Yglesias and Ed Kilgore have already discussed the problems with this Gallup poll on ideological self-identification by ethnic group, and they are right that how many respondents define themselves ideologically has no bearing on how they vote or what policies they prefer. We can see how unreliable these labels are when we look at Gallup’s state-by-state surveys of ideological self-identification and then compare them with state-by-state party ID numbers. There are just five states with significant (+5 or more) Republican party ID advantages, and 33 states where the Democrats have a significant advantage, but if you were to look at the state-by-state result for ideological self-identification you would find that liberals outnumber conservatives nowhere outside D.C. Defenders of the “center-right nation” thesis might be tempted to rejoice at this point, but this just shows how politically meaningless conservative self-identification is in many parts of the country. By party ID and most recently by voting preference, most of the “center-right nation” prefers the center-left party.

Almost 36% of Maine respondents say that they are conservatives, and maybe in some ways they are. However, this tells me that the label has no conventional political or policy content for most of these people, but serves a different function. Using the label conveys how they wish to be seen by others. It is a cultural marker that most of these people are using to describe an attitude or disposition that they believe they have or want to have. It does not signal their agreement with movement conservative arguments, and it definitely does not reveal sympathy for a national Republican agenda. To the extent that people still associate the word with prudence, caution and restraint, they are making more of a statement about their personal habits (or what they would like those habits to be) than they are expressing adherence to an ideology. One reason there is such a disconnect between the number of self-identified conservatives and the fairly constant leftward drift of national politics is that people who are effectively saying they have a conservative disposition do not necessarily share the goals of ideological activists bearing the same name. This is most obviously true of “conservative” minorities who are actually ideologically on the left in their voting and beliefs, but it applies to others as well.

Yglesias and Kilgore focus on the high percentage of blacks identifying themselves as conservatives (29%), but the criticism could be applied just as easily to the numbers for any of the other groups. I have sometimes wondered why so many people identify themselves as moderates. This is the second-largest group among whites, and the largest in all of the other groups. These are the people who make up the political center, but in their voting preferences almost all of the people who say that they are moderates vote for Democrats. Moderate is a label people take on to define themselves in opposition to what they regard as extreme and ideological thinking. They want to convey that they are reasonable, tolerant, open-minded people. Self-identifying moderates assume that to adopt one of the other labels is to commit to rigid, inflexible and unreasonable views. Thus you get four out of ten people adopting the moderate label while the overwhelming majority of them votes quite predictably for center-left candidates. Indeed, the moderate label masks how relatively left of center moderate voters tend to be.

I was thinking about the “center-right nation” claim the other day after I saw an item by David Boaz in which he was touting a poll result that Americans preferred smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services by a hefty 58-38 margin. That sounds impressive until you realize that anyone openly running a sincere campaign for cutting services and shrinking government would not even get 38% of the vote today. People routinely say that they favor fewer government services in the abstract, but they don’t want to eliminate anything that benefits them. Paul Ryan has presented an impressive proposal to balance the budget and essentially eliminate the government’s entitlement liabilities over the long term, but everyone who has looked at it knows immediately that it is a political non-starter. Obviously, one reason why it is a non-starter is that there are simply too many constituencies benefiting from the programs that would be changed by Ryan’s proposal, but another reason is that for at least the last thirty years political conservatives have become steadily worse and worse at persuasion because they have allowed the “center-right nation” myth to make them complacent.

The “center-right nation” story has been something of a curse for conservatives, because it has convinced many of them that the public is automatically and instinctively on their side, and they keep relying on this to provide them with political success. If conservatives recognized that they are not facing a “center-right nation,” they wouldn’t necessarily be able to sell the public on proposals such as Ryan’s, but they would at least understand that they have to persuade a public that does not share their views. They might then realize that the public is not going to reward them simply for showing up and declaring their opposition to the other side.