The great debate over the past few years is whether the U.S. is starting to lean to the left, or it remains a center-right leaning nation.
The common thought is that we are clearly a right-leaning nation, with many Americans self-identifying as conservatives. That's despite a President who is to the left of his predecessor and a Congressional makeup that is shifting to the left as well. Pundits say that's because the Republican party abandoned its conservatism, rather than a shift by the country.
Alan Abramowitz writes in Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball that may not be true. An October 2008 Time poll compared Americans' political identification with their leanings on specific policy issues.
In the Time poll, as in almost every other national survey since the 1970s, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a wide margin: 16 percent of likely voters described themselves as very conservative, 26 percent as somewhat conservative, 29 percent as moderate, 20 percent as somewhat liberal, and 9 percent as very liberal.
When asked about their views on specific policy issues, however, these likely voters took the liberal side more often than they took the conservative side. On six of ten issues--abortion, health insurance, the war in Iraq, regulation of financial institutions, government assistance to homeowners threatened by foreclosure and global warming--a majority or plurality of respondents came down on the liberal side. On three issues--gay marriage, offshore drilling, and business tax cuts--a majority or plurality of respondents came down on the conservative side. On one issue, federal bailouts for financial institutions, it was not possible to identify liberal and conservative positions.
So what can we conclude? Abramowitz says the situation is why our politics are becoming more polarized.
Despite the continued popularity of the conservative label among Americans, on many specific issues public opinion has a liberal tilt. Moreover, it is policy preferences that seem to matter most in determining candidate choice. However, while it may be useful to know that the policy preferences of the electorate had a slightly liberal tilt in 2008, at least on the issues included in the Time survey, it is probably more politically significant that Democratic and Republican voters were deeply divided on these issues.
These findings provide further evidence of the extraordinary level of partisan polarization in the American electorate today. This is important because Democratic and Republican officeholders are primarily responsive to the preferences of their own electoral constituencies and those preferences are decidedly liberal for most Democratic officeholders and decidedly conservative for most Republican officeholders. So regardless of which party is in power, supporters of the opposing party are bound to be very unhappy with the direction of public policy. It is not surprising, therefore, that recent polls have found over 80 percent approval of Barack Obama's performance among Democrats, but less than 20 percent approval among Republicans.