Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think

• January 14, 2011 • 5:00 AM

Voters self-identify as conservatives for several reasons, only one of which is that it reflects their politics

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.

But when asked to self-identify as liberals, moderates or conservatives, many of the same voters say they are “conservative.” The gap widened in the 1960s, when Republicans started making a concerted effort to turn “liberal” into a four-letter word. Since then, there has been an enduring 20-25 percent gap between the percentage of Americans who identify as liberals and who actually support liberal policies.

For both true liberals and true conservatives, however, the contradictions between self-identification and actual policy preferences can be maddening.

“Liberals would say, these people like all these things but call themselves conservative, so it just must be an artifact or a label,” said Ellis. “Conservatives would say these people call themselves conservative, they share our values and principles, but they don’t understand these policies are not reflective of our values.”

As for the supposed conservative shift this election, Ellis believes that voters were thinking more about symbols and values than about specifics: “The tenor of the discussion was about smaller government, lower taxes and traditional social values,” said Ellis. No wonder, then, that a few more people identified themselves as conservatives. (Other research has suggested that ideology can shift depending on the situation and that conservatism tends to rise in response to anxiety and uncertainty.)

But that doesn’t mean that the recent uptick in conservative self-identification provides a ringing endorsement of conservative policies for a simple reason: Most so-called conservatives just aren’t that conservative.

“I hope what this does is provide a grain of salt in reading public opinion,” said Ellis. “We’re more conservative now than we were two years ago, but the raw numbers are misleading. They give a picture that’s just not there when you dig deeper.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

More From Lee Drutman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.