Why the “Center-Right” Debate Is Maddening: It’s the Lack of Statistics, Stupid

Many in the Punditocracy are proclaiming that the U.S. is a center-right country. While it’s pretty obvious that they’re saying this to justify their feeble pronouncements, that’s not what really bugs me about this center-right hooey.

That statement is based on the observation that the majority of voters describe themselves as either moderate or conservative. But this is a stupid way of looking at this result because it presumes that the terms liberal, moderate, and conservative have accepted, standard meanings. That presumption should be called into doubt in any country where a significant fraction of the country actually believes–incorrectly–that a centrist Democrat is a socialist.
Snark aside, there is a way to determine what these political labels actually mean. There are many polls that ask both political leaning (e.g., are you a liberal, moderate, or conservative) and views on issues. Several different statistical techniques can be used to determine what answers a liberal (or moderate, etc.) should have on average–think of it as determining the liberal moyen. Once this is done, we can then classify respondents into these groups based on their opinions, and not on self-assigned labels (and, of course, some people won’t be able to be classified with any degree of confidence). We could even use subsets of questions–that is, ask if someone is a social conservative versus a social moderate, and so on.
For some reason, this is never done. Somewhere, there must be a professional pollster who knows what discriminant analysis is (or any other number of techniques). It would yield very useful information that would probably knock the pundits flat on their asses. My prediction is that economically we’re center-left, with an emphasis on left; socially, straight down the middle with a large variance; in foreign, policy, probably center to center-right. But until someone does the proper analysis, we’ll never know.

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15 Responses to Why the “Center-Right” Debate Is Maddening: It’s the Lack of Statistics, Stupid

  1. Coturnix says:

    Well, if you cross-post this on DK perhaps Kos will pay for such a poll.

  2. Christie says:

    Here, here! I agree. My Boyfriend, for example, is a “conservative republican” – but supported Obama. Where’s the logic in that?

  3. Edward says:

    Well, for starters, I think the whole thing of trying to categorize multi-dimensional attitudes on a linear scale is kind of stupid. However, if one looks at objective measures rather than personal opinion surveys, the USA looks more “conservative” than other industrialized democracies. For example, we do not have a comprehensive national health care system, our tax system is not as progressive, public transit is not as well supported, and the list goes on.
    I, myself, am not really interested in whether ideas are liberal or conservative. I am interested in practical solutions that produce long-term prosperity and a civil society so that I can continue to enjoy my cushy life, and live long and well after I retire. This results in me backing policies that get me called a liberal.

  4. Simon says:

    The day you have some form of universal health service, I shall agree with you.
    As a Brit I accept complete confusion with US language.

  5. Simon says:

    Oh, I wrote before I saw Edwards comments.
    In the UK not being liberal is seen as a very bad thing!

  6. Sam C says:

    Economically center left? WHAT?! If there is one main marker of the left-right spectrum is about the core economic principles: the relative roles of markets and the state and the nature of ownership. The only thing the USA is leftish on is its professional sports scene, where failing teams are rewarded by being allowed to draft better players (other countries punish failure by systems of relegation to lower leagues). On anything else, even your “center” is rightish by international standards.
    Methinks you’re using an argument from ignorance here; you don’t understand this issue, therefore nobody does.
    Best to stick to biology and other science – remember how dopey politicians sound when they talk about scientific issues that they don’t really understand? Perhaps that knife cuts both ways!

  7. Arikia says:

    You might want to look into work by David G. Winter from the University of Michigan. I helped him analyze data last year and this is exactly what he is looking at.

  8. cephyn says:

    Sam C, if you notice, our right wing government just decided to take partial ownership of a bunch of private businesses. to save them. so that they wouldnt be punished for failure.
    sounds like even the right leans left.

  9. Sam C,
    I was referring to left, center, and right using the U.S. usage of the terms. Pundits who are calling the U.S. ‘center-right’ are not doing so within the context of European politics (where that center-right group would be farther to the left in the U.S.), but U.S. politics. The claim that U.S. is ‘center-right’ is an attempt to undermine progressives and liberals–and is not supported by anything other than an simplistic assessment (by commentators) of self-reported labels.
    Also, the point was that lots of people who call themselves moderates (in the U.S. context) would actually resemble liberals economically (again, within the U.S. context).
    Thanks. I’ll look into Winter.
    While I agree that the policies matter most, how these policies are described matters greatly in our ability to enact them. This description, rather than describing where people actually are, is being used to discredit policies (ones that I think you would like).
    To all statistical note: depending on how the questions are asked, we can use numerical statistical techniques, even with yes or no answers. Glancing at my shelf, I see two books on how to do that….

  10. Note also that the right-wing in the United States has done a very good job at making the word “liberal” sound dirty. Note how many prefer to now use the term “progressive.” But yes, this sort of study would be interesting.

  11. try to be liberal in my country…
    try to be a patriot…
    I wish to have your problems…:)
    best regards from Belarus

  12. Edward says:

    I would agree that how policies are described influences whether they are enacted. In particular, I think that republicans have waged a disinformation campaign so that much of the American public now views unfavorably policies labeled as “liberal” – even if said policies would benefit them. But what is needed is not a re-labeling of the body politic or the policies, but better education of the public so we look beyond the labels at what the policies actually do. Ideology needs to be replaced by scientific cost/benefit analysis.
    Based on my interactions and discussions with European relatives and friends, it seems like those who are somewhat “conservative” on the European scale are generally in accord with the policies of the Democratic party and consider the Republicans to be too extreme. Those who are somewhat “liberal” tend to view the Democrats as center-right on the European scale.
    Now, do you draw the center line based on some ideological standard or based on the sample mean or median? If you compare the US to other Industrialized Democracies, I think we are to the right of most of the others, socially and especially economically. It is only the relatively recently democratic countries where social attitudes tend to be as conservative as the US, and even most of them are economically more liberal.

  13. Troublesome Frog says:

    Sam C,
    It might also be instructive to look at the difference between what Americans say their principles are (e.g. “I’m all for small government, free market, blah, blah”) and then compare it to how they answer specific questions about, say, eliminating Social Security or Medicare. Free market capitalism and dissatisfaction with government “inneficiency” is like mom and applie pie around here, but only as long as one’s own particular government programs are left alone.

  14. chezjake says:

    Mike, the Pew Research Center may have done some of the work you’re looking for. They’ve done 4 periodic surveys looking at how people identify politically versus their opinions on various issues and ideas, and from these surveys they’ve come up with a “political typology.” Unfortunately the most recent one was done in 2005, but it may still be useful to you. (You can even see (and take) their survey for yourself.)
    Hopefully, they’ll do a new one now that the nation seems to be changing direction.

  15. llewelly says:

    Many in the Punditocracy are proclaiming that the U.S. is a center-right country.

    That’s why I keep insisting the position that single-payer health care is good is a center-right position. After all, even in Utah, the state where Clinton came in third place behind Ross Perot, not once, but twice, the majority of the population wants single-payer health care.

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