Do the terms liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, Red/Blue really capture the political viewpoints held by most Americans? The Pew Research Center doesn't think so, and has released another interesting poll on political typology in the U.S. that shows why. Here's a snapshot of their latest findings:
[W]hile there is little question that U.S. politics have become more polarized in recent years, the red-blue political shorthand is far from adequate to describe the full spectrum of Americans' political views. Judging by their opinions on a number of issues, many Americans simply do not fit well within either the conservative or the liberal ideological camps, instead falling into one of the two other important U.S. political traditions -- libertarian and populist -- or defying attempts to pigeon-hole them.
One interesting finding: based on questions about health care, Social Security, gay marriage, and other issues, 42% of Americans are "ambivalent" -- they don't fit neatly into any political category.
Even more interesting, of those who can be classified, the poll shows that "POPULISM" is one of the most popular ideologies in the country.
What's a "populist"? Pew defines "populists" as those who "favor an active role for government in both the economic and the social spheres" -- i.e., they don't think corporations and the "free market" should be given free rein, but they also favor government intervention on "morality" issues.
What do "populists" look like? Socio-economically, Pew says,
[Populists] are less affluent: only 13% live in households with incomes of $75,000 or higher - 8 percentage points lower than the national average.
They're also not just white guys. "Populist" was the top-ranking category for both women and African-Americans in the Pew poll.
How many Americans are populists? A lot, according to Pew's poll. 16% of Americans hold views that are "populist" -- the second biggest group in the country behind "liberals" (18%), and ahead of "conservatives" (15%) and "libertarians" (9%).
Even more striking, almost half -- 47% -- of all "populists" live in the South, the highest concentration of any ideological group, in any region of the country. The only other ideological group that is so disproportionately clustered in a region are "libertarians" (32% of the laissez faire folks have gravitated to the West.)
What does this all mean? It suggests that Southerners aren't the monolithic "conservatives" they are often portrayed to be, and that on economic bread-and-butter issues they often support the progressive position. Although they have conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion, here's how these "populists" stack up on economic issues:
Only 25% percent of "populists" that want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent (second lowest only to "liberals")
31% percent that think businesses make a fair profit (the lowest of all political types)
42% percent that think "free trade" agreements are good for the country (lowest)
91% percent that favor increasing the minimum wage (second highest to liberals)
And here's the kicker: they're also a huge partisan "swing group": 40% of "populists" either identify as, or lean Democrat.
This isn't a big surprise (although some still discount the idea of economic populism being a winning issue in the South). But I think it does help describe what I have long felt is the core challenge for Southern progressives: how to build on the disposition of many Southerners to support progressive economic views, while not accomodating their conservative social positions?