When will pollsters stop asking people — especially young people — how “liberal” they are?
The Washington Post ran a story yesterday about how the younger voters in Iowa who went overwhelmingly for Sanders were surprisingly less liberal than one might have expected. Indeed, those who went hardest for Sanders weren’t those who considered themselves to be liberal, but “those calling themselves moderates or conservatives.”
Among those aged 40 and older, Clinton’s margin against Sanders was largest with moderate and “somewhat liberal” Democrats, while Sanders performed best among the very liberal contingent.
But that pattern is erased — or even reversed — among younger Democrats. Clinton lost younger voters by at least 40 percentage points, regardless of their ideological leaning, and the margin was actually largest (58 points) among those calling themselves moderates or conservatives.
What’s wrong with this story and also the entrance poll (conducted by Edison Media Research) is that it fails to question the term liberal and what it conjures for young people. I’ll give you a hint: it means something very different for young people than it means for older people.
It’s not so difficult to understand this. Conservatives have been conducting an effective negative branding campaign aimed at the term liberal for four decades now. (Importantly, the equally ambiguous terms conservative and moderate have not been systematically targeted in this way, which may account for young people having fewer misgivings about identifying as such.) For young people, the term liberal is thoroughly tarnished and there doesn’t seem to be much worth saving. However, ask young people about their positions on issue after issue, and a very different picture emerges. They want to regulate Wall Street, a public healthcare system, a sane climate policy, and to tax the rich. Heck, even ask young people about socialism (as Pew did), and today’s young people favor it over capitalism.
The thing is, they—we—don’t consider this to be a liberal position. And why should we? Those who have brandished the liberal label most visibly over the past few decades—especially Democratic politicians—have often gone hook, line, and sinker for neoliberal free trade policies that have further consolidated the wealth and power of the extremely rich. For this reason, many of the most politically developed young progressives (a label that polls much better, btw) have become increasingly critical of the limits of the project of liberalism itself. We want a whole lot more.