October 12, 2004

Asymmetry or hypocrisy?

After a series of mind-bogglingly inept op-ed pieces in the New York Times, David Brooks came up with what seemed like a reasonably interesting column today. Under the heading Not Just a Personality Clash, a Conflict of Visions, he argues that there is a relationship between political orientation and geography:

We're used to this in the realm of domestic politics. Politicians from the more sparsely populated South and West are more likely, at least in the political and economic realms, to champion the Goldwateresque virtues: freedom, self-sufficiency, individualism. Politicians from the cities are likely to champion the Ted Kennedyesque virtues: social justice, tolerance, interdependence.

Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people's backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively.

And he goes on to wonder if this dichotomy is related to the way people think about international affairs. (He cites a recent article by Adam Wolfson in the Weekly Standard, at which point my interest started to wane. C'mon, there has to be a better source than that rag.)

However before Brooks gets to that point, he tosses in the following throw-away line:

Neither group lives up to its ideals with perfect consistency, but this is what both groups say.

And that got me thinking. Brooks clearly intends this as an even-handed characterization, in true journalistic style, but is it accurate. Are liberals and conservatives equally inconsistent when it comes to living up to their ideals?

I think not. My sense if that, by and large, conservatives are much more likely to be "closet liberals" than are liberals to be "closet conservatives". The newspapers report many arch-conservatives who denounce the Federal government one moment and then turn around to lobby for a contract, or a tax break, or a subsidy. Taxprof Blog published an analysis of government spending and subsidies last month that showed:

...that of the 32 states (and the District of Columbia) that are "winners" -- receiving more in federal spending than they pay in federal taxes -- 76% are Red States that voted for George Bush in 2000. Indeed, 17 of the 20 (85%) states receiving the most federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid are Red States.

On the other hand, I can't remember a single case of a prominent liberal politician displaying "closet conservative" tendencies. (Apart from Zell Miller, I guess, though he's out of the closet these days.) Of course you may regard the efforts of Clinton, Rubin, Kerry and others to balance the budget in the 1990s as rather conservative behavior. I thought so at the time, but after four years of Bush and his runaway deficits I'm thoroughly confused.

Naturally I'm not talking about campaign fundraising or pandering to special interests. Those are equal-opportunity failings, neither liberal nor conservative.

The bottom line: Brook's simplistic ideas about geography and politics do illustrate a point - but not necessarily the point that he intended to make.

Posted by geoff2 at October 12, 2004 10:05 PM

I haven't read the article, but the split also happens within states, particularly the larger ones. Look at CA (Bay Area against Northern CA or the Central Valley), New York (metro area versus upstate).

In Texas, Austin and Houston are Dem strongholds in an otherwise Rep state, but their suburbs are Republican.

Even some Dems are more conservative than others. Look at Sen. Daschel and Herseth from South Dakota. They have to be conservative on certain issues to get elected in state that has not voted Dem for president since Kennedy.

Have you read "The Right Nation" by the Economist's US Editor and Washington correspondent? I think it is the best summary of what is going on in America that I've encountered.

Posted by: Jon Everett at October 13, 2004 06:18 PM

Haven't read it yet. I'm working through the new Seymour Hersh....

Posted by: Geoff Arnold at October 17, 2004 10:56 PM

It is possible, and probable, that some conservatives see things as "moral" rather than fiscal, while some liberals see things as "fiscal" rather than moral. The reverse is also true.
No one should ever take a label seriously, as each individual case will contain some discrepancies.
Smaller populated areas tend to be more inclined to stigmatize a person who is outside the loop politically, whereas the larger population centers obviously have more groups and from which to choose.
The bottom line is, politicians will always annoint the faithfull with pork. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by: Hanford DeLain at November 27, 2004 04:21 PM