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Opening Arguments

The misleading label

I was prepared to really dislike this article -- "Why most conservatives are secretly liberal" sounds like Democratic propoganda disguised as news analysis. Alas, there is is a lot of truth in it, even if the headline is greatly overstated:

After all, there were far more conservatives in that Gallup poll, which, for some, means we’re still a “center-right nation.” But whether people call themselves “conservative” isn’t necessarily that telling in the first place.  A recent book by two political scientists shows that liberal may be a dirty word, but liberalism is alive and well — even among people who call themselves “conservative.”

In Ideology in America, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson describe a striking disjuncture. When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose “conservative” far more than “liberal.” In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s.

But when it comes to saying what the government should actually do, the public appears more liberal than conservative. Ellis and Stimson gathered 7,000 survey questions dating back to 1956 that asked some variant of whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas.  On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down.  For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).

[. . .]

This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government?  For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle.  In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.

As noted in the conclusion: Conservatism means different things to different people. It's not wise to assume it always means "less government." I suspect the same is true on the other side, just not as strongly as it is on the right -- some people say they are liberal because they think of thsemlves as tolerant and open-minded, not necessarily as fans of big government.


Andrew J.
Fri, 03/07/2014 - 11:32am

Liberal: not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted.

What's there not to love?



Leo Morris
Fri, 03/07/2014 - 3:37pm

Not carefully examining the new ideas to see if they are actually good ones, that's what.