Wednesday, April 15, 2009

USH27: Of Presidents and Polls

So, what to make of all this history... What does it say for social change?

Social change would mean, among other things, that the United States is changing over time. Is that happening? Do we even have a society where change is possible? Or was the US set up from the beginning for rich white men and structured in a way that there's little chance of change?

While I am a radical, I am well aware that radicals, and even progressives, are a minority in this country. Let's look at liberals and conservatives for a bit to see what direction the US leans toward.

While all Republicans aren't conservative, and many Democrats are far from liberal, I want to start by analyzing the elected presidents with the assumption that when Republicans are elected the country may be looking for someone more conservative and when Democrats are elected the country may be looking for someone more liberal. (Maybe.)

The following table is taken right from Wikipedia (and edited by me). It gives some sense of the US direction through the twentieth century:

PRESIDENT-----------STARTED---------- ENDED-------------PARTY--RE-ELECTED?
William McKinley------- March 4, 1897--------September 14, 1901--Republican ****
Theodore Roosevelt ---- September 14, 1901--March 4, 1909--------Republican ****
William Howard Taft --- March 4, 1909 -------March 4, 1913-------- Republican
Woodrow Wilson ------- March 4, 1913 ------- March 4, 1921-------- Democratic ****
Warren G. Harding -----March 4, 1921 --------August 2, 1923------- Republican
Calvin Coolidge ---------August 2, 1923 -------March 4, 1929-------- Republican ****
Herbert Hoover --------March 4, 1929 --------March 4, 1933 --------Republican
Franklin D. Roosevelt---March 4, 1933 --------April 12, 1945 -------- Democratic ****
Harry S. Truman-------April 12, 1945---------January 20, 1953------Democratic ****
Dwight D. Eisenhower--January 20, 1953----- January 20, 1961------Republican ****
John F. Kennedy-------January 20, 1961------November 22, 1963--- Democratic
Lyndon B. Johnson ----November 22, 1963--- January 20, 1969 ----- Democratic ****
Richard Nixon -------- January 20, 1969 ----- August 9, 1974 --------Republican ****
Gerald Ford-----------August 9, 1974---------January 20, 1977------ Republican
Jimmy Carter---------January 20, 1977------ January 20, 1981------ Democratic
Ronald Reagan--------January 20, 1981------ January 20, 1989------ Republican ****
George H. W. Bush --- January 20, 1989------January 20, 1993------ Republican
Bill Clinton------------January 20, 1993------January 20, 2001------ Democratic ****
George W. Bush------ January 20, 2001----- January 20, 2009------ Republican ****
Barack Obama -------January 20, 2009----- Incumbent -------------Democratic

Since McKinley was elected in 1896, there have been 12 Republican presidents and 8 Democratic presidents. Of these seven, Republicans and five Democrats have lasted more than one term (that is they have been re-elected after serving in office). One of those Democrats (FDR) was re-elected three times. Interestingly enough, the first two Democrats of the Twentieth-Century were president during the World Wars--leading to the idea that Republicans were peacetime presidents and Democrats were wartime presidents. Kennedy changed that; after that it seemed like when things got rough (when Johnson couldn't deal with Vietnam, when Ford pardoned Nixon, when Carter didn't seem effective, when Bush,Sr, was stuck with the recession, and after Bush,Jr, got us in two wars and ruined the economy) the country switched parties. The one exception to that was after Clinton when it seemed like the country couldn't decide between Gore and Bush--and that led to a hung election for over a month--with the final decision giving Gore the popular vote but Bush the electoral vote.

What does this tell us about the country? It does seem like there was a fairly conservative background early on, with voters only going for Democrats when the country was in trouble. Kennedy's election could be seen as 'a new generation' emerging, but all that has happened since is the country teetertottering. Over the last few elections the idea of Red States (conservative/Republican) and Blue States (liberal/Democrat) has emerged--that is, certain areas of the US are more one way than another.

It did seem like things got fairly progressive for a while in the sixties, but was the country ever really progressive?

I've found two polls that gave Americans a chance to identify whether they were liberal, conservative, or moderate. The first is from the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies. They found:
In 1972, 18% identified themselves as Liberal, 26% as Conservative, and 27% as Moderate. And in 2004, 23% identified as Liberal, 32% as Conservative, and 26% as Moderate.

The second is from polls done by Pew research. They found:
In 1992, 18% identified as Liberal, 35% Conservative, 40% Moderate. In 2000, it was 18% Liberal, 36% Conservative, 38% Moderate. And in 2008, the proportions were 21% Liberal, 38% Conservative, 36% Moderate.

Looking at these would give you a sense that Americans are by and large either moderate or downright conservative--only a small minority identify as liberal. It also doesn't seem as if much social change is happening, since the proportions don't change that much over time.

But Media Matters, a progressive group formed to counter conservative misinformation, disputes the idea that the country is basically conservative and has not been effected by social change. In an article entitled "The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America is a Myth", they cite poll after poll pointing out Americans favor more (not less) government, stronger unions, an increase in the minimum wage, stricter laws on guns, more environmental protections, more clean energy, and better, more comprehensive healthcare. Over the last few decades, more Americans have become supportive of women's rights and gay rights (even gay marriage), and less in favor of the death penalty.

The people at Media Matters are well aware of the ideological polls--I got the information from the University of Michigan polls on their website. But they point out how people identify does not correlate with how they actually feel about specific issues. In fact, they cite the authors of the University of Michigan studies as observing: "...on issue after issue, moderates have opinions almost exactly mirroring those of liberals." The Media Matters people claim that because liberals have been so villified, many people don't think of themselves as liberals. In fact, they claim that some so-called 'conservatives' actually hold liberal positions.

Lawrence Goodwyn looks at things differently. He claims that no real change can occur in the US (or any industrialized nation) because the culture is set up to make us believe that things are as good as they can get and anyone who attempts real change is undemocratic. He felt that since the McKinley election, media manipulators have made sure that no one can seriously threaten the status quo--and the outbreaks in the sixties were exceptions that were quickly brought under control.

One thing that is clear (from both Media Matters and Goodwyn) is that the media (supposedly liberal) downgrades liberals as well as the possibility of change. SoapBoxTech has commented more than once that part of the answer is in the BBC series The Century of the Self, which talks about how public relations and advertising is used to influence (and manipulate) the way we act and react.

There is a hidden history here. Goodwyn talks about how the media was controlled and coordinated by industrialist Mark Hanna (with lots of help from robber baron outfits like Standard Oil and JP Morgan) during the 1896 election. McKinley was painted as "the advance agent of prosperity". According to Goodwyn: "In sheer depth, the advertising campaign organized by Mark Hanna in behalf of William McKinley was without parallel in American history. It set a creative standard for the twentieth century." And, according to the Century of the Self, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, picked up that standard. From Wikipedia: "Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy..." He helped create a consumer society, but he also influenced elections, working for Calvin Coolidge as well as helping with the overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954, partly by branding the democratically elected president of Guatemala as a Communist.

And now we have Fox News and talk radio, churning out right-wing propaganda so strongly that people could hold ideas we'd think of as liberal or progressive, yet identify as conservative, for fear of being labled 'liberal'. We could be making progress, but it would be kept invisible by the mainstream media.

Next: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century.

Quote of the Day: "... nearly three-quarters of self-identified conservatives are not conservative on at least one issue dimension [size and scope of government, or abortion and homosexuality], and considerably more than half hold liberal preferences on the dominant dimension of conflict over the size and scope of government. Simply put, many conservatives are not very conservative..." - Christopher Ellis

Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment
Media Matters for America, "The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America is a Myth"
Pew Research Center, "Winds of Political Change Haven’t Shifted Public’s Ideology Balance"
Wikipedia, articles on List of Presidents of the United States, The Century of the Self, and Edward Bernays


murph said...

IMO, the labeling of liberal or conservative is so misused that it has become meaningless. Whatever original meaning those terms implied are no longer valid. The manipulation of language in our educational system and the media is rather obvious. Terms are redefined at will. The consequence of this is that polls on identifying positions are ridiculous.

It does appear to me that a majority of people are supportive of the idea of bigger and more controlling government. The majority seem to want government to solve all problems right down to the micro scale of social and individual issues. It also appears to me that the majority of citizens are unable to project the consequences of their political stances if the government did adopt them.

We have been propagandized and controlled to the point of absurdity and all to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. It is going to take some pretty hefty changes in attitudes concerning the way we organize our social structure and the way we govern ourselves to make anything different.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for your thoughts, murph.

Unfortunately, I fear you are correct that most people, whether they define themselves as liberal or conservative expect the government to put the world to right. Only many of the conservatives believe that if the government just lets big business do whatever it wants, that will solve all our problems. One way or the other, the belief is that the powerful will take care of us. I suspect that the only thing that will change those attitudes is when it all crashes down around us. Hopefully some of us will have alternatives in place when that happens.

We will see...

SoapBoxTech said...

I'm glad you had a chance to give it a watch, MoonRaven, and I am touched at the mention.

Since high school I have felt that these attitudes were leading us to a forced downsizing. I'm not sure I believed I would see it but now it seems that it will dominate my middle age phase.

I find it both exciting and scary. I wish I'd prepared instead of sticking my head in the sand so long.

MoonRaven said...

I appreciated your steering me toward 'The Century of Self', however, a confession--I still haven't watched more than the opening. I got most of my info from the wikipedia article on 'The Century of Self'--I'm really better at getting information from print material.

And, yes, I think occasionally (this morning even) about all I wish I'd done earlier in my life, if I'd known then what I know now. But sojourns in Regret City are ways of avoiding doing what we need to do in the present. It seems like you are doing what you need to do now and that's all we can do. Thanks for all your thoughts and inspiration.