Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Liberal and Conservative Litmus Test?

I have been wrestling with this one for awhile. I will get into debates with people on various issues, and sometimes they will call me a "liberal", usually when they have run out of coherent arguments. I'm the type of person that believes that both political extremes are very unwise to follow, especially since most of the population is a proverbial "stone's throw" from the middle. That got me to thinking. What is a liberal exactly? What do they believe, and how is it different from a moderate Democrat, as I describe myself to be?

I have often thought that some of the difference between moderate Democrats and liberal Democrats can be measured in terms of tactics, and can also be extended to moderate and conservative Republicans as well. The most liberal and the most conservative people tend to be the loudest in their opposition to the other side. I think that they also tend to see the opposing party as being more radical, since they are further from the opposing view than moderates. There is a well-known principle of social psychology that states that people see the group that they are in as more diverse than the group that they oppose. One side sees different people with similar but diverse views and backgrounds coming together under their own "big tent", while the other side sees these same people as a flock of sheep following their party's directives, but I digress. There tends to be more name-calling, more good versus evil imagery, more anger, and more demagoguery the further right and left you go. While this can be an interesting and sometimes effective method of spotting extreme views, it does not describe or explain the differences between the extremes and the middle in terms of issues, and that is the only way to really do it systematically. Here is a better way.

First, there is the problem with how we define the differences within a party, because so many issues are binary. You either believe X or you believe Y, and there sometimes isn't much of a Z. Certainly issues have in-between views, especially economic issues, but many "variations", on social issues especially, are on a specific facet of an issue, and therefore are just an X and Y of a different but related issue. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on social issues, but it certainly applies to many economic issues as well. What does all this mean in terms of categorization and a litmus test? It means that Democrats of all types are going to tend to agree with each other on both the most contentious issues (the ones where it is at least close to 50/50 split in the general public, 40-60 percent agreeing we'll say), and ones which "favor" them overall (where say, the public favors the Democratic idea, 60-100 percent agreeing). For these issues, the liberal view and the moderate view probably will not differ very much, and therefore with issues like first trimester abortion where most Dems, many independents, and even some Republicans agree, it can't be used as a "liberal test". The same is true in reverse for the Republicans when it comes to full marriage rights for gays as a "conservative test", since many independents and many Democrats agree with most Republicans. This leads us to the conclusion that the fewer moderates agree with a particular position, the more liberal or conservative that position probably is. When you lose nearly all moderate support and some of your own party's support for an issue, it drifts into the thirtysomething percent or less approval zone, and it tells you that most of the support is now coming from only the core left or right. Keep in mind that this does not make the position automatically "wrong"! It also does not mean that doing the most popular thing is always best either. It just means that view is further toward one end of the political spectrum, and therefore more liberal or more conservative.

My conclusion is that there actually is a "pretty good" rule of thumb that you can use. If you want to find out how liberal or conservative someone is, you ask them about some issues that most moderates, and therefore a solid majority of the public, tend to agree with their opposing party on. There are fewer of these issues than you think, since many of the biggest issues of our time are split closely along party lines, so choose carefully! You then put all of that together, and can at least get a general idea.

Make no mistake, I do not think that people have to be categorized at all! I just think that if you are going to call someone a "liberal" or a "conservative", at least know why you do so, and what one is.

17 comments:

soundboyz said...

I like to think of myself as a moderate liberal with conservative values.

Erik Grow said...

Hm, and what is the basis for that definition? Sounds interesting, but can you explain it?

Two Dogs said...

Hell no, he can't explain why he ate Cheerios this morning instead of Cap'n Crunch.

nicnerd said...

I find it interesting that your litmus test involves the popularity of an issue. I would define myself very conservative Republican, but on some key issues I disagree with the majority of my GOP peers. Not because I checked some opinion poll, because I personally feel strongly.

You cannot base your moral decisions on what the popular voice says. This is my issue with so many modern democrats. A wise, but radical man once said, "If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything." It does not matter if you are a liberal or a conservative (well actually it does - /grin) but can you swallow your own views? Can you live with what you have chosen? In the end, I hold many wildly unpopular view, but I would never be able to live with myself if I were to "go with the flow." Sometimes, in fact many times, the popular opinion is wrong. Or perhaps the measure is wrong, these polls that you use as your divining rod are all biased, as is all media. There is no such thing as impartial polling or impartial media. If the venerable gauge that you use to base your morality is flawed, is not your morality also flawed?

Erik Grow said...

I covered that, but you missed it! I said in the post: "It also does not mean that doing the most popular thing is always best either. It just means that view is further toward one end of the political spectrum, and therefore more liberal or more conservative."

Care to reformulate a response? (By the way, nicnerd is a good friend of mine in RL. We argue politics frequently!)

Erik Grow said...

Oh, and by the way, the whole "moral relativism/moral absolutism" issue will be tackled soon on my blog.

nicnerd said...

Sure, on one hand you say "It also does not mean that doing the most popular thing is always best either. It just means that view is further toward one end of the political spectrum, and therefore more liberal or more conservative", then you say using polling data is a good barometer. Your argument is odd to say the least. Either using polling data is a good litmus test or it is not, which is it? In my honest opinion you find yourself agreeing with the left more often than not, but then you do not like the lefty label. Your views are your views, so long as you form them on your own and do not use some silly poll as a guide. If your views align with the left why not wear that badge with pride? My views align me to the right. I don't mind being called a conservative, right winger, or whatever the label of the week is. I am a Republican who is vigorously opposed to the death penalty. That along with some of my other views pits me against many in my party, but so be it. I am who I am, I won't change my view because my party thinks it is OK to kill a criminal but supports sanctity of life legislation with regards to abortion. This is a paradox to me and I could never support the murder of any human life, born or unborn.

All of the above is a long winded way of saying be who you are. At the end of the day you must make decisions that you believe in. Stop trying to justify your views; if you hold them dearly there must be a valid reason. The only thing that bugs me is politicians who change their views on fundamental “values” issues based on the mood of the mainstream, key leaders in both parties have done this. If you truly believe in something, you ought to stand up for it regardless of the popularity of the opinion.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but only mine is right. j/k

Erik Grow said...

Well, of course I agree with the left more than the right, because most of the issues that we discuss are issues that are very contentious, and split the public down the middle, or close to it. That is my whole point. Calling someone a liberal because they agree with most of what the Democratic party stands for is a poor test. You know that I split with many in my party on many gun issues and on some issues surrounding the war, but we don't argue about these things as often, because we are closer to agreement on them than some of the other issues.

You're right, polls can and are sometimes flawed, certainly. However, if you take several polls together especially, you can have a very solid reportable result. It *can* be done well, but is not always done well.

As for how much a poll *should* drive policy, if at all, it will be expanded upon in a future post!

Two Dogs said...

Man, nicnerd, you are going to have to give up your Republican membership card and bonus stamps if you oppose the death penalty....by the way, I am Catholic and actually break with the Church on the issue.

I agree that from everything that I can extrapolate from Erik, he is most definitely a Left-winger. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing, I just think that for the most part, you can tell the difference with a question about how someone FEELS about something.

If the person responds without making the distinction about the feeling vs. thinking thing, they are Left-wing to the hilt.

Erik Grow said...

Hm, so you would make the liberal/moderate distinction based on what they would think versus feel Two Dogs? How often are the two different from you on a given issue Two Dogs? So far it seems that your definition and nicnerd's definition of liberal would mean that pretty much all Democrats are liberal and pretty much all Republicans are conservative! Also, you only know my views on a few issues so far Two Dogs, minimum wage, the TS issue, and a little bit on the abortion issue I think. All of those are issues where most Democrats in general, not just liberals, agree with each other. I always ask Nicnerd this, so I will ask you the same. What is a moderate Democrat, if it isn't me? Nicnerd has yet to be able to answer that question, other than identifying that I agree with much of the rest of the party as whole on the big issues. As I stated, this doesn't do any good in making the differences apparent, because all wings of the party pretty much agree. What is a moderate Democrat? What is a moderate Republican?

soundboyz said...

>Sounds interesting, but can you explain it?

Sure, it means that I believe that everyone should have equal rights and not be discriminated against because of any factor or reason.However, I don't agree with some of those factors personally. In other words, I live my life somewhat like a conservative, but without trying to impose it on anyone else!!I.E I'm not gay, but I love and respect gay people and want equal rights for them.

> Hell no, he can't explain why he ate Cheerios this morning instead of Cap'n Crunch.

Two Dogs, I don't have to explain a thing to you!!

Erik Grow said...

That's not a bad way to live. It basically means that you do not believe your own views on the right or wrong of something that isn't hurting people, should be imposed on others. If more people believed that, it would make for a lot less cultural war.

soundboyz said...

>If more people believed that, it would make for a lot less cultural war.

Two Dogs!!!!!!!!

Two Dogs said...

My favorite part of this post is Erik saying that the majority of Americans are moderates. As if the Republicans haven't completely taken over the Congress, the Presidency, a majority of Govenorships, and an ever increasing number of state elected positions. It seems the only place that "moderates" have a majority is in civil service jobs. Now, I'm not stating here that people employed by the government are of lesser intelligence, but it surely seems that way. And yes, my mother works for the Fed, but we all know which way she leans.

Remember, government:bad, private industry: good. Easy enough.

Erik Grow said...

First, Republicans have the same number of governorships that they had before the 2004 election. Second, aside from the Texas redistricting trick that DeLay pulled, the House is the same as well. Regardless, you are only talking about single digit percent margins, and a 51-48 election. I admire your exuberance, but I don't think you're going to win these close ones forever.

As for industry and government, it's only that simple if one does not bother to delve into the details. I love private industry, but like government, disease, and the one male and one female mouse in your walls, if unchecked, it isn't good. In order for the people that buy from business to be confident, there needs to be some certainty and some oversight from the government.

You are also confusing liberal/moderate/conservative with party affiliation again. Are there no somewhat moderate Republicans? I know there are. I can name several.

Two Dogs said...

I can name plenty of liberal Republicans, I am not sure that I can name one moderate anything. Erik, I see things less as shades of gray than anyone I know. Simplifies my life tremendously.

I absolutely disagree with the government oversight with business, it has given us the poverty inducing concept of a minimum wage, damn near forced all businesses to GIVE their employees health care, and has taxed the majority of businesses to death.

As far as the percentages go, I can only think of one elected position where that holds true. I know that in the cases of my Senators and Representatives, local elected officials, etal, the elections were not even close. And guess what? Mississippi is a conservative state.

If you do away with the major metro areas, a Liberal would probably never elected.

The only Moderate Democrat in the Senate I can come up with right now is Joe Leiberman. House-Gene Taylor.

nicnerd said...

Twodogs - I am literally a card carryng member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy /grin. Ask Erik, I carry the card in my wallet. My dear friends will have to forgive me for my view on capital punishment, killing is wrong whether at the hands of a killer or at the hands of the state, it is wrong.

Erik - I would say that a moderate crosses the line more often. While Eriks sometimes takes a nudge toward the center, he never crosses the line and generally stay far to the left.

There a few issues which I cross the line on, but genrally I am very far to the right. I am not reluctant to admit my loyalties. I don't drink the GOP Kool-aid all of the time, but I agree with the right on the majority of issues.

Erik, give me any example of a time in which you took ANY view that can be held as genuinely conservative. You never sway, you proclaim the virtues of the left on every issue that I have debated you on. I don't fault you for it, I think you are wrong most of the time, but they are YOUR views. Own them