Paul Waldman over at The American Prospect has been examining this chart from Pew showing how people of different parties view themselves and others.
Waldman is trying to explain the results and his best guess is that the reason that Republicans think that Democrats are very liberal while the Democrats don't think that Republicans are very conservative is that the Republicans are listening to talk radio and Fox News and so are just engaged in group think. Democrats, on the other hand, listen to much more reasonable sources.
So why is this? It's hard to say, but my nominee would be the differing media systems partisans are drawn to. Conservatives are more likely to seek out highly partisan information sources -- Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. -- than Democrats are. The latter may take in the occasional episode of Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, but they're getting most of their news from more neutral places like NPR and CNN. What makes the difference is that the idea that the Democratic Party is a bunch of socialists with a radical leftist agenda is a core component of the rhetoric on Fox, Limbaugh, et al. If you get your news from them, you'll hear that message every day, again and again. And eventually you'll start to believe it.Remember, Fox News might be big in the cable news business, but they're still pretty small potatoes in the overall media picture. The numbers just don't add up to influence mass numbers.
If I were a liberal, I'd be much more concerned about where the Independents place themselves and where they place the Democrats on the spectrum. And they're a whole lot closer to where their view of the Republican Party is than where they think the Democrats are.
And this brings us to what I think is really going on here. The country is basically a center-right country. That's where Independents see themselves. The word "liberal" doesn't resonate positively with a lot of people. That's why Hillary Clinton campaigned as a "progressive" in 2008 since she didn't want to be tarred with what she perceived as a negative - to be called liberal. On the other hand, Republicans proudly tout themselves as conservatives. As much as liberals wish it did, calling someone a conservative isn't a negative in national politics.
James Joyner looks at the internals of the Pew poll to note that 53% of the respondents find the Democrats more liberal than they are, while only 41% find the Republicans more conservative. That's quite a difference. Add in that 27% find the Republican Party more liberal than they are and you can see a country that is on the right-hand side of the divide.
There’s some debate as to how people perceive the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and whether they mean the same thing to most people. Regardless, Americans have aligned themselves with the term “conservative” at a much higher rate for decades. And they think the Republican Party is also “conservative” while the Democratic Party is “liberal.” So, if we’re defining “centrist” as the median ideology of America at any given moment in time, the Republicans are much closer to it than Democrats.John Hawkins also finds this a simpler explanation than trying to blame it all on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
First off, the Democratic Party is roughly split, in theory, between moderates and liberals. However, because the liberals have the money, the energy, and the intellectual firepower, they dominate the party. So oftentimes, moderate Democrats end up voting for politicians who ceaselessly claim to be moderate, but actually vote like Barney Frank. It's easy for these moderate Democrats to delude themselves about the type of candidate they're supporting.And face it. Who are the faces of the Democratic Party today? Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. Even an oblivious respondent would place them in the Very Liberal segment of the chart. Democrats might feel there is more nuance in their party than the policies that we've seen in the past 18 months, but the rest of the country is looking at what the Democrats are actually doing now that they're in control of the government and it's looking more liberal than moderate to them. Maybe that's why Republicans and Independents want to place the party over near there.
On the other hand, the liberals in the party understand the game: lefties have to lie to get elected in most of the country. So, they've come to expect that Democratic politicians will lie to the public about being moderate and then will swerve way over to the Left the moment they get into power. Jimmy Carter did it. Bill Clinton did it and only moved back towards the middle after the enormous thumping the Democrats took in 1994. Now, Barack Obama is doing it -- and yet many of the libs are still disappointed because even though Obama's extremely liberal and far to the Left of the American people, they expected him to be an even bigger liar. In other words, Obama campaigned like Evan Bayh and has led like Jimmy Carter, but they wanted Obama to govern like Michael Moore. So, the libs not happy and view Obama as being moderate -- which in all fairness he is -- compared to them.