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Americans Are Far Less Conservative Than the Right Wing Claims

New research suggests that only a quarter of self-identified “conservatives” may actually be true conservatives on the issues. Many aren't conservative at all.
 
 
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Among the many memes floating around in the wake of the 2010 election is that America has taken a rightward turn, and conservative pundits seem re-energized in calling America a center-right nation. After all, a plurality of American voters (42 percent) now call themselves “conservative” — as compared to just 35 percent who say they are “moderate” and 20 percent who say they are “liberal.” Two years ago, moderates and conservatives both were at 37 percent.

But new research suggests that pundits ought to be cautious of overinterpreting the conservative label: It doesn’t always mean what they think it means: Only a quarter of self-identified “conservatives” may actually be true conservatives on the issues — less than the 30 percent of whom are not conservative at all, but simply like the label.

The reason why so few “conservatives” turn out to be solid right-wingers is that the word “conservative” has different meanings for different people, according to political scientists Christopher Ellis of Bucknell and James A. Stimson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who describe their findings in a new working paper, “Pathways to Ideology in American Politics: The Operational-Symbolic ‘Paradox’ Revisited”

According to their research, some people genuinely know what it means to be a conservative in the current political debate and indeed express matching preferences across all issues. But these “constrained conservatives” (as Ellis and Stimson call them) account for only 26 percent of all self-identified conservatives.

More common are the “moral conservatives” (34 percent), who think of themselves as conservative in terms of their own personal values, be they social or religious. And they are indeed right-leaning on social, cultural and religious issues. But they also like government spending on a variety of programs and generally approve of government interventions in the marketplace, hardly making them true conservatives.

And still others, “conflicted conservatives” (30 percent), are not conservative at all on the issues. But they like identifying themselves as conservatives. To them, it somehow sounds better. “They like the word,” explained Ellis. Or at least, they like it better then their other choices in the traditional self-identification questionnaire: moderate and liberal.

Finally, a smaller group of self-identified “conservatives” (10 percent) could be classified as libertarian — conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues.

Self-identified liberals, on the other hand, are consistently liberal on all the issues, according to Ellis and Stimson. Two-thirds of liberals fit into the category of “constrained liberals,” who pick the label because it actually describes their worldview.

A good part of the reason why moral conservatives keep calling themselves conservative (despite dubiously conservative issue positions) is that these are voters who don’t follow politics closely enough to fully understand what it means to be a political conservative. Conflicted conservatives, meanwhile, identify as conservatives because they hear liberals defend programs and Republicans defend principles and agree with both without confronting the contradictions.

“People don’t hear conflicting arguments, but rather two sets of arguments,” explained Ellis. “Conservatives talk about a commitment to conservative values, and liberals talk about what we can do for you on education or the environment. Elite conservatives never say cut education spending, and elite liberals never say we’re proud to be liberals. The two groups of people talk past each other.”

This is a longstanding phenomenon. In another paper, Ellis and Stimson have shown going back to at least 1937 — the heart of the New Deal — that the American public, on average, has been operationally liberal and symbolically conservative. That is, that when asked about specific “liberal” government programs — be they spending on education, environmental protections, regulation of business — the majority of voters consistently say they approve.

 
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