Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Identity and Ideology, or, You're Not as Conservative as You Think

Recently a few hundred young Americans were first asked to identify themselves ideologically and then given a quiz developed by the Pew Research Center to identify their attitudes toward 12 major current political issues. The results:
Results were consistent across the board: Participants rated themselves as more conservative than their positions on the issues would indicate. In the first group, “liberal Democrats significantly overestimated their liberalism,” the researchers report. “However, moderate Democrats, Independents, and Republicans significantly underestimated their liberalism.” A very similar pattern was found in the other groups, with an underestimation of one’s liberalism “more pronounced” among self-described conservatives.

These findings line up nicely with previous political science research, including a working paper we wrote about in 2011. It found that although about 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives (with 35 percent calling themselves moderates and 21 percent liberals, according to a 2012 Gallup survey), only about one-quarter of them are truly conservative on the issues.
This is not some kind of crack on conservatives, but a rather deep truth about ideology. "Conservative" and "Liberal" are identities that we take on for reasons that have more to do with personality than with current political debates. The policies advocated by "conservatives" and "liberals" have switched many times; to take just one example, American conservatives used to be almost universally opposed to getting involved in wars outside the Americas. Many people espouse a political identity that is at odds with both their interests and the policies they favor, and much of the craft of democratic politics is finding some way to govern -- that is, to choose particular policies -- while still holding together a coalition based on attitudes.

That said, I do think that right now a lot of self-proclaimed American conservatives are politically deluded. They think of themselves as conservatives because they want America to be more like it was in the 1950s, except with less legalized oppression of women and minorities. They think that being conservative means opposing big government. So they oppose big government. But since the America of the 1950s was a creation of big government -- American government has never been bigger or more intrusive than in the 1940s and early 1950s, and throughout the 50s the top income tax rate was 90% -- they are acting to make the country less like it used to be.

I keep waiting for Americans to realize that Social Security and Medicare are government programs, created by liberals, and the Republicans want to drastically shrink both of them.

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