Pew Research Center keeps trying to figure out what Americans really think. I’m aware of three different sets of political “typologies” the organization has created in recent years. I appreciate that, although personally I kind of liked the first one. Maybe it’s just that I preferred where the country was politically at that time. Of course, I prefer where the country was at almost any time in our history to the place where we are now.
Anyway, I want to thank Bryan for trying to keep the blog going while I’ve been dealing with a lot of difficult things, particularly the loss of my father. And I want to thank him particularly for this post, because I had not been aware that Pew was at it again.
Bryan’s post was headlined, “Neither of the Two Political Parties Suit You? Here’s Why.” The simple answer I would normally give a question like that is, “No, they don’t, and here’s why: Because I think.” But that’s because, as you know, the two parties have been making me cranky for a long time.
Pew, as always, takes a more thoughtful and patient approach than my gut response.
To help you get engaged with the topic, take the test. See where Pew puts you.
As I said, while Pew may have gone through this process many times, I’m only aware of three times. The first was in 2014, and it tagged me as being in what it called the “Faith and Family Left.” I made a joke about how apparently Pew thought I was a black preacher or something, but I really mostly felt comfortable in that category, which Pew described this way:
The Faith and Family Left combine strong support for activist government with conservative attitudes on many social issues. They are very racially diverse – this is the only typology group that is “majority-minority.” The Faith and Family Left generally favor increased government aid for the poor even if it adds to the deficit and believe that government should do more to solve national problems. Most oppose same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana and most say religion and family are at the center of their lives.
And yeah, while I suspect no political group in the history of the world is with me on every issue, I was mostly comfortable with that one. I think it described why I felt such kinship with the black Democrats of South Carolina who came out to save the country on Feb. 29, 2020, by launching Joe Biden toward the nomination. The Identity Politics people would look at me and disagree, but as far as I’m concerned, those are my people. They stood up and went for the right man, not giving a damn about the trendy considerations roiling the Democratic Party in other parts of the country. And the rest of the country, thank God, got the message and got on board.
There are a lot of forces tearing our country apart and directly menacing our republic right now. One of them is what I’ve come to think of as the “ones and zeroes” problem. This was actually a serious problem 20 years ago, but it is far, far worse now than it was even then. I mean the increasingly blind members of the two tribes, and particularly the utter insanity that has gripped the Republican Party, followed by the failure of the opposition to coalesce consistently behind the one rational alternative, which Joe Biden represents. (If Democrats could shed the woke crowd and the Bernie Bros and demonstrate that the approach Joe embraces and personifies was the path it embraces without hesitation, I believe Trumpism would melt away as the vast center got behind the rational alternative. But we’re just not that kind of country right now, are we? More’s the pity. At least the Dems did the right thing long enough to get Joe elected.)
Then, in 2017 — when the nation had gone stark, raving mad, and more than ever needed a non-binary way of thinking about politics — Pew tried creating a new system, and utterly failed. It was awful, worse than useless. It put me in a bin full of obnoxious strangers, the “New Era Enterprisers.” The description it provided of that group made it sound like I was Martin Shkreli or something — you know, the Pharma Bro.
I’d never seen Pew get anything as wrong as that before. But hey, it was 2017 — every thinking person in the country (and much of the world) was traumatized, when it came to politics.
Things are still awful, but they’ve settled down a bit.
And now Pew has a new model, the one to which Bryan called attention.
This one I like, although I’m not sure whether I like it as much as my “Faith and Family” designation. I liked that group. Still, this one has much to recommend it. It’s called “Establishment Liberals.” I like “establishment,” because as a communitarian and a traditionalist, I cherish the institutions that hold our civilization together — and were doing a great job of it until these last few years. But, I must confess, I don’t like it quite as well as “Faith and Family.”
As for the rest, well, I never was comfortable with “Left.” That sounded like they were making me out to be some sort of Bolshie, and I’m anything but. Not my sort at all. I much prefer “liberal,” but that’s because I use the word as a political scientist would, not the way it is so popularly used among the general population today — as a cussword among the GOP base, and as a badge of honor among the folks who see themselves as the sworn enemies of any “conservative.”
I wish Pew would steer clear of both those words — liberal and conservative — because of the way they’ve been corrupted by the in or out, good or bad, “my team or the enemy” crowd, which sees everything in tribal absolutes.
They’re both fine words, or were, originally. I can embrace both and apply them to myself, depending on the issue and the context. “Liberal” meaning generous, open, fair-minded, tolerant, and “conservative” meaning traditional, respecting core institutions and established ways. They’ve both fine things.
So I embrace the new label in that sense — the sense that Bret Stephens is using it when he laments the ways that both ends of the current political spectrum are eroding, even trashing, the liberalism that has made it possible for our country to live up to its finest aspirations. Stephens defines it this way:
By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.
All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike….
So yeah, I embrace liberalism in that academic sense, a sense that respects the meanings of words. I always have.
So “Establishment Liberals” sounds pretty good. Kind of like “Conservative Liberals,” in a way. It sort of cocks a snook at the people using words to try to tear us apart. I like that.
But so far I’ve dealt only with the name. Let’s look deeper. Pew provides a lengthy description, but let me just quote some of the bits I like best:
… Establishment Liberals are some of the strongest supporters of the current president … of any political typology group.
…Establishment Liberals are the typology group most likely to see value in political compromise and tend to be more inclined toward more measured approaches to societal change than their Progressive Left counterparts. Like other Democratic-oriented groups, most Establishment Liberals (73%) say a lot more needs to be done to ensure racial equality. Yet they are the only Democratic-aligned group in which a majority of those who say a lot more needs to be done also say this can be achieved by working within the current system….
Establishment Liberals stand out for their current satisfaction with the direction of the country and optimism about the future. Roughly half (51%) say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today, compared with 36% of Democratic Mainstays and even smaller shares in other typology groups….
An overwhelming majority of Establishment Liberals approve of Joe Biden’s job performance as president as of mid-September, including six-in-ten who strongly approve….
You see where I’m going with this: Joe’s our boy. Always has been, is now, and probably always will be (because, thank God, I don’t see him changing at this point).
Some of the rest, like the fact that folks in my group are strongly Democratic, doesn’t work for me. For instance, Pew says “On a ‘feeling thermometer’ ranging from 0 to 100, where 100 represents the warmest, most positive feelings, Establishment Liberals give Democrats an average rating of 77.”
Not me. I gave the party a score of 30. Of course, I gave the GOP a zero, so I guess by comparison a 30 is kinda “pro-Democratic,” at this moment. Whatever.
The point is (yep, I’ve again taken 1,500 words to get to the point) that it’s great that Pew keeps trying to find ways of explaining the way people really think about politics in this country. They need to keep doing this, and the rest of us need to join in. Because too many — far, far, too many — of us have been buying into the stupid, insulting idea that there are only two ways to think (using the word “think” extremely loosely), and you’ve got to choose one and hate the other. Up or down. Left or right. On or off. Black or white.
This sickness, this “ones and zeroes” thing, is destroying us. It’s tearing us apart. It’s destroying any chance we have of living together peacefully, with all our differences, and continuing to build a civilization that cultivates and embraces real, thinking human beings.
And Pew’s helping us see that, however imperfect its changing models may be. Bottom line: Good for Pew for trying.