Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Can I Get Your Number, Baby?

Interesting stuff from Harrison. The National Journal's rankings have bothered me for awhile. And just for the reason illustrated by the "Underrepresentation of Moderate America" post down below. Harry S notes that the analysis is capricious -- and continues to use it to prove a point. How vexing. Harry's first point is the better one: The NJ -- who I love otherwise -- collate the Congressional votes in a flawed process. In the 2004 election, Al From and Bruce Reed took exception to the suggestion that John Kerry was labeled the "most liberal" senator, even though the NJ only put him in the top 15. Their main cause of unhappiness really came from the magazine's "decidedly subjective judgment about what is a 'liberal' vote and what is a 'conservative' vote (as it) based more on partisan than ideological differences, ensuring that most Democrats will have very liberal ratings."

For what it's worth, I struggle with the very premise of the whole matter, as well. Categorizing every vote as "liberal" or "conservative" -- and then to define a multi-faceted politician by that handful of numbers -- is more than silly, it's potential harmful. To begin with, why is voting for gun locks "liberal" or loosening government contract restrictions with U.S. companies "conservative"? Why do we force the complexity of policy-making to a black-and-white issue -- and who gains and who loses from it? I can understand the National Journal's incentive toward easily salient data-nuggets, but it doesn't mean political scientists should feel the need to quote the results, caveats notwithstanding. Simply put, these rankings are akin to painting a fine detail onto an elaborate canvas with the broad side of a shovel.

(Even still, to go to Harry's earlier point -- tastefully titled "Conservative My Ass" which, without proper punctuation as he is wont sounds like Harry is stating a request -- I still believe that even if you find these numbers useful, Sen. Joe Lieberman remains a conservative Democrat. Harry can call me an idiot as much as he likes (and, trust me, he likes). It's unclear if his post suggests that being the 15th most conservative Democrat makes him not conservative (false) or if this proves the NJ's numbers game is almost entirely useless (true) but regardless, Lieberman is, without judgment, a conservative Democrat and was the most conservative of the Democratic challengers for president in 2004, period.)

To his point made on the polarization in D.C., I understand the larger argument. Once in the Beltway, our leaders lose sight of where the majority of Americans fall politically and spend their days either following a party line or fighting for support. A damn shame, to be sure. But it's simply misleading to suggest that "a plurality of voters identify themselves as moderate." I don't know if Harry pulled that from the NJ vote rankings (the latest of which I have not seen) but it seems clear that the devil is in the details; namely, how the question was asked. If it were posed something akin to "Do you consider yourself to be on the left flank, the right flank or a moderate," sure, you'll get your plurality. But I literally just read on National Journal's PollTrack (as I know, does Harry) on Feb. 16 of the extent to which President Bush has polarized the electorate.

(Voters were) asked if they were "generally content with the way things are going in the country today" or if they were angry about something -- a question that didn't point specifically to Bush or the government. Those numbers were similar to Bush's: Fifty-nine percent said they were angry, and 32 percent said they were generally content.

That anger clashes with any claim of languid moderation from sea to shining sea.

A CBS/New York Times poll asked (toward the end of the 2004 election) if there were important differences between the parties, looking for a trend-line on a potential national polarization:

9/1998 1/1995 10/1990 11/1988 4/1981 8/1980
Yes 64% 66% 53% 61% 50% 43%
No 28 29 41 35 42 41

The poll summarizes: Overwhelming numbers of partisans on each side see definite differences between the GOP and the Democrats. Most Independents do, too. And many voters think George W. Bush's presidency has caused the country to become polarized. 51% think Bush has divided people, and 32% think he has united them. Republicans, who are far more approving of Bush?s presidency than Democrats, are less likely to see Bush as a divider, but even 22% of them think he has caused a greater rift among Americans.

How has Congress led the electorate toward this guise of polar extremes? As Anthony Downs famously (I think) noted, there is a lack of participation on the center and perhaps the problem is that the middle simply aren't mobilizable. We shouldn't imagine the electorate's bell curve as the typical even slope. In reality, American voters today more closely resemble a curved M, as the perceived perfectly round bell curve has a notable dip in the center. A plurality of Americans aren't completely moderate -- most have leanings, and increasingly those leanings could be categorized as "strong" -- and thus perhaps a quarter of our Senators occupying the political middle ground is more understandable than Harry makes it sound.


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