Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

I’m not a political partisan, but neither am I politically disinterested and I try to avoid feeling politically apathetic. One way or another, I am a strong defender of my values, and so I spend a lot of time clarifying values (my own and others).

My values could be labeled many ways and I’m not more attached to any particular label than to any particular party. Nonetheless, it is through labels that we can speak of values in a larger sense, how we touch upon broader attitudes and worldviews, that which connects one value to another value to create sets of values.

In articulating certain values, I’m going to use data about labels that gets at what matters most beyond mere labels. But I also want to consider the issues for their own sake, to look into some data and see what picture forms.

I recently came across this brief mention of the Wirthlin Effect from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253):

Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why. His answer was that voters were voting on four closely linked criteria:

  • Personal identification: They identified with Reagan.
  • Values: Reagan spoke about values rather than programs and they liked his values.
  • Trust: They trusted Reagan.
  • Authenticity: They found Reagan authentic; he said what he believed and it showed.

So Wirthlin ran the campaigns on these criteria, and the rest is history— unfortunately for progressives and for the nation. The George W. Bush campaigns were run on the same principles.

“It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.

That is a bit of info entirely new to me. I’ve never before heard of this Wirthlin guy, apparently one of the biggest players who shaped modern politics in the US. As an advisor to Reagan, he was one of those big players who played behind the scenes. This reinforces my view that presidents aren’t where the real power is to be found. Real power is being in the position to whisper into the president’s ear in order to tell him what to say.

Still, the general idea presented by Lakoff wasn’t new to me. I’d come across this in a different context (from a paper, Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier) and have mentioned it many times (e.g., What Does Liberal Bias Mean?):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

I’ve previously pointed out that Americans are becoming increasingly liberal and progressive, but the real point is that this has been going on for a long time. The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).

It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.

Is this why Republicans have become better at obstructing governance than governing? Conservative elites and activists know what they are against, but it isn’t clear that there is much in the way of a shared political vision behind the conservative movement, mostly empty rhetoric about “free markets” and such (everyone wants freedom, markets or otherwise, even Marxists).

To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?

Or am I coming at this from the entirely wrong angle?

It’s not primarily a partisan issue, even though it regularly gets expressed in partisan terms. We don’t seem to have a good language to speak about the more fundamental values and possibilities that underlie politics. All that we have is a confused populace and, I would argue, a confused political leadership.

Unfortunately, partisan politics is the frame so many people use. So, let me continue with it for the sake of simplicity, just keeping in mind its obvious limitations that can mislead us into unhelpful polarized thinking. Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):

Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely— much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ’ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”

I can’t emphasize enough that it isn’t fundamentally about partisan politics.

When more Americans (including Southerners) identify with Democrats than Republicans, they aren’t ultimately identifying with a political party. What they are identifying with is a worldview and a set of values or maybe simply dissenting from the opposite. Political parties use their favored rhetoric, but they rarely live up to it. The central important point isn’t that most Americans are to the left of Republicans but that they are far to the left of Democratic politicians as well. What the mainstream media deems to be ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics isn’t particular liberal at all.

Besides, most Americans don’t vote and aren’t involved in politics in anyway. Most Americans feel demoralized and disenfranchised. Most Americans feel the opposite of empowered and engaged. Most Americans feel those with the power neither hear their voices nor care even if they did hear. But I would argue that, generally speaking, politicians simply don’t hear at all. They are listening to their advisors, not to the American people.

Going back to the Wirthlin Effect, I was brought back to a realization I’ve had before. Yes, Americans are confused about labels or else strongly disagree with the elites about what those labels mean. To repeat a point I’ve made before:

Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.

How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?

Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.

Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.

So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:

According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.

The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.

There is an elite among the elite who knows what is going on. The Wirthlin-like advisor types are in the know and I’m sure there are Democratic equivalents to him, although maybe Wirthlin was a cut above even the average advisor to the elite. These guys aren’t just advisors. They and those like them are pulling the strings behind the scenes. If one is feeling particularly conspiratorial, one might surmise yet another level of power beyond even the evil mastermind advisors.

Whatever is the case, I doubt Reagan had a clue. Wirthlin probably was only telling him what he needed to know to gain popularity and win the election. Reagan, like most politicians, was just an actor; but Reagan had the advantage over most politicians in having more practice at being an actor.

The first thing a politician has to do is convince themselves of their own rhetoric because only then can they convince the public. They have to become the role they are playing. It didn’t matter that most Americans didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues for Reagan believed in himself. It was his starry-eyed optimism and unquestioning confidence that convinced people to buy the product he was selling. That product wasn’t any particular issue(s). Reagan was the product. The American public elected a figurehead, a symbolic figurehead of symbolic conservatism to rule over a symbolic country.

Anyway, in saying that it isn’t fundamentally about partisanship, I must admit that it isn’t without merit that most Americans identify with Democrats. It is true that I’m one of those that tends to say our faux democracy is just an argument about Pepsi vs Coke, but even so there are real differences. This was made apparent to me some time ago when I came across a review of a book by James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others which I posted about and then later, after reading the book itself, wrote a more personal response.

Gilligan’s book is one of the best presentations of compelling data I’ve read in my life. Part of what makes it so powerful is that the data is so simple and straightforward. There is a consistent pattern of several correlations of data and this pattern has continued for more than a century. When Republicans are in power, the rates of three things goes up: economic inequality, murders and suicides. When Democrats are in power, the rates of those very same things go down.

On an intuitive level, I’m sure Americans understand this. Most Americans don’t care about partisan politics, but they do care about these kind of social problems that impact all Americans. Any party or movement that could alleviate these problems would gain the support of the American public. Democrats don’t even fight that hard against these things and still most Americans would rather identify with them. The only reason that Democrats don’t win every election is that so many Americans don’t vote at all. People feel like they don’t have a real choice. Voting Democrats doesn’t generally make anything better, although maybe it keeps it from getting worse as quickly as it would under Republican administrations. Either way, it’s hardly inspiring.

If Americans cut through the bullshit and voted their consciences, they would vote for a third party like the Greens. And I don’t say that as a partisan for the Greens. But just imagine if the Green Party became a new main party. As we have it now, the Democratic Party is closer to the positions of the average conservative. What we have now is competition between a conservative party and a right-wing party. What if instead we had a competition between a liberal party and a conservative party with Republicans being a right-wing third party and with another major third party to the left of the Greens?

The only reason most Americans don’t vote for parties that are more on the left is because the MSM has them fooled. Most Americans don’t even understand what the parties represent. Most Americans don’t even realize how far to the left are their shared values. The bullshit rhetoric of symbolic ideologies combined with the MSM spin creates such a political fog that the American public doesn’t know which way is which.

I have hope, though, that with the rise of alternative media enough of the fog is lifting and the light of clarity is beginning to dawn or at least peak through.

In life, what we value is what we get, but first we have to understand our own values. Americans don’t just want the rhetoric of freedom. They want actual freedom. It isn’t the only thing they want, but it is very important. We can later on argue about the details of what freedom means. For now, we need the force of populism to shutdown the rhetoric machine. When average Americans can hear one another speak, then we can have a genuine discussion about the real issues. Not symbolism, but the issues themselves.

10 thoughts on “Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

  1. Benjamin: Richard B. Wirthlin was a high-ranking official in the LDS (aka Mormon) Church. As such, his nefarious behind-the-scenes activities in support of conservative causes should come as no surprise. I live here in Wirthlin’s home town of Salt Lake City, and I can tell you that although most Utahns and even most Mormons are good, decent people, the Church itself is the epitome of whitebread political conservatism: homophobic, patriarchal, capitalistic, classist, racist. Furthermore, being run by corporate businessmen like Wirthlin, it specializes in public relations, i.e. propaganda. Indeed, the LDS Church has the world’s largest missionary program, brainwashing its teenagers (now both male and female) and then sending them around the world to propagandize for new recruits. Though a potent political force in the US — think Mitt Romney, think Orrin Hatch, think Mike Lee, think Harry Reid, think Karl Rove (not LDS but he got his early training here) — this wealthiest of all churches (per capita) gets a full tax exemption as a 501 (c)(3) “charitable organization.” For members to be in good standing and allowed into its temples, they must give 10% of the yearly income to the Church; that donation itself is tax-deductible. In short, this highly political religious organization — which dominates state politics to the point where Utah is not only a one-party (Republican) state but a virtual theocracy — plays the tax system on two levels, depriving us non-LDS taxpayers of funding for necessary civic purposes (in particular, public education, worst-funded in the entire country).
    I’m sorry to say that Utah is the scam capital of the US, with the highest number of pyramid schemes and fraud cases per capita of any state. It’s the home of multilevel marketing: just today there was a front-page article in the Salt Lake Tribune reporting that the Chinese government has shut down NuSkin’s activities there, saying it was just an MLM pyramid scheme intent on bilking innocent Chinese. NuSkin’s stock immediately fell 19% on the NY Stock Exchange. By the way, NuSkin’s main protector in Congress is Orrin Hatch.
    In short, Richard B. Wirthlin was just one of a long line of high-level Mormons proficient in scamming people and in manipulating public opinion behind the scenes.

    • Thanks for sharing the info, Tom. I don’t know a whole lot about the Mormons. I dated an ex-mormon once, but I doubt she knew about any of this kind of thing.

      The Mormons definitely have their right-wing power base. However, during he New Deal, they were big supporters of Progressvism. Then again, back then, even the KKK was a supporter of the New Deal. It was a different world.

      • As you say, Benjamin, it was a different world back then. The Mormon Church and the larger Mormon culture that obediently follows its lead have done a 180 degree turn since then. Utah in particular has become the reddest state in the Union, supporting GW Bush, for example, to the bitter end.

        Fortunately for me, there is a vibrant counterculture here in Salt Lake City. We have the state’s flagship university, a plethora of music venues, lots of cafes/coffee shops, strong citizen activism, and a powerful gay community that recently succeeded in getting gay marriage legalized in this most conservative of all states. It’s really exciting to see the ground shifting beneath the very feet of Mormon patriarchs like Wirthlin!

        • I was reading your comment here again. It reminded me of the changes happening in Utah recently. It seems the state is showing its progressive side again, such as with the housing for homeless. I’m curious what you think about it.

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