use whatever tricks we can come up with (even potentially "undemocratic" ones - like a coup or revolution) to impose  more liberal policy. Even if most Americans say they don't want these sorts of policies, they'll change their minds once they see how well things are going. Right?

Unfortunately, history tells us that's probably not going to happen.

The Public is a Thermostat.

There's this weird thing that happens in American politics. Believe it or not, the following are both true:

  • Americans tend to become more liberal when a Republican is President
  • Americans tend to become more conservative when a Democrat is President. 

Political scientists have known this happens for a while now. They call this sort of behavior “thermostatic” - because the public seems to be acting like a thermostat.  When American government gets too “cold” (conservative) the public gets warmer (more liberal) and when government gets too “warm” (liberal) the public gets cooler (more conservative). This is easy to see if you know how to look.

This chart shows how supportive the American public has been of liberal economic policy (the top line) and how likely they are to think of themselves as liberal (the bottom line) over the last fifty years (see my previous post for more on these two different kinds of liberalism). In both cases, higher values mean “more liberal.”1 Over these lines I’ve put a series of red and blue boxes, corresponding to GOP (red) or Democratic (blue) presidential administrations

When do Americans Become More Liberal? When do they become more Conservative?

The chart shows that Americans were pretty darn conservative in the early 1980s, but become much more liberal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can watch support for liberal policy rising steadily through the Reagan and George H.W Bush administrations (1981-1993) but then taking a nosedive right when President Clinton takes office. You can also see that liberal self-identification (the bottom line) gradually climbs during the Nixon administration but then declines all throughout the Carter Administration.2

Notice that support for liberal policy has fallen dramatically since Obama took office in 2009.

Why is this happening?

For many political scientists, the most compelling explanation is that the American public is just more moderate than either of the two major parties. So when either party wins a presidential election, it gives the public either “too much” liberalism, or “too much” conservatism, and the public gets annoyed. 

Let’s imagine that a GOP President takes office. He (or she?) proceeds to enact a bunch of “typical Republican policies" - lower taxes, spending cuts, increased restrictions on abortion, that sort of thing. But these policies are more conservative than most Americans want. So the more “GOP stuff” this President does, the more ticked off the public gets, and they more they start to think “hey, we like the idea of small government, sure, but maybe government has gotten too small.” So when the next election comes around, they choose a Democrat.

The Democratic President then does a bunch of typically “Democratic things” - more generous social safety-net programs, more business regulations, increased support for Planned Parenthood, etc., and Americans start to think “you know, we like it when the government tries to help out, but all this stuff is starting to impede with our personal liberty.” So next time they elect a GOP President and the cycle repeats.

This isn’t the only thing that impacts how American political views change, and it doesn't always work this neatly, which is why the lines above don’t always go up during GOP administrations and down during Democratic ones. It does help to explain some exceptions to this rule in the chart above, like the fact that Americans got more liberal during the latter part of the Clinton Administration. This increase corresponds to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Under Gingrich's leadership, the GOP Congress was able to exert a huge influence on Clinton’s policy, making it more conservative. In response, Americans became more liberal, even though a Democrat was in the White House.

What does this mean?

If most Americans are more moderate than the average Democratic (or Republican) President, then they’re much more moderate than the average liberal activist. If you are a liberal activists, you probably should to come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of Americans strongly disagree with your views. That doesn’t mean that they’re right and you’re wrong, but it’s just something you need to account for.

It also means that just imposing liberal policies on Americans won't necessarily make them realize that "liberals were right after all." In fact, history suggests that the opposite would probably happen.

If somehow Bernie Sanders became President, and an Elizabeth Warren-led wing of the Democratic party took over the House and Senate, then history suggests that Americans would probably respond by becoming much more conservative. 

So if you really want to change the political landscape in America, you can't count on conservatives changing their minds on their own. You probably have to go out and use words and arguments to convince them to become more liberal. This is not something that liberal activists have spent a lot of time trying to do.

But there’s a bright side (for liberals) to all this as well. We've learned that one way to convince Americans of the benefits of liberalism is to let a Republican run the country for a few years. This probably isn't going to change the fundamental balance of power in America, but by enacting a policy that is far more conservative than most Americans want Trump may be making America as a whole a more liberal country.


The measure of “support for liberal economic policy” above is known in political science as “policy mood” (it's the same measure I analyzed in my recent paper on American concerns about inequality)  and the measure of “liberal self-identification” is known as “symbolic liberalism.” For boring mathematical reasons the specific numerical values of these measures don’t really mean anything in particular, so I didn’t bother to label the Y axis (which would get me justifiably flogged if this was an academic paper, but I'm trying to keep things as simple as possible here). Both measures were created by political scientist (and my dissertation adviser) James Stimson, and the raw data I used in this cart can be downloaded at his website here.

2 It’s generally not a good idea to assume that a pattern exists just by looking at a chart like this. There are a bunch of statistical and mathematical tests you need to do in order to verify that the trend you are seeing is real, and not an illusion. In this case, that means using the technique of time-series regression analysis, which can help you to be sure that these changes are really correlated with the presidential administration changes themselves, as opposed to various other things like the changing economic situation in America. This relationship still shows up even when you perform such tests. I ran these sorts of models in my article in the journal Political Behavior, but you can also see them in James Stimson’s article in Deadalus, cited below.


Stimson, J. (1999). Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings (Second ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Stimson, J. (2012). On the Meaning & Measurement of Mood. Deadalus, 141(4), 23-34.

Wlezien, C. (1995). The Public as Thermostat: Dynamics of Preferences for Spending. American Journal of Political Science, 39(4), 981-1000

Wright, G (2017). The Political Implications of American Concerns about Economic Inequality. Political Behavior.

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