Why Are Politicians More Conservative Than They Need To Be?

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Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog reports on a fascinating study about liberal vs conservative beliefs:

Last year, a group of political scientists took a random sample of state legislators and asked them a slew of questions, most of which boiled down to: “What do your constituents think about policy?” Do they support gay marriage? Do they support Obamacare? Do they support action to combat global warming?

Friend-of-the-blog David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, graduate students at Berkeley and Michigan, respectively, have released a working paper based on that research and the findings are rather astonishing.

Broockman and Skovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

Surprised? I’m not. The study doesn’t answer the question as to why this might be, but I have a quick answer: the political media and the donor class are more conservative than the rest of us. I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve heard the phrase “it’s a conservative country” from pundits and commentators but I’ve heard it many times. And it isn’t just that explicit belief, but a whole set of assumptions that permeate the commentary at every level. It goes all the way back to Joseph Kraft’s famous column from 1968 to today when you hear the media complain about the voters being stupid and selfish when they seem not to support conservative policies for their own good.

As for the politicians themselves,  there are many incentives to be as conservative as their constituents will allow. And it’s not surprising that the people vote for people who are more conservative than they are — they usually have two conservatives to choose from and in the end have to pick the one who’s closer to their beliefs or who holds the cultural signifiers they are forced to substitute for policy agreement. If a liberal is even in the race, he or she usually has less money and almost no institutional support. The Party apparatus in both parties gives its money to the more conservative — under the same assumption that the most conservative choice will always have an easier time winning. It’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop.

I don’t know that changing this assumption among the political media would solve the problem. But it would certainly allow a little bit of clarity. Years of right wingers playing the refs by accusing the media of being liberal lapdogs ha staken its toll. And, frankly, many of the elite political media are extremely well compensated and live in a world filled with rich, powerful people. They naturally identify with them and have less understanding of the average Americans’ daily concerns. (And no, it doesn’t matter if they came up from the average middle class — our meritocratic ethos says they did it all on their own and everyone else could too. Many of them are more hardcore about this than the children of the aristocracy.)

Ultimately, a whole lot of this comes down to money: as the old saying goes, “it is very difficult to make a man understand something when his livelihood depends on not understanding it.”

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