How the Pew Research Center makes conservatives sound like jackasses

“With the economy still struggling and the nation involved in multiple military operations overseas, the public’s political mood is fractious,” says a new report from the Pew Research Center. “In this environment, many political attitudes have become more doctrinaire at both ends of the ideological spectrum, a polarization that reflects the current atmosphere in Washington.”

The report is titled, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” The Pew Research Center has divided Americans into eight distinct political types plus one group that they’ve termed “Bystanders.” But how have they arrived at these conclusions?

“Using a statistical procedure called cluster analysis,” the report explains, “individuals are assigned to one of eight core typology groups based on their position on nine scales of social and political values — each of which is determined by responses to two or three survey questions — as well as their party identification.”

If you go to the Pew Research Center’s website, you can answer the survey questions yourself. And then you’ll learn the secret of how the Pew Research Center determined that only nine percent of Americans are “staunch conservatives” while fourteen percent are “solid liberals”:

The questions are written to push people toward liberal answers.

“To identify your typology group, select one response from each of the paired statements below. Even if neither statement is exactly right, choose the response that comes closest to your views,” the quiz begins.

The language of the survey questions subtly, and not-so-subtly, slants the results to make conservatives look like cruel, callous, intolerant warmongers who want children to breathe poisoned air.

Here’s an example. Choose between these two statements:

“Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.”

“Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.”

Observe the trick: “Stricter” than what? Stricter than they are today? Stricter than they were in 1920?

Maybe you’d like to choose this statement instead:

“It’s important to balance environmental protection with economic growth and job creation.”

Sorry, the Pew Research Center doesn’t list that statement on its quiz. Choose “worth the cost” and enjoy mental images of pristine beaches, or choose “cost too many jobs” and have nightmares about oil spills and asthma inhalers.

Here’s your next choice:

“Business corporations make too much profit.”

“Most corporations make a fair and reasonable amount of profit.”

The trick here is the collectivist premise that what everybody makes is everybody’s business. What does it mean to make “too much profit” or “a fair and reasonable amount of profit?” If millions of Americans choose to buy a product, does that mean it’s priced too high? If a company pays a dividend to its shareholders, does that mean it’s ripping off its customers?

If you’d like to choose the statement, “Business corporations should make as much money as they can as long as they’re not engaged in illegal or fraudulent activity,” too bad. That’s not on Pew’s quiz.

Choose from these two:

“Using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world.”

“Relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.”

Here you can observe the trick of making one side look extreme while the other looks moderate. The people who worry about blowback from anti-terrorist operations are not required to renounce military action completely, but only to agree that sometimes it’s “too much.” On the other hand, people who choose the “overwhelming military force” statement sound like they’re in favor of permanent world war. The statement could have included the phrase,”when necessary,” but it doesn’t.

Perhaps you’d like to choose the statement, “The United States should always be prepared and willing to defend itself with military action against those who are trying to do us harm.”

Sorry. Not on the quiz.

No doubt the researchers at Pew would explain that their carefully crafted statements are designed to gently push people who hold vague opinions to see where they come down on the issues.

That would be fine, except that they’re pushing conservatives over the edge of a cliff.

Next. Choose from these two statements:

“I often don’t have enough money to make ends meet.”

“Paying the bills is generally not a problem for me.”

Would you like to choose, “I’m worried about paying my bills in the future?”

This is no time for nuance. In Pew’s world, you’re poor and needy or you’re fat and sassy.

How about these:

“Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.”

“Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.”

Why not just ask, “Do you think the American dream is a lie or a fantasy?” Obviously there’s “no guarantee” for anybody of anything in life. This is what magicians call “forcing a card.”

Maybe you’d agree with: “It is harder to get ahead in America today than it was twenty years ago.”

Sorry. Not on the quiz.

Choose one of these:

“The government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.”

“The government today can’t afford to do much more to help the needy.”

Here you can see the “fire the firemen first” principle of budget politics. The premise is that there’s nothing in the federal budget to cut except food for the starving, medicine for the ailing, and ambulance service. Liberals are allowed to sound compassionate, while conservatives are made to sound like Ebeneezer Scrooge before the ghosts got to him.

You can choose this statement instead: “The government should prioritize its spending and cut useless, politically-connected crap out of the budget.”

Oh, sorry, no you can’t. Not on the quiz. Choose one of these:

“Our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.”

“Our country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.”

This nifty trick is worked in two parts, first with the phrase, “Our country.” Pew could have said “Our government,” but instead they chose a phrase that smudges any distinction between the law, which has changed radically since the Jim Crow era, and the private attitudes of some individuals.

The second part of the trick is in the word “changes.” This is oddly vague. Is Pew referring to affirmative action? Reparations? Mortgage debt forgiveness? Who knows. Pew won’t ask you if you agree with the statement, “Decades of affirmative action have achieved equal opportunity for blacks in America, and it is now time to drop racial preferences in hiring and admissions.”

Choose one of these:

“Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

“Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.”

This one is full of malignant rhetorical tricks. “Poor people today have it easy” is a ridiculous statement, but “they can get government benefits without doing anything in return” is a fact. Attaching them makes anyone who agrees with the statement sound callous and ignorant. Of course poor people have hard lives, and of course the government doesn’t give them enough money to “live decently,” because if the government gave people enough money to “live decently” without working, who in the name of Ronald Reagan would ever set an alarm clock? And then where would we get the money to pay everyone enough to “live decently?”

The subtle positioning of the word “because” in the second statement places the blame for poverty on the taxpayers. “Poor people have hard lives” is a fact. “Government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently” is a fact. But it does not follow that poor people have hard lives only because of cheapskate government programs. People have plenty of problems that aren’t the fault of the taxpayers. Is poverty caused by a lack of government assistance? Or is it caused by teen pregnancy, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, contempt for good grades, dropping out and making terrible, self-destructive choices? Never mind, that’s not on the quiz.

Maybe you’d agree with the statement, “The government should provide a safety net to the neediest Americans and to people who fall on hard times, but there should be time limits on the benefits or work requirements so that people don’t become permanently dependent.”

That’s not on the quiz, either.

Choose one:

“The growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.”

“The growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society.”

Don’t try to choose: “I feel resentful that people who came here illegally are demanding that America become a bilingual nation.”

Instead, choose one of these:

“Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.”

“Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

Would you like to make a distinction between “immigrants” and “illegal immigrants?”

Ha! You can’t! And you can’t choose this statement: “Most illegal immigrants are hard-working, decent people, but we can’t afford to pay for public school, Medicaid and welfare for every impoverished person who comes to this country illegally.”

That is SO not on the quiz.

Choose one:

“Homosexuality should be accepted by society.”

“Homosexuality should be discouraged by society.”

Discouraged by society? What if you want to choose, “Everybody’s sex life is nobody’s business, but marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Not on the quiz.

No, nothing that makes conservatives sound human is on the quiz. Choose between poisoning the environment or saving the children. Choose between feeding the needy or starving them. Choose between permanent, pointless war or thoughtful, prudent military action. Choose between accepting homosexuality or chasing after the gay pride parade with tar and feathers.

The report concludes that Americans are polarized, disaffected and more liberal than conservative, but the survey makes them that way. It’s impossible to identify the sensible center of the electorate by pushing respondents to agree with manipulative statements that embody cartoonish stereotypes of conservative views.

The sad thing is that the Pew Research Center is highly respected and politicians will view its report as an accurate snapshot of voter attitudes. Lawmakers, some of them, will look at this research and conclude that voters favor positions that are more liberal then previously believed. Freshmen Republicans will tremble in fear as they struggle to reconcile these liberal-leaning snapshots of the voters with the raging conservative phone calls coming into their offices. Someone on a cable news show will observe that the electorate has mellowed from the anger of the 2010 election, except for the “extremists” in the Tea Party.

Don’t believe it.

Garbage in, garbage out.

One day a pollster will ask sensible, centrist questions and get a record-breaking, off-the-charts response to them.

And that will be his last day of work at the Pew Research Center.

© 2011

Susan Shelley posted at 2011-6-30 Category: Uncategorized