It’s the Country, Not the System, That’s Stacked Against Liberals and Progressives

Historian Richard J. Hofstadter

Some of my fellow lefties seem confident the GOP’s just-say-no-to-all-things-Obama strategy will backfire in November.

I understand their argument: outs can’t win merely by opposing ins.

But Republicans will have a leg up on Democrats in November, and not just because the party that controls the White House almost always loses House and Senate seats in mid-term congressional elections. A recent NBC News online “First Read” explained why the GOP has a built-in advantage:

“It’s the country — not the system — that’s stacked against liberals and progressives….From 1989 (after Reagan’s presidency) to now, the most stable data in the NBC/WSJ poll has been that roughly one-fifth of the country identifies as being liberal, while one-third identifies being conservative. Even in 2008, when Obama decisively won the presidency, the average in the poll was 25% liberal, 36% conservative.”

So it’s not just the economy either, stupid.

The poll numbers hint at the biggest GOP edge: the U.S. is the most conservative country in the Western democratic world. “Liberal” — which means centrist or center-left in other industrial democracies — is as far left as mainstream American politics flows. The U.S. is the only industrial democracy that doesn’t have a significant democratic socialist or social democratic party.

On the other hand, conservatism skews farther rightward in America than in any other Western nation. In all of the others, the Republicans would be far-right, way out on the fringe.

At the same time, the nature of liberalism can be a disadvantage to its proponents. Liberals are creatures of the Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Reason. So in politics, they appeal to reason over emotion. In other words, liberals aim for the head, not the gut.

American politics is often gut politics. So conservatives shoot — sometimes with Tommy Guns in campaign ads on TV — at the gut.

Extreme conservatives are given to pandering to irrational fear and mindless resentment, even outright hate. Also, uber-rightists aren’t above exploiting many people’s penchant for believing almost any conspiracy to be true, no matter how absurd. Historian Richard Hofstadter called it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the title of his famous 1964 essay on the subject.

Paranoid politics is right up the alley of the Tea Party movement, which the Republicans are counting on to help them win this election cycle, big time.

Hofstadter wrote his essay while Republican Barry Goldwater – the founding father of modern GOP ultra-conservatism — was trying to wrest the presidency from Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater pushed hard for the votes of whites – especially Southerners — who were angry over Johnson’s support for historic civil rights legislation aimed at ending years of legal and societal discrimination against African Americans.

Hofstadter said “the Goldwater movement” was an example of “angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers.” The Goldwater campaign, he added, has “now demonstrated…how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

True, LBJ cleaned Goldwater’s plow. So it’s also possible that the GOP will end up shifting too far right even for a body politic where self-described conservatives have an 11-point polling edge over folks who call themselves liberal.

Anyway, Hofstadter explained that he came up with the term “paranoid style” just “because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In any event, substitute “Tea Party movement” for “Goldwater movement,” and you’ve got it.

The sort of “white backlash” voters Goldwater so ardently pursued — Nixon and “state’s rights” Reagan avidly sought their support, too – are back with the Tea Party. A lot of them just can’t get over the election of an African American president.

Many white backlash voters of the 60s called the civil rights movement a communist plot. Some said the movement had a secret goal: the creation of a black Soviet state.

Based on their signs and what they say – and yell – many Republican-tilting Tea Baggers believe Obama is turning America into a Soviet state complete with, according to one placard, “WHITE SLAVERY.”

Of course, I hope my brother and sister lefties are right about right-wing Republican road blockers dooming the GOP. I worry they are wrong.

But nothing would make me happier than to feast on crow and humble pie should the vote go our way and the Democrats hold the House and Senate, even if by reduced margins, after the votes are counted in November.

Berry Craig


  1. says

    The country is NOT evidently ‘stacked against’ liberal or even progressive SPECIFICS.

    Rather, when asked for an ABSTRACT IDENTIFIER LABEL, more people give pollsters the answer ‘conservative’ than the answer ‘liberal’. This is quite a DIFFERENT matter.

    The largest bloc (39%) of poll respondents above gave NEITHER identifier. That’s very reasonable, because liberal and conservative values, properly understood in their positive senses, are mutually compatible – not exclusive nor opposite. Every reasonable person is both liberal (to a degree) and conservative (to a degree). As I (but not necessarily others) would summarize the matter: a liberal is open to change, especially to promote liberty and increase in available options. A conservative values stability, and the accumulated good of past changes.

    If a pollster insists that you declare exclusively for one or the other label, you can do so – e.g. call yourself ‘liberal’ – for any number of reasons. You may actually weight liberal values (your version, not necessarily mine) higher than conservative ones (again, your version). Or you may believe that in current society liberal values need more added support than do conservative values. Or you may simply derive more delight (or less fear) from being known as ‘liberal’ as versus being known as ‘conservative’.

    But none of this abstract labeling is the prime concern of government. Government and politics exist to decide SPECIFICS of policy and law. Bottom line, what matters is the specific policies and laws adopted, not triumphs of or battles among abstract labels.

    • Marshall says

      i liked this and it suports my wish for no lawyers in government and just farmers, store clerks, and such. congress does not write the laws anyway, they contract them out. That is why they do not read them, do not understand them, and tell us we will find out what the law says once they vote and pass it. We need people with logic and common sense in the government and let them draft the outlines the contractors use to write laws. you would all (left,middle and right) be better off for it.

  2. Elaine says

    Berry Craig I believe he needs to go into the Tea Parties & do some research. He seems to have no knowledge of Tea Parties & what & who they are & what they stand for. You cannot write an article like this by what you are told or observed or what others have told you. This country came about with people trying to get away from the socialist & Britain. Our Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution & Bill of Rights & Lincoln gave us the Declaration of Independence. When we elect people to office we expect them to honor & protect these things & vote for what their constituents. We do not expect those that want to live under socialism, communism, facism, Marxism,
    or anything else. Our country is not suppose to be a Banana Republic. So those that seem to want to change our country into something else needs to go live in the country they like, but leave America, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence alone & let us try to pick up the pieces that have been ripped out of our lives.

    • Marshall says

      In July 1776, Thomas Jefferson was the main writer of The declaration of Independence. Lincoln is responsible for the state of west Virgini.

  3. Marshall says

    Just in case you were thinking of moving to a liberal ruled democracy such as Italy, I looked up the number of governments that democracy has had from 2 Jun 1946 until now. I knew the number was high but it is 61 governments in 65 years. That has to be a record of some sort. As a college professor you should know we are not a democracy. Of course Russia has not had that many in the same time frame, but it is not a democracy of any kind. I think it must be ruled by the “vodka baggers”.

    this was posted twice, so I thought I would post twice also.

  4. Marshall says

    If the writer wonders why America in the only non-progressive democracy it is because America is not a democracy at all. The fact the writer did not know this makes him look really bad, we have a different type of government from our friends in Europe. Their governments are not near as stable as ours. England is the next most stable. Would you rather live under the system used in Italy? Look up the number of governments Italy has had since 1945.

    The conservatives do not all vote the same way each year. Some of us voted for Obama last year and some years ago, I voted for another black man for president. In as much that all progressive do not number enough votes to elect someone in a general election, why do you moun about the times when we consrvatives do not vote with you? How many of you serve in the military, how many in the peace corp, we conservatives have to protect you progressives, the Amish, other peace nicks, and Alan Comes, who would not enlist to fight either. It is OK, my uncle is a Quacker and I understand. But do not wimper about all the things we conservatives do for you.

  5. midnightinthelandofplenty says

    While it would be easy to conclude that the numbers are simply representative of a people that are more conservative, it’s important to understand that the people have, in large part, been subjected to a very organized, very systematic move by business/corporate interests over that period. Thomas Frank has written extensively about how this machine has worked over the last 30 years. There is an element of false consciousness at play here; yes, a great many are voting for their perceived interests, but those interests serve as nothing more than red herrings for conservative elected officials. There is a shell game going on here, and I think the numbers are a bit misleading as far as just how conservative many individuals are in reality.

  6. in_awe says

    “Extreme conservatives liberals are given to pandering to irrational fear and mindless resentment, even outright hate. Also, uber-rightists leftists aren’t above exploiting many people’s penchant for believing almost any conspiracy to be true, no matter how absurd.”

    Perfectly describes liberal politics since the 1970’s. Name any liberal politician that has not campaigned on race, divisiveness, telling lies about conservatives, invoking fear, etc. That is the trademarked liberal political schtick.

    “So in politics, they appeal to reason over emotion. In other words, liberals aim for the head, not the gut.” Absurd statement that flies in the face of all reason and real world experience.

  7. Nick says

    At the same time, the nature of liberalism can be a disadvantage to its proponents. Liberals are creatures of the Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Reason. So in politics, they appeal to reason over emotion. In other words, liberals aim for the head, not the gut.

    Is there any evidence that this is true?

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