Are the Majority of Americans Conservative?

Catch of the day goes to Rachel Maddow. The liberal talk show host went off on a diatribe against Politifact after it rated “Mostly True” a claim by Marco Rubio that “The majority of Americans are conservatives.”

There are a few ways to look at this. Politifact concentrated on self-identification polling, which shows far more American self-identify as conservative than as liberal, and decided that the plurality lead for “conservative” in those polls is at least close to Rubio’s “majority” claim. At a narrowly literal level — and that’s not a crazy level for Politifact to use in many cases — that’s not an unreasonable position. And yet the political difference between a nation in which a group makes up over 50% of the electorate and one in which that group is at around 40% is quite significant.

One could look at it another way, which is to get beyond self-identification to go to whether people believe in conservative concepts or not. But then it gets very tricky, as can be seen easily in from the speech Politifact was fact-checking. Rubio actually said: The majority of Americans are conservatives — they believe in things like the Constitution. I know that’s weird to some people…” Politifact ignored that context of Rubio’s comment, turning it into a narrow question of self-identification. But that’s not actually what Rubio was saying. He’s making a political claim that believing in the Constitution makes one a conservative. But that’s, on the surface false — virtually all Americans, liberals included, believe in the Constitution. Or it’s false in a different way: if Rubio is going to say that believing in the Constitution means believing in a particular interpretation of the Constitution, then those who do so may all be conservatives, but now we’re talking about a very small group of Americans who are well-versed in the controversies about Constitutional interpretation. Or it’s just a claim not open to fact-checking, that most Americans would agree with Rubio’s version of the Constitution if they thought about it. Or one could understand the statement as a rhetorical device. That’s not a bad thing for someone to point out (it seems to be a staple of 6th grade education), but it has nothing to do with how many Americans self-identify as conservatives, and selecting out that portion of the statement to fact-check seems, really, sort of perverse).

Moreover, one could point out that the real answer here is none of the above: Americans are not liberal, conservative, or moderate in their ideology, because most Americans aren’t ideological at all. That’s one of the classic findings in political science studies of voters. Americans are, indeed, partisan — but they don’t think in ideological terms.

Anyway, I do agree with Maddow’s basic point, which is that Politifact is just useless here. Indeed, it’s a very odd “fact” to pull out of Rubio’s speech no matter how one looks at it. Earlier in the speech, Rubio repeated the absolutely false claim that Barack Obama “got everything he wanted from the Congress” in 2009-2010. That’s a pretty straightforward factual claim, and it’s absolutely false (is it “pants on fire” false? I don’t know, but it’s flat-out false). Rubio then claims that after Obama took office, “The economy slowed down.” If that’s not a pants-on-fire claim, I’m really not sure what is…Rubio doesn’t qualify it at all, he simply says that “everything got worse” and that “the economy slowed down.” It’s just a plain old lie.

Rubio goes on to say that Obama is the first president to pit some Americans against others, but of course that’s both a mischaracterization of Obama’s position and, on the face of it, absolutely false as well (plenty of presidents have pitted some Americans against others; I’d think all of them probably have). Oh, and Rubio also claimed that in the State of the Union address Obama didn’t talk about his own record, but that’s false too; Obama did, in fact, talk about recent job creation and deficit reduction.

I quit listening to the speech at that point (just four minutes in; the bit about conservatives is later), but I have no idea why Politifact pulled the majority conservative point out of the speech, and out of context at that, as the thing to fact-check.

(To try to get it out of the partisan side of things…looking at Rubio, it turns out that Politifact gave him a “half true” for saying that Mitt Romney was “one of the first national leaders to endorse” him in his Senate nomination bid. The item weirdly focuses on whether Romney’s endorsement was after Rubio had the nomination wrapped up, which Rubio’s “fact” doesn’t make any claims about. It counts four national Republican leaders who endorsed before Romney, but puts way more weight on how the campaign was doing when Romney endorsed. That’s ridiculous! As long as Romney was one of the first to endorse him, the statement is totally true. If it’s true but trivial…well, maybe their categories don’t work well, or maybe it wasn’t a good claim to fact-check. But that doesn’t make it only half true!).

And that’s why Maddow’s main point, that Politifact has become a disaster, is correct. The problem here is that there’s simply no rhyme or reason to what gets checked, or what the standards are for checking it. It is, as Maddow says, just a mess.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.