How Do Americans Like Their Policies? In Moderation, Please.

In Monday’s post I took issue with Vox founder Ezra Klein’s claim that, in his words “the idea of the moderate middle is bullsh*t.”  You will recall that Ezra argues that indexes purporting to show the existence of a moderate middle are misleading, because they are often amalgams of ideologically extreme opinions. But we don’t need to rely on indexes as evidence that many Americans have moderate policy views – we can look at their responses to specific survey questions. The American National Election Studies (ANES) researchers have been asking Americans about their opinions on issues for several decades now. Typically the question starts by giving the respondent two policy extremes and then asks her to place herself somewhere on a 7-point scale anchored at either end by the extreme responses. As an example, here is a question asking individuals their views regarding government spending on services: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?”

Day Robins tabulated the responses to five of those questions for which we have data across time, including the government spending/services question. In each case the moderate, or middle response (Option 4) is typically the modal response, or close to it, across the entire survey history. (Note: although researchers often group the “don’t know/haven’t thought about it” bottom response with the moderate/middle answer, Day has not done so here. So the charts below likely understate the number of respondents adopting the moderate position.)

Here’s the government spending/services time trend.

gov services.16

As you can see, even without including the “don’t knows” the most frequent response across a quarter century has been the middle, moderate choice. (The second most frequent response in recent years is 5.) For the most part, we see the same general pattern on the other four questions Day has graphed; the moderate position is typically the modal response. Here’s the graph of responses regarding whether to increase military spending.

military spending.16

Here’s one asking about government creation of jobs.

This one addresses aid to minorities. For most of the time period the moderate position holds sway, although in 2008 it is slightly eclipsed by option 7 “Help themselves”.

aid to minorities.16
Finally, here’s one measuring support for government health insurance. Here option 1 – strong support for government health insurance is marginally preferred to the moderate position in the 2008 survey. But note that support for the moderate position has actually been increasing, while option 7 – private coverage – has lost support.

health insurance.16
Now, before Max Kagan jumps all over me, these graphs are not evidence that most Americans are moderates across all issue areas. In fact, it is quite possible that their views vary depending on the issue. But the graphs do suggest that for most of the time on each of these issues, a plurality of Americans stake out a moderate position, with the exception of whether the government should provide health insurance and, in 2008, aid to minorities. And this is without including the “don’t knows/haven’t thought about it” response with the moderate answers. If we lump those in, as Abrams and Fiorina do for the 2012 responses to these questions, the moderate views appears even more popular.

Fiorina 3 moderatesMoreover, on three of these issues across most of the time period  – government services, jobs, and military spending – the responses are normally distributed, with most responses clustered around the center of the ideological spectrum, similar to what the Abrams/Fiorina graph shows for 2012. The government health insurance answers skew slightly liberal, and the aid to minorities responses are weighted more to the conservative side of the response distribution.  If Americans were becoming more polarized, we might expect to see a decrease in the number of Americans adopting a centrist position, and increases in those choosing more extreme positions, on these issues.  On the other hand, if what most pundits describe as ideological polarization is really party sorting, then I think we’d be more likely to see the graphs that Day has compiled.

Yes, at the individual level many Americans hold contradictory and sometimes extreme positions. But many hold moderate views too. And, in the aggregate, at least on these five issues, most respondents across much of the last quarter century cluster at or near the middle of the ideological spectrum. Yes there is some movement across responses categories.  But it is hardly enough to lend credence to the notion that the moderate middle is a myth.  And it is consistent with the notion that there has been no significant growth in ideological polarization.


  1. Agreed! But I think the question of whether these “moderates” are consistently moderate across the board or whether they are moderate on some issues and more extreme on others matters. Issue weighting matters–people who are moderate on some issues (or closer to the status quo) and extreme on others will care more about those on which they are more extreme. This affects voting behavior, which is ultimately what matters.

    The big question remains why these moderate pluralities don’t translate into moderate policies. Some (Fiorina) see this as a disconnect. But I think that it’s simply because a lot of these “moderates” are willing to express moderation when a pollster calls them up and asks them what they think, but aren’t as willing as their extremist neighbors to get in their car and drive to their local high school gymnasium every other November.

    Thus it strikes me that by including “haven’t thought much about it,” the Abrams/Fiorina chart is just a tad misleading. On the “aid to minorities” data set, for instance, including the “haven’t thought much about it” means that 4–the moderate option–remains the modal choice, giving us a nice central peak on the chart. If you exclude the non-thinkers, though, 7 becomes the modal choice (see your chart above) for the 2008 data. The same is true of health insurance, albeit with a 1 becoming the modal option. The “peakedness” of the jobs dataset would also decline, with 1 being almost as popular as 4 and 6 close behind.

    Counting the apathetic as moderate may make sense for opinion data, but it leads to very misleading inferences when you try to match polls with voting behavior. The apathetic who don’t think about these issues almost by definition are unlikely to decide to vote. This is the flaw I see in in Abrams and Fiorina’s work, and why I think that Abramowitz’s corrective is quite valuable.

  2. Max,

    You make several valuable points. Both Abramowitz and Abrams/Fiorina would agree, I think, that those with more extreme ideologies are also more politically active, although I suspect they would differ re: the size of the activist class. Abramowitz seems to think it is bigger than does Fiorina, but again that may be a function of the way Abramowitz codes survey responses. We talked about this during our seminar, if you recall. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by Abramowitz’s “corrective” – are you referring to his index of ideology?

  3. I don’t think the difference is as much about methodology as it is about views on what representative government entails–the age old dispute between representativeness and trusteeship. This is not to say that methodology doesn’t matter, but I think the heart of the dispute between Fiorina and Abramowitz is about how representation should work and who should be represented.

  4. Max,

    I think you are right – Fiorina thinks politics should engage, and represent, the more numerous moderate middle. Abramowitz, I think, is fine with having our elected officials more responsive to the engaged activists among us – but again this in part because he thinks there are more activists due to polarization than does Fiorina. so methodology – how we decide who an activist is – partly colors our perspective on who is getting represented, and whether that is ok or not.

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