"The Political Beliefs of Americans - A Study of Public Opinion," by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, 1967
Recent articles by Paul Rosenberg in Alternet and Salon drew my attention to this 1967 book. The book is an analysis of surveys taken in 1964 by Gallup Poll. Its focus is on what they take to be a contradiction between strongly liberal responses to issues they consider “operational” and conservative responses to another set of “ideological” issues. As an example: to a question about federal responsibility for reducing unemployment 75% agreed that it was responsible while 18% disagreed. On the other hand: to a question about whether any able-bodied person who wants to work can find a job and earn a living 76% agree and just 21% disagree.
The “operational” questions in the surveys were mostly about federal funding for a variety of social programs while the “ideological” questions covered a range of generally conservative beliefs. Free and Cantril find that, as a whole, Americans tend to be operationally liberal and ideologically conservative. “This discrepancy is so marked as to be almost schizoid.” (p.33). They peg a national figure of 23% for those who cross the political road rather than holding to either position consistently. This segment increases among those with a grade school education (28%), the very poor (30%), and in the southern states that went for Goldwater in 1964 (41%).
Writing at the nadir of Republican Party fortunes they have little trouble
identifying the trap that the GOP was in, their base enthusiastically supported conservative rhetoric but was significantly less happy about cuts to the social programs that were the province of the Democrats. We can still recognize a reflection of this dilemma in their failure to replace the Affordable Care Act. However popular with their voters is the rallying cry of repeal and replace, they choke on the reality of mass support for universal health care. Fifty years down the road we have a changed political landscape - although it can be argued that there is still something of the same mismatch today. I'm not going to attempt an update the book's findings but instead take a look at its theoretical weakness.
What can we, discerning working class readers, get out of such a book? First, we'll have to untangle some of what it presents as its historical background. Their overview of the evolution of the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' is brief and not misleading, up to a point. The U.S. political system professes belief in “liberal” principles which we will venture to summarize in our own way here as protecting private property against the prerogatives of the state. And, of course, the larger the property the greater the protection.
“By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the doctrines of
liberalism, as further developed by such men as Spencer and Sumner,
were being used for exactly the opposite purpose: namely, by
“conservatives” to defend a new status quo. By this time, particularly
after the civil war, the business class was in the saddle and was fearful
that, with the extension of suffrage, governments would prove too
sensitive to the needs of the people and adopt dangerous working-class reforms.” (p.4).
In effect, liberalism becomes conservatism, in outline but not inaccurate. But what is this reborn liberalism which the see as emerging in the 20th century? Here is where I think we need to pull them up short, by the roots:
“As a practical matter, the new style liberals increasingly recognized the need for governmental action to protect the underprivileged. … They supported compulsory education, unemployment and old-age insurance, minimum wages...”
They are talking about Roosevelt, Wilson & FDR...
“However, neither Roosevelt nor those who followed him ever evolved a coherent philosophy of liberalism (new style) to rationalize the programs they supported.”
And so the authors were “unable to unearth a sufficiently coherent body of
ideological doctrine commonly accepted by the public to ask questions about "liberalism's new style.”
I think, looking back 50 years to when this was written, we can supply the
missing element to their analysis. In fact, it should not have been difficult 50 or even 100 years before this was written to see what they left out. All
of these liberal programs were the result of demands made by the working
class and were expressed by its own political program, socialism. “Liberalism (new style)” arose from and continues to be the accommodation to those demands, but which preserves the existing relations of production.
If we look at the survey results with this in mind we cannot be faulted for
seeing in the majority support for social programs, for what they call
operational liberalism, evidence of an abiding, if not fully conscious,
working-class support for a socialist political agenda.
The survey reports class self-identification of the respondents as follows:
Propertied class 5%
Middle class 37%
Working class 53%
Don't know 5%
The percentage of liberals (operational) rises from 40% in the propertied
class to 57% in the middle class and 74% in the working class. (p. 18)
While the responses to the operational questions have certainly undergone
shifts since 1964, as on the ideological side of the survey the questions are antique. As a snapshot of American political opinion of the period the book is rich and fascinating and I can recommend it on that basis alone. Among the subjects covered by the survey: foreign affairs, race, politics of the father, aspirations & fears, prejudices, and so on. But a solid analysis of the material would require a more extensive study of the period than I can perform. That won't stop me from making a sample observation.
Let's take one that I'm sure won't surprise many of us:
“Statement: The relief rolls are loaded with chiselers and people who just
don't want to work”
Don't know 11% (p. 27)
While this response holds up across the classes I'm not sure we can assume that the workers who agree with the statement always have in mind chiselers who are among the poor or, with this opinion, they are asserting support for the social status quo.
“The working class in every country lives its own life, makes its own
experiences, seeking always to create forms and realize values which
may originate directly from its organic opposition to official society, but are shaped by its experiences in cooperative labor. Nowhere is this more marked than in the United States where the raucous rowdyism of
Republicans and Democrats obscures and drowns out the mass search for a way of life; not a new way but simply a way, the famous
'American Way' being strictly an export commodity. Quite often, the
reaction is for the time being merely negative, but none the less
indicative of the future” Facing Reality – C.L.R. James & Grace C.
Some additional nuggets:
Q. There is a definite trend toward socialism in this country.
Don't know 32%
Quotes in the book:
“It might sound funny, but they've got a good thing over in Sweden.
You're protected from the cradle to the grave. Not that I'm a socialist or anything like that, but it would be a good thing for the U.S. to follow." (an automobile worker in Michigan)
“I don't understand a lot about the Communists, but I sure fear them.” (a retired woman living in Tennessee)
“The way the Negroes are making trouble, they pretty soon will get on
top of the whites. We may even have a Negro President.” (a retired man living in Michigan)
Barry Link, August 20, 2017