Understanding the Political Distribution of the US

During the political conventions this year there was a bit of chatter over the racial diversity of the RNC speakers versus the racial homogeneity of the RNC attendees.  DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz even took some serious heat for labeling the GOP as having “superficial diversity.”  I don’t think anyone would dare argue that the GOP is more ethnically diverse than the Democrats especially given a recent poll showing Mitt Romney with 0% support among African Americans, but does this ethnic homogeneity translate to an ideological homogeneity as well?  In other words, do the constituents in GOP see eye-to-eye on issues more than their Democrat counterparts?  I would argue yes.

Breakdown of Political Parties and Superfactions

Many analysts point to the election of Ronald Reagan as the establishment of the modern Republican party in which fiscal conservatives and social conservatives joined forces and have since been nearly inseparable.  This narrative puts two large groups, or factions, within the Republican Party.  Social conservatives can further be divided into other groups such as law-and-order voters, traditionalists, white nationalists, and religious fundamentalists like Evangelical Christians.  Evangelicals seem of particular interest because of their large prevalence in the US and there have been a number of studies looking at the political affiliation of this group.  Over the years the group has gotten much more polarized:

Beginning with the Reagan election in 1980, however, white evangelical Protestants became increasingly conservative, and the percentage of moderates among them dropped precipitously. The number of self-identified liberals remained consistently small at approximately14%.  By the end of Reagan’s presidency in 1988, the conservative-moderate gap had jumped to 32 points (59% and 27% respectively). By 2008, the conservativemoderate gap had grown to 44 points, with nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelical Protestants identifying as conservative, and only 1 in 5 (20%) identifying as moderate.

Whether this represents more polarization or less can be debated, and I’ll leave that alone for now.  The key statistic right now is the 64%.  Evangelcials constitute about 27% of the US so if we do some quick math we find that about 17% of the country are Evangelical Christian conservatives.  While this group is in no way completely homogeneous itself, it could be considered a “superfaction.”  A superfaction can be defined as any group that votes consistently on more than one issue together.  Liberals tend to be dominated by factions in Madison’s classical sense of political factions of people with a single common goal such as gay marriage proponents, marijuana advocates, feminists, environmentalists, and civil rights advocates to name a few.  The 90’s comedy PCU did a good job at poking fun at the vast sea of liberal factions and the fragile peace between them.  For instance, there was quite a ruckus made over California’s Prop 8 when a large portion of the black community came out against gay marriage.

The Overall Distribution of the US

Let’s look at the breakdown of the US:

This chart shows the rough distribution of political beliefs in the US in 2000, 2009, and 2011.  While not showing much change over the years it’s clear to see that the country is more conservative than liberal.  People who consider themselves liberal or very liberal has been between 19-21% while conservative and very conservative are between 38-40% at a 2-1 ratio.  You’ll notice that Evangelical conservatives are nearly as large as both liberal groups and therefore as a superfaction dwarfs any smaller liberal faction.  Another data set provides even further illumination.

From 2004, this adds a neat twist to the distribution as rather than simply a gradual decline away from moderates, there are less slightly conservative people than conservative people.  I take this as evidence in favor of not only an existence of a superfaction on the right, but also of a greater homogeneity on the right in general.

What it Means for Political Parties

This election season, both parties have been accused of being further to the extremes than normal, but where do they really fall on this distribution?  I would assume (maybe wrongly) that given a two-party system, the parties achieve a sort of equilibrium where each gets about 50% of the vote on average, otherwise one party would win everything.  Parties evolve on their positions to remain competitive. However, this also means that the Democrats are not a liberal party despite being the party of liberals.  We might assume that moderates are split evenly between leaning conservative and liberal, yet if you equate moderates with independents then moderates would actually be more conservative.  But let’s just assume it’s an even and linear split, meaning that moderates are even distributed within their own group.

To start let’s look at the 2011 distribution separated by liberal and conservative groups.  I acknowledge that this is far from being scientifically done or methodologically done but i think it’s close enough to get the point across.

Everything in the purple would be moderate, and the numbers on the vertical axis should be ignored for all intents and purposes as the chart is merely there to represent the shape of the distribution.  Ok, but with this chart in mind we can take a look at the next one which shows where each party would lie in each take 50% of the vote.  From there two thinner lines will show where the center of each party should lie on the spectrum.

As this chart shows, the center of the Republican party should be conservative while the Dems are still on average moderate but close to the liberal border.  Oddly enough this appears to be exactly where both parties are.  Furthermore, it illustrates the greater homogeneity of the GOP as the spectrum of beliefs catered to is much narrower than the Democrats.  This is a gross oversimplification of the belief spectrum but does serve as a good sketch of where the political parties are and why.

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3 Common Phrases Made Popular by Presidential Elections

Every election cycle there are certain phrases that pop up time and time again either as slogans, talking points, or just general political banter.  In 2008, we had Joe the Plumber, vetting, and a whole slew of Palinisms, 2004 introduced the public to flip-flopping and swiftboating, and 2000 left us with hanging chads, red states and blue states.  However, it’s hard to say these neologisms and phrases without evoking some sort of political connotation.  However, there are at least 3 phrases we use today that we owe to campaigns, whether they meant it or not.

John Kerry Swiftboating

3. Throw Under the Bus

Nobody is quite sure where the phrase “to throw someone under the bus” came from or exactly what it originally referred to, but it exploded during the 2008 season.  One linguist found 400 examples in the press during 6 months of the campaign.  The phrase itself more or less means to make someone a scapegoat but I would hypothesize that it’s cultural resonance derives from its metaphor of a bus as an irrational, unstoppable, machine.  Its closest meaning may be that of “throwing someone to the wolves.”  Yet whereas the wolves are simply a group looking to attack someone, the bus is much more the nature of society in general.  Thus the snitching connotation of throwing someone under the bus is conveyed as exposing someone or betraying their trust.  The phrase was rather popular on the Howard Stern show where it took on the specific meaning of someone from the show staff telling Howard something previously told in confidence or exposing a mistake made by an employee.  It was mostly used to denote putting someone in the path of Stern’s wrath shtick.

2. Internets

At first I didn’t think this word belonged on the list because I had always associated it with the 2004 election, but eight years later it has apparently lost its original connotation.  The phrase is actually a Bushism, created out of thin air when he used it responding to a debate question from the audience.

Catchphrases, as the NPR link above mentions, spread in a viral fashion, often in the form of memes.  When “the internets” became a meme it began to evolve and shed its political connotation where it’s now just used as a hip way to say the internet.  With the flourishing of internet memes in the last decade, it is no surprise it caught on, especially given how well it fits with lolcats.  It also didn’t help when Ted Stevens later compared the internet to a “series of tubes.”

1. OK

OK, O.K., Okay, is now an internationally recognized and used word.  If you don’t know what it means then you probably can’t understand anything else I’ve written here.  This is another word where nobody really knows where it came from or if it stands for anything, yet one theory has been accepted more by etymologists.  That theory holds that OK was originally the product of an abbreviation fad in Boston where the phrase “all correct” was purposely mis-abbreviated as OK.  Allen Walker Reed proposed the theory and was able to trace its use in print to 1838.  The President at that time was Martin Van Buren, and in the election of 1840, his campaign used OK to refer to Van Buren as “Old Kinderhook,” a folksy nickname he had from his town.  With the slogan “Vote for OK,” the word was launched nationwide and Van Buren’s Whig opponents used it against him playing off its misspelling.  Van Buren ultimately lost his re-election to William Henry Harrison who was later impeached by God after just 32 days on the job.