Frank Luntz Is Right About Conservative Cognitive Dissonance

Conservative voters are less conservative than they think, and they are decidedly less conservative than professional conservatives in Washington.

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Here's a sentence I didn't anticipate writing today: I think pollster Frank Luntz is onto something.

As part of the Washington Post Outlook section's "5 Myths" series, Luntz makes the case that ordinary voters who call themselves "conservative" aren't obsessed with reducing the size of government; don't want to deport illegal immigrants en masse; aren't big fans of Wall Street; want to preserve Medicare and Social Security; and agree with liberals that income inequality is at least problematic.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Luntz is notionally interested in finding ways for Republicans to make their ideas more palatable to the general public. After all, he is a party "strategist," a focus-group maestro, as much as he is a pollster. And so he dutifully massages his data. Thus: Conservatives "are rallying behind the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) not simply because it cuts the size of government, but because it cultivates accountability." But of course!

And: "Conservatives want to increase opportunity, giving everyone the freedom and tools to prosper, so that the poor may someday become rich. Liberals want to redistribute income, making the rich—quite simply—less rich."

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will the New Ryan Budget Plan Hurt the GOP in 2012?]

Make no mistake: Luntz is road-testing talking points here. Yet if you ignore the partisan gloss, I think the thrust of Luntz's data paints an accurate picture: Conservative voters suffer from cognitive dissonance. They are less conservative than they think, and they are decidedly less conservative than professional conservatives in Washington. That most Americans, including conservatives, hate big government only in the abstract is a truism of politics. Luntz's data is yet another confirmation of Americans' operational liberalism.

If you're searching for an explanation of why American politics is so dysfunctional, as political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann do in a much-discussed piece in the same Outlook section, look no further than Luntz's focus-group participants.

We have two major parties. Only one can govern in the same spirit in which it campaigns.

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