Rachel Maddow took Politifact to task for rating Rubio's statement Mostly True in light of these facts, but I think she misses the point. She is right to attack the Politifact article, but she attacks it for the wrong reasons. If Rubio had said, "The majority of Americans think of themselves as conservative," Politifact's rating would have been appropriate. The majority/plurality distinction is often ignored in colloquial speech, and partisan identification doesn't always match ideology or even voting tendency. What makes Rubio's statement misleading is that it implies Americans tend to fit his definition of conservatism, when the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
He explains why he thinks Americans are conservative with his ridiculous, incendiary remark, "They believe in things like the Constitution. I know that's weird to some people." Of course few Americans of any political stripe would say they don't believe in the Constitution, but Rubio isn't basing his judgment on what they claim about themselves. President Obama may be a former professor of constitutional law, but according to conservatives like Rubio, his liberal policies prove he doesn't "believe" in his area of specialty, no matter what he says in public.
In other words, Rubio's logic implies he doesn't necessarily take people's self-descriptions at face value. I doubt he would accept, for example, the claimed conservatism of Andrew Sullivan, a staunch Obama supporter. How do we know the 40% of Americans who call themselves "conservative" are the Rubio type of conservative, as opposed to the Sullivan type, or some other type entirely?
As a matter of fact, Americans tend to prefer the policies of the Democratic Party to those of the GOP. According to polls, Americans overwhelmingly favor an increase in the the minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, and leaving Social Security and Medicare alone. The Affordable Care Act remains unpopular, but the public option that was discarded from the bill polled well.
Public opinion on social issues such as abortion is somewhat cloudier, though the public becomes increasingly accepting of gay rights with each passing year. If there's one area of liberal thought that is continually unpopular, it is civil liberties. But Democrats know that, which is why they shy away from implementing such policies. That makes Rubio's statement about the Constitution ironic, because it seems to me that Americans as a whole don't have a great deal of respect for many of the rights outlined in the Constitution, yet that's the one area in which their views are more in line with those of Rubio's party!
Given all these facts, why do twice as many Americans identify by the term "conservative" as by the term "liberal"? Partly it's because over the past several decades conservatives have successfully turned "liberal" into a dirty word, so that even people who hold liberal policy positions are reluctant to embrace the term. (That's the main reason the American left started calling itself "progressive.") It's a total flip from the past. Traditionally the word "liberal" had positive connotations, evoking someone open-minded and forward-looking, while "conservative" was often a slightly negative word, suggesting joyless, old-fashioned squareness. (That was presumably the meaning Rush Limbaugh had in mind when he complained about a reporter who allegedly described his neckties as conservative.) The rise of a vigorous conservative movement in the 1970s at a time when liberalism was flailing helped to change these perceptions.
I'm not saying the public is, in fact, "liberal." For one thing, the American system is itself to the right of most modern, developed nations, so that even the Democratic Party would look conservative in other countries. "I have no more intention of dismantling the National Health Service than I have of dismantling Britain's defenses." Who said those words? It was that bolshevik Maggie Thatcher.
Conservatives point to polls showing that Americans tend to say they favor "limited government." But when you examine their views more closely, you find they oppose just about anything that would actually lead to a smaller government. As a 2010 Washington Post poll found, "most Americans who would like to see a more limited government also call Medicare and Social Security 'very important' programs...[and] want the federal government to remain involved in education, poverty reduction and health care regulation."
The American appetite for shrinking the government in theory but not in practice is a big part of why it's so hard to combat the country's fiscal problems. Serious cuts will almost invariably cause pain to many voters. The only category of federal spending that a majority of Americans wants to see cut is foreign aid, and most Americans are unaware it constitutes a minuscule portion of the budget. It's comforting, I suppose, to pretend the source of our problems lies an ocean away.
However Americans may describe their political philosophy in the abstract, it's obvious from any serious examination of the polls that the economic policies of the Republican Party are, for the most part, highly unpopular. So why do Republicans continue to win office? For starters, elections tend to be driven by factors other than voter agreement with policy. According to political scientists, the biggest influence on national elections is the state of the economy. The 2010 Republican sweep demonstrated this to a tee: exit polls showed that 52% of the voters wanted to see the Bush tax cuts on the rich ended, and that although 48% wanted to see Obamacare repealed, 47% wanted to see it either left alone or expanded. Thus, the electorate that brought us this "Tea Party revolution" didn't clearly agree with two of the Tea Party's key policy priorities.
Of course Republicans don't have to wait till the economy goes south to gain power. They've developed a wealth of propaganda to make their views sound more palatable to the average voter. They'll point out that Democrats want to raise taxes, and once you mention that the proposed tax hikes will only fall on the richest of Americans, a mere 1% of the country, the Republicans then accuse the Democrats of "class warfare" and hostility to "job creators." All these rhetorical devices are attempts to give voters the impression that Republicans are defending the interests of the middle class, a delusion they can only maintain by not describing their policies in plain English.
It is when Republican politicians get to entitlement talk that their propaganda descends into complete incoherence. "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" was a line seen and heard at a few Tea Party rallies, and although these were isolated incidents, they reflected a message that's pervasive in a party that calls Obamacare a "government takeover of the health-care system" while at the same time attacking it for its cuts to America's actual government health-care system.
The contradiction is sometimes laughably transparent. In 2010, a Republican Congressional candidate ran an ad blasting the Democratic incumbent for the following two sins: "Government run health care. Medicare cuts." In 2011, Michelle Bachmann warned that Obama would try to turn Medicare into Obamacare (which would actually mean privatizing it, but never mind). Then there's Romney's recent statement simultaneously assailing the president for failing to make entitlement cuts and, well, making entitlement cuts: "This week, President Obama will release a budget that won't take any meaningful steps toward solving our entitlement crisis.... The president has failed to offer a single serious idea to save Social Security and is the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors."
Republican messaging reached its ultimate absurdity after the passage of Paul Ryan's bill (which Romney has endorsed) that not only includes the same Medicare cuts that Romney and other Republicans have attacked Democrats for implementing, but plans eventually to eliminate Medicare in all but name--whatever Politifact may tell you to the contrary. Ryan's plan isn't popular, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from claiming to be saving Medicare while accusing Democrats of trying to destroy it.
These obfuscations are necessary because Republicans truly seek reductions in America's safety net but must contend with a public deeply opposed to that project, including one of their core constituencies, the elderly. They have no choice but to lie about their positions, because describing them truthfully would prevent the GOP from getting into power. As Jonathan Chait explained in his 2007 book The Big Con, published before the rise of Obama, the Tea Party, or the mythical death panels:
There is also a natural--and, in many ways, commendable--skepticism about one-sided accusations of dishonesty. Those who confine their accusations to one side are usually partisans best taken with a grain of salt. Lying and spinning have always been a part of politics, and it is the rare elected official who prevails by offering the voters an objective and unvarnished assessment of his plans. Moreover, since we tend to think of lying as an idiosyncratic personal trait, there's no reason to think that one side has more liars than the other any more than there's reason to think one side has more drunks or adulterers.
Yet, as will become clear, the fact remains that dishonesty has become integral to the Republican economic agenda in a way that it is not to the Democratic agenda. The reason is not that Republicans are individually less honest than Democrats. Far from it. It is simply that the GOP, and the conservative movement, have embraced an economic agenda far out of step with the majority of the voting public. Republicans simply can't win office or get their plans enacted into law, without fundamentally misleading the public. Lying has become a systematic necessity. (pp. 118-9)