Americans 'Moving Left' on Social Issues. Really?

The mainstream media (MSM) are hailing the release of recent polls purporting to show “progressive” perspectives on several social issues -- i.e., same-sex marriage, homosexuality, legalization of marijuana, even abortion -- either equaling or, in some cases outstripping, more “traditional” viewpoints. A Gallup poll released on May 22nd, for example, was headlined “On Social Ideology, the Left Catches Up to the Right.” 

Never mind that other Gallup polls, such as one released on June 2nd, or one put out on June 4th, provide cautionary findings. The MSM aren’t interested unless “the news” can be spun leftward.

This essay explores two questions. First, if “progressive” orientations on social issues are waxing, while “traditional” views are waning, what seems responsible? Second, and more important, what interpretation should we give to polls purporting to tap “opinions” about social issues?

It doesn’t take much speculation to uncover the reason(s) for allegedly increasing “progressive” perspectives on social questions among the American public. For decades, those perspectives have been fed to Americans by the MSM, Hollywood, and Academe. Since Democrat elites have shifted leftward in recent years, people who ape their orientation will also drift toward “progressive” opinions on a host of issues. An exegesis of the left-leaning orientations of the MSM, Hollywood, Academe, and key left-wing Democrat pols would serve no useful purpose, because the American Thinker’s readers are all too familiar with the story.

Why does the seemingly endless litany of left-wing views on social issues in the MSM, Hollywood, Academe, and hard-left Democrat elites resonate at the grassroots? In The Responsible Electorate, published posthumously in 1966, political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. informed readers that the public is an echo chamber. As he noted, “[t]he output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input.” If people are fed pap in the news and entertainment media, in school, and by key politicians, they will regurgitate pap to pollsters.

Key’s notion of the echo chamber applies especially to “low-information voters,” (LIVs), who pay -- at best -- minimal attention to public affairs and, therefore, are armed with little or no information to protect themselves against the steady stream of left-wing propaganda in news and entertainment media, the schools/universities, and highly visible far-left politicos. Some LIVs, of course, are oblivious to left-wing messages, but enough LIVs uncritically accept leftist drivel to make a difference in poll results. On the other hand, people who are politically savvy because they care about what goes on in the political arena are likely to have sufficient information to be skeptical of and resistant to blandishments espoused by America’s left-leaning ruling class. Among other reasons, therefore, the attentive public, who are knowledgeable, are relatively immune to pap coming from left-wing sources.

We have a pretty good handle on why some Americans, especially the LIVs, spout “progressive” opinions on social issues. What’s the significance of recent poll results?

Less than meets the eye at first blush. Students of American public opinion have learned to cast a jaundiced eye on much of the raw data from polls. 

The best way to grasp the significance of poll results was provided by public opinion researchers during the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The consensus among public opinion researchers is that American public opinion generally lacks muscle tone. Most of the time, most people express opinions that are only minimally internally consistent, which has come to be an accepted indicator of their quality. Consistent opinions are held in higher esteem than inconsistent ones. Hence, if public opinion lacks muscle tone, most researchers assert that it lacks quality.

There are always exceptions, but for the most part, among people who are well educated, and especially those who are particularly attentive to public affairs, high-quality opinions tend to outstrip low-quality ones.

Although scholars once assumed that people must have at least some information about a topic before they express an opinion, researchers have demonstrated that some people will express “opinions” about even fictitious issues. Many people respond to a pollster’s questions as if they are taking a civics quiz. Some people will give “opinions” to pollsters, thinking that if they say “no opinion” about a topic or “I don’t know,” they’ll be thought of as a “bad” citizen.

Opinions expressed to pollsters tend to be fleeting, almost random, collections of dispositions that can change -- sometimes dramatically -- over time. An individual interviewed at time one, for example, might express a “liberal” opinion on some issue. At time two -- usually not too long after time one -- when asked the same question, the same person might express the “conservative” point of view. Just the opposite changes can also occur.

Most people hold very few real opinions about political issues, in the sense that their “opinions” seldom shape their behaviors. For many people, for example, party identification may be the only real political disposition they have. Particularly when it comes to ideology, other than a well-educated, politically attentive, and knowledgeable minority, most Americans come up empty. As researchers put it, they “are innocent” of ideology.

For most people, most of the time, public affairs are, at best, a minor concern. Most people, most of the time, are far more focused on personal matters -- such as work, family, health, and entertainment -- that affect them directly.

Lack of attention to public affairs usually means an individual knows little about politics, and that goes a very long way towards explaining why “opinions” expressed to pollsters generally lack muscle tone.

What does all this mean in the context of recent polls about public opinion about social issues?  The MSM’s denizens, who tend to lean leftward and all-too-often assume that ordinary people share their perspective, have crowed about Americans’ increasing “sophistication” and “tolerance.” As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it, “big mistake!”

“Opinions” about social issues expressed to pollsters, particularly when polls are conducted outside “election season,” are essentially meaningless. Today’s “liberal” perspective on some topic might be tomorrow’s “conservative” disposition, and vice versa.

This is especially true of issues about which people tend to give little thought. When pollsters ask people to list topics they care about, most of the time pocketbook issues, i.e., the economy, jobs, cost-of-living, etc., far outstrip social issues. When a CBS News/New York Times poll in late April, early May, 2015 asked “[w]hat do you think is the most important problem facing this country today,” 20% replied “the economy, jobs,” and 7% mentioned miscellaneous social issues.

Of late, the MSM have been trying to convince the public that America is experiencing a robust economic recovery, without much success. Gallup polls in late May, early June, 2015, show economic confidence remains in negative territory, and has actually sagged.

If majorities of the public continue to opine that the country’s economy is dicey, polls tapping views of social issues will probably have minimal consequences for how most people vote in 2016.

Let the MSM crow. Then, if future polls show public opinion about social issues has changed, and especially if worry about the economy is a major voting issue next year, the MSM’s denizens can ask, “what the bleep happened?”