Obama’s liberalism and conservative voters

The “liberalism” many conservatives hate isn’t really a place on the political spectrum.

One argument against the Obama strategy for November &#8212 mobilize the Democratic base, bring out more young and African-American voters, grab some moderates, and de-mobilize, or even capture, some of the right &#8212 is that the second half of it is based on misperception. Right now, the argument goes, Republican voters perceive Obama as less “liberal” than Hillary Clinton, which is plain silly. Once they know his actual positions on the issues, they won’t be nearly as interested in voting for him.

True for some conservatives, I’m sure. But not for all.

The problem is that many conservative poll respondents don’t mean by “liberal” the same things you and I do. For many of them, “liberal” doesn’t really refer to a political position at all, other than indirectly. Rather, “liberal” means something like “morally lax,” or even “morally degenerate.”

Naturally, on this view, people who are morally degenerate favor murdering the unborn, taxing the dead, and being nice to terrorists, but those are among the accidents of liberalism, not its essence. The essence of liberalism, as seen by these conservatives, is despising conventional morality, despising people who don’t despise conventional morality, and being proud of it.

Some of those voters, even after they find out what Obama has voted for and plans to do, still won’t think he’s a “liberal” because he quotes Scripture, doesn’t look down on them, and doesn’t seem uncomfortable in saying that children do better living with their natural parents than in one-parent households or in “step-” situations. It’s not that they will be fooled into misperceiving his ADA rating; it’s just that the “liberalism” they hate isn’t defined by ADA ratings.

If you think that unlikely, consider how many people on the left find it inconceivable that Obama could be a sincere liberal for exactly the same reasons: that despite his political positions, he doesn’t seem to be fervently on the Blue side of the culture wars, and quotes the Bible without snickering.

Footnote I can’t resist a personal anecdote on this point. I had a very, very bright Miami Cuban student in a Kennedy School course on crime control policy. I try not to wear my politics on my sleeve in the classroom, and my views on crime control aren’t the standard-issue “left” views, so he didn’t have a clue about my actual political attitudes. At one point in an after-class discussion, I referred to my fundamental political commitments as “liberal” (by which I meant, in that context, republican/Enlightenment/Constitutionalist). He got a look of horror on his face, quickly replaced by a laugh as he figured out that I must be joking. In his mind, the term “liberal” was purely abusive rather than descriptive: no sane person, he thought, would seriously refer to himself as a liberal, any more than one would refer to oneself as a sociopath or a hypocrite.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com