Thursday, December 9, 2010

A simple model of American politics

My cynical take on American Party politics is that American politics is divided into two sides of politics who each accuse the other of betraying the principles of the American Revolution – and they are both correct.

If one looks at the polls, Americans divide into liberal, moderates and conservatives or Democrats, independent voters and Republicans, depending on how you want to divide according to ideology or Party.

In terms of the general liberal-conservative divide in US politics, amongst non-Latino whites, most groups are mildly trending to identify more as conservatives, apart from the intellectual/academic/cultural elite, who are wildly diverging from other social groups. (Which is not a socially healthy development.) But what counts as conservative in 1968 is not the same as in 2008. Nor, and this may matter for social identification, is what counts as liberal: if the intellectual/academic/cultural elite are the archetypal 'liberals' and they are moving further away from the mainstream, more folk may be inclined to identify as 'conservative' on the grounds of distance from the 'liberals'.

Broadly speaking, independent voters tend to agree more with the Republicans on tax, spending, size of government and national security issues. They tend to agree more with the Democrats on social issues. That is, they tend lean to being (in American terms) fiscally conservative and to being socially liberal.

The difficulty is with the activist base on each side. The activist base of the modern Republican Party is culturally conservative: they are where the Republican Party gets much of its political energy from. But their strongly social conservative politics do not appeal to independent voters.

The activist base of the modern Democratic party is fiscally liberal: they are big government, tax-and-spend types, they are where the Democratic Party gets much of its political energy from (as this cartoon express with a certain vivid vulgarity: federal public servants have done very well out of the Obama Presidency and Democrat Congress). They also do not appeal much to independent voters.

So the trick in American politics is to emphasize your broader appeal while energising your base without seeming to be captured by them.

Social conservatism is considerably more popular in the US than fiscal liberalism: 42% are social conservatives, 16% are fiscally liberal. So it looks like the Republicans have an inherent advantage. But this can be misleading: indeed, precisely because your activist base represents a sizeable segment of opinion (30% are both fiscally and socially conservative, while only 11% are fiscally and socially liberal) it can “miss out” how much its core opinions are not, in fact, majority opinions. With 29% being socially liberal and 29% socially moderate, conservative “culture war” politics are not a majority-winning path: particularly as the trend in public opinion on particular issues is clearly in the “wrong” direction. (This is even more so in other parts of the Anglosphere.)

Fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, is much more of a winner: 47% are fiscally conservative, only 16% are fiscally liberal. So a massive outbreak of fiscal liberalism is best countered by emphasizing your fiscal conservatism while toning down your social conservatism. Which would seem to describe what just happened in US politics fairly well.

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