Is America a Conservative Country?

That’s what pundits would have you believe, that we’re a “center-right” nation, that Reaganism is deep in the electorate’s bones, yadda yadda yadda. But does the data bear it out? Well, no.

James A. Stimson is a political scientist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the most well-respected public opinion researchers in the nation. For years, he has developed a factor analysis of public opinion, developing a measure of the public’s ideological “mood”: the higher the number, the more liberal the public is. Here is his most recent plot:

Whatever this graph tells us, it certainly belies the notion that Reaganism has had a major impact on US public opinion. Currently, the public’s “mood” lies somewhere between 57 and 58, slightly above its level in 1972, and far above where it stood in 1981, the apex of the Reagan era. Indeed, if anything, it shows that as soon as the public got a taste of the Gipper, it turned sharply in the other direction, as it did when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court. That doesn’t mean that Reagan came from nowhere: the 70′s represented a sharp rightward shift. Ditto with Gingrich ascendancy, which essentially caught up with great conservatism in the 1990′s.

Note well, however, that current opinion is not even close to the heights of conservatism, and is closer if anything to the Great Society of the mid-60′s and Nixonian liberalism of the early 70′s. So this is a period when the public mood is somewhat sympathetic to progressivism.

Why during such a period the Right has been successful at framing and dominating the policy debate is an exercise left to the reader.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.