A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution
Anyone following the American media knows that Americans are in an uproar. Disgust with the federal government is worse than ever. Extremist political views are spreading rapidly. The Tea Party movement has become a massive populist revolt. President Barack Obama’s approval rating has collapsed. Incumbents are terrified they will be swept away in the November mid-term elections. Washington insiders tremble.
It’s nothing less than a revolution.
But what you probably don’t know is that 418 sitting members of Congress sought their party’s nomination to run in the November election. (In the U.S. system, these primary races are often the toughest fights.) Of those 418 incumbents, a grand total of seven lost. That’s less than two per cent.
So almost every incumbent who sought a nomination got it — and even that extraordinary fact doesn’t tell the full story. “If one looks at the seven cases where an incumbent was defeated,” says Michael J. Robinson, a political scientist retired from George Washington University, “it had nothing to do with the Tea Party movement, nothing to do with ideological shifts. It had to do with scandal, or people switching parties in the middle of their term in office.”
These results are almost identical to every other Congressional election. So where is the groundswell of popular anger that has the pundits so excited? Where are the mobs carrying pitchforks? Where is the fury that will throw the bums out and change everything?
There’s plenty on cable TV and the Internet, says Robinson. But not in what Sarah Palin once called “the real America.”
In a new report for the Pew Research Center, Robinson surveyed the numbers and came to a conclusion that is simultaneously startling and reassuring. “I’m sure Canadians are now totally convinced that America is going to hell in a handbasket,” Robinson says with a laugh. “But in terms of politics, the centre is holding. There have been no basic changes in American political values, or party identification, or ideology, in the last 25 years.”
Robinson is not exaggerating. He really means “no changes.”
On 33 questions about underlying political values, “there is a shift of six per cent for all the values combined” over a period of 22 years, Robinson notes. Four of those six percentage points show a shift to the left. Two come from a shift to the right. Subtract two per cent from four per cent and you wind up with a net shift (of two percentage points) in the direction of liberalism over 22 years. Which is to say, there was essentially no change at all.
Party identification? In 1987, Democrats had a nine-point advantage over Republicans. Today, the Democrats have an eight-point lead.
To look at ideology, Robinson turned to the General Social Survey, which asks people to place themselves on a seven-point scale where “one” means “extremely liberal” and “seven” is “extremely conservative.” In 1987, Americans overwhelmingly put themselves smack in the middle. Today, it’s the same. “The most liberal we have ever been on this survey is a 4.0, which is dead centre, and the most conservative we have been is 4.25,” Robinson says. On a chart, the trend line is so flat “it looks like the EKG of somebody who is dead.”
As for polarization at the extremes, Robinson notes that in 1987 three per cent of Americans considered themselves extremely liberal and three per cent said they were extremely conservative. “So that’s six per cent willing to acknowledge they are, to use the term currently used in the United States, ‘wingnuts’,” Robinson chuckles. “What’s the percentage of wingnuts in the United States today? Four per cent for extremely conservative, which is an increase of one percentage point. And for liberals, it’s three per cent. So we’ve gone from six per cent wingnuts to seven per cent wingnuts in the course of 22 years.”
The big story in the United States isn’t populist anger or the Tea Party, Robinson insists. Unemployment is almost 10 per cent. The economy is sickly. Consumers are underwater. Deficits are mounting. The U.S. is bogged down in seemingly futile wars. But despite all this, Robinson notes, “we have had almost no social disorder in America and we’ve had almost no political violence.” And most Americans seem content to return Congressional incumbents to Washington.
Even the president isn’t doing that badly, given the circumstances. Obama’s approval rating of about 46 per cent is actually equal to — or a little above — the approval ratings that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had at a similar point in their own first terms.
As unusual as Robinson’s view may seem, it’s not at all remarkable among his colleagues. For years, political scientists have been insisting that the image of an America divided into two warring tribes is nonsense. It’s the political class — politicians, journalists, activists, and zealots — that has polarized. Not ordinary Americans. The fact that the U.S. could be so stable in such difficult circumstances is a dramatic demonstration of this hugely important fact.
But it’s the political class, not political scientists, who set the terms of public discussion, and it’s typically in the interests of politicians, activists, and the media to play up discontent, drama, conflict, and change. So we hear all about Tea Party rallies. Glenn Beck in Washington. The upset victory of Christine O’Donnell. But nobody notices that in September — while the media were lavishing attention on the quirky O’Donnell — every one of the Congressional incumbents seeking re-nomination won.
Could Robinson’s report make a difference? Probably not. Many like it have been written before. The power of a simple, dramatic, widely believed narrative is just too much for mere facts to overcome.
When I called, Robinson told me I was the first journalist he had heard from. He thought that was fitting. I am a foreigner, after all.