2/11/2005

Another Bite of Sausage

There is an old quote that warns against watching politics or sausage being made. The same warning should apply to opinion polls; I worked in market research for a decade and it left me with an inherent distrust of opinion polls.

Still, when The Economist publishes one, I tend to suspend my disbelief. Being the best damn magazine on the planet carries a certain weight with me.

The survey in question is on American social attitudes. It seems to suggest that America is not lurching to the right, as some folks would have us believe:


The data is graphed a bit differently from most of the other presentations of such data I have seen, and it took me a moment to get my head around the visual representation. The two most interesting points are pointed out in the Economist piece:
By a huge 42-19% margin, Americans think they are more liberal than their parents. And this is borne out by most of the questions in panel 3. Set alongside the replies to an identical set of questions asked by Gallup in 1995-97, Americans seem less supportive of the death penalty and more tolerant of both marijuana and homosexuals. On economic issues, they look less favourably on trade unions, but the number who think they pay too much tax has dropped from 66% to 56%.
...
For some conservatives, these numbers may cause a fear which coincidentally provides their movement with much of its impetus: that, though they are winning elections, they are losing at least some of the culture wars. After all, gay marriage was not even a political issue ten years ago.
If we throw caution to the wind for a moment and take these numbers at face value, it presents a vexing paradox: Americans have moved to the left in the past ten years, yet the Republicans have secured control in a majority of state legislatures, governorships, the House, the Senate, and have won the Presidency twice.

I suspect that the answer is that there will always be a group of voters who vote against their general sociopolitical preference if there is an issue of significant importance at stake. In this most recent election, national security was probably that fulcrum; I don't think that John Kerry successfully made the case that he would be as hawkish on national security as many would like him to be.

In any event, general attitudes seem to be sliding leftwards over time. This should appear as a silver lining to those liberals watching with trepidation as the Republican stormfront thunders forward. Winning hearts and minds today means winning elections tomorrow.