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The Netroots and the ‘Far Left’

- July 21, 2008

John and Eric’s op-ed in the _LAT_ got picked up in a “frontpage diary”:http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/7/17/12526/4386/984/551257 at Kos by BarbinMD as an example of how the mainstream media disparage the netroots. The offending bit in BarbinMD’s eyes was the following.

bq. To determine just how polarized blog readers are, we constructed a measure of political ideology by drawing on blog readers’ attitudes toward stem cell research, abortion, the Iraq war, the minimum wage and capital gains tax cuts. Using this measure, we then arrayed respondents from left to right. Here’s what we found.

bq. Readers of liberal blogs were clustered at the far left ….

(The op-ed goes on to say that “readers of conservative blogs were bunched at the far right. There was little, if any, overlap between them on these issues.”)

BarbinMD responds

bq. What does “the far left” mean? Here’s the attitudes of Americans as a whole on these issues:

and then goes on to list a series of opinion polls suggesting that a majority of Americans are against the Iraq war, favor stem cell research and so on. She concludes:

bq. We reflect the majority opinion of this country on pretty much every issue, yet the media continues to pretend that we’re the far left, the lunatic fringe. They’re still unwilling to admit the obvious…we are the mainstream.

I didn’t write the op-ed, although I did co-author the research that the op-ed is based on. But BarbinMD’s interpretation of what the op-ed (and the research) is saying is mistaken. The reasons why are much easier to understand if you look at a graph of the data (unfortunately, the _LAT_, like most other newspapers, doesn’t usually print graphs of any complexity).


The first thing to note is that when John and Eric talk about readers of liberal blogs being ‘clustered on the far left,’ they are _not_ claiming that these readers are part of the ‘far left’ in the sense that they are political extremists or members of the ‘lunatic fringe.’ They are saying that readers of liberal blogs are clumped together at the far left end of the scale (the specific measure) that they are using. This isn’t a pejorative description or a suggestion that these readers are crazy. It’s a claim about the data.

The simplest way to understand the data is as follows. With regard to this particular set of issues, readers of both liberal and conservative blogs are far more ideologically consistent than non-blog readers. That is to say that readers of liberal blogs are much more likely than others to hold left-leaning positions on all or most of the issues we have measures for. The surveyed readers of liberal blogs were much more likely to oppose the Iraq war _and_ support stem cell research _and_ be in favor of abortion rights and so on, all at the same time. Similarly, readers of conservative blogs are much more likely to favor the Iraq war, and to be opposed to stem cell research and abortion rights and so on. Non blog readers tend to be much less likely to be ideologically consistent than either readers of left wing or readers of right wing blogs. Thus, they are much more likely to hold some left leaning views and some right leaning views — for example, they might oppose the Iraq war while also being anti-abortion.

This is much easier to understand when you are able to look at visual representations of the data. As an illustration, the above graph shows ideological scales for the readers of a popular blog on the left (Daily Kos itself), a popular blog on the right (Little Green Footballs), and for non-blog readers. The differences are striking. Readers of the Daily Kos are densely clustered around the furthest left point of the scale. This is to say that they are likely to hold liberal positions on most or all of the issues that we have data on. Readers of Little Green Footballs are densely clustered around the rightmost point of the scale. Non-blog readers, in contrast to both, are all over the map, although there may be slightly more of them on the left than on the right. They appear to be much less ideologically consistent than either left blog readers or right blog readers.

This is the point that John and Eric were trying to make. Not that readers of liberal blogs are crazies or anything like it, but that readers of both liberal blogs and conservative blogs are far more ideologically coherent than non blog readers, and as a result, they tend to be much more polarized, holding mutually opposed beliefs on important political issues. Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your underlying philosophy of politics (I think it’s a good thing, as I’ve argued in the past, but that’s my personal bias).

This does have one interesting implication for the netroots, I think. The usual argument you hear both from netroots people and those who support them, is that the netroots aren’t an especially ideological group of people. It’s an argument that I made myself a couple of years ago in an “essay”:http://bostonreview.net/BR31.5/farrell.php for the _Boston Review._ Based on this evidence, I now think that I was wrong. There is striking evidence that the netroots are much more ideologically consistent than people have suggested they were in the past, and perhaps more consistent than they themselves believe themselves to be. This is something that I at least hadn’t expected to see. But that’s why you do research — sometimes, what you think are established facts turn out not to be so established after all.

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