Friday, February 25, 2005
The Harris polling agency last week released the results of an interesting study. In a survey of 2209 adults, they discovered that most Americans only have the vaguest idea of the meaning of two important pairs of words that play crucial roles in the national political discourse: conservative and liberal, and left and right.
Some of the numbers are surprising. According to the survey, 37 percent of Americans think liberals oppose gun control, or else they are not sure if liberals oppose gun control. Likewise, 27 percent of respondents thought a right-winger was someone who supported affirmative action. Furthermore, the survey showed that respondents generally viewed the paired concepts liberals and left-wingers and conservatives and right-wingers as possessing, respectively, generally similar political beliefs – with one caveat. In both cases, respondents were roughly 10 percent more clueless about left-wingers and right-wingers than they were about liberals and conservatives.
"The label left-winger is broadly perceived to be similar to liberal," the agency concluded, "except that more people are not sure what it means."
Respondents were asked to define the labels according to what their positions were on seven "political issues": abortion rights, gun control, cutting taxes, gay rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action and moral values. This list of issues is preposterous in itself as a symbolic reflection of the political landscape, but that's a discussion for another time. To me the most instructive category was "moral values." According to the survey, 78 percent of respondents believe conservatives support moral values, while only 40 percent said the same about left-wingers. In fact, 29 percent said they believed left-wingers actually opposed moral values.
I'm glad the Harris people never called me for this survey, because I would have had to answer "not sure" to every question. Even after working as a political reporter for many years, I still have absolutely no idea what the American versions of left and right mean – what they mean in an ideological sense, that is. It's hard not to be confused when we call a saber-rattling free trader like John Kerry far left, while a man who keeps a portrait of Lenin on his wall, like Grover Norquist, is considered the very definition of a right-winger.