Americans are Conservative and Liberal

A Review of
Ideology in America (Authors: Christopher Ellis and James Stimson)

This is an interesting but difficult book.  Well-argued via painstaking survey data analysis, Ellis and Stimson’s central thesis is that most people like liberal policies and solutions, and most people prefer conservative symbols.  It’s not so obvious what anyone outside of political science research can do with this, but let’s think about it.

The book provides some orienting facts:

  • The modern meaning of “liberal” in the US is courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted a fresh moniker for his New Deal programs.  There has always been some irony because liberalism in the historical sense is more aligned with libertarianism, which in turn is more aligned with the Republican party.
  • The term “liberal” wasn’t enthusiastically embraced from the beginning, but it was severely tarnished in the 1960s when Great Society programs were rolled out and then urban black riots were widely covered on television.  Democratic politicians ever since then have avoided the term as much as possible.
  • Many voters are religious but are politically unengaged.  When they hear “conservative,” they think mainly of religious conservatism rather than about political conservatism (i.e. limited government, free market).  Strategic politicians can use the ideological term “conservative” as a way to imply support for the traditionalist beliefs and values of religiously conservative citizens.

A virtue of the book is that it draws attention to the lack of symmetry between the political left and the political right.  There’s plenty of other scholarly work that has analyzed facets of this asymmetry, such as: Jonathan Haidt and his Moral Foundations Theory;  Hacker and Pierson’s account of Republicans’ march to the right;  Steven Pinker’s Tragic versus Utopian; and so on.  This particular work here focuses mostly on asymmetric labels, and the psychology of political identity.

E&S give a lot of attention to a large segment that they call “conflicted conservatives”:  people who think of themselves as conservative but have demonstrably liberal policy preferences.  These typically are swing voters who, in different time periods, can be swayed to either side.  Whenever politicians—of both stripes—make statements publicly, their messages are carefully framed for this segment of voters, to attract their favor:

…Conservatives talk a great deal about ideological and political symbols, the value of ideological conservatism, and the way in which this general value will be applied to tackling political problems, doing little to explain the implications of this conservatism for practical politics (Zaller & Feldman 1992, Jacoby 2000). Conservatives boast about their conservatism, treating it as a badge of honor. One way to boast about conservatism, of course, is to talk in negative terms about the “liberal” label, and in symbolic terms about what a “liberal” approach to government will imply (big government, bureaucratic control, privileging the undeserving and unconventional over the hardworking and mainstream), and the like.

Political “liberals” also know this. Liberals attack conservative politicians, but usually not their conservatism.   They will call their opponents fools or extremists and go after their stands on specific issues.

E&S also show some interesting interactions between (a) political knowledge and (b) exposure to national political news.  Basically, there’s three categories:  low political knowledge, middle, and high.  When politicians frame their statements in ways advantageous to their own political side, low-knowledge voters generally are not paying enough attention for there to be any influence.  And high-knowledge voters can see through such framing and are also not influenced.  But middle-knowledge voters are likely to be affected by the framing.  This process, in fact, could be the primary source of so-called conflicted conservatism: these voters embrace the framing from both sides, not terribly mindful of the contradictions.

That may be the insight from E&S with the greatest practical value.  If we could get voters to see the subterfuge involved in this partisan framing, it would be a tool for countering partisan conflict.  More demands would (on balance) be made upon conservative politicians to talk about specific policy solutions instead of just wrapping themselves in symbols; and liberal politicians would be compelled to talk about fiscal philosophy and about why progressive reform is necessary, rather than simply getting applause for spending money on a problem.

Probably, though, the prerequisite to recognizing the subterfuge is having some actual knowledge of the issues.  So, sure, let’s encourage voters to demand explanations rather than empty rhetoric, and to think critically about what they’re hearing from politicians.  But let’s make sure voters really know what the problems are, and the basic facts surrounding them.  Critical thinking is impossible without some relevant knowledge.

E&S conclude with a speculation that perhaps embracing conservative symbols at the same time as supporting liberal policies is not as inconsistent as it looks: citizens rationally want government to do more with less, while respecting their values. And they want government to find creative policies and solutions that will achieve that. I suspect this is true for almost all citizens: none think that government can spend boundlessly, and none want government to attack religion, and none think the poor and sick should be left to suffer. There are differences of emphasis, of course, and conservatives may tend to take a longer view of history than do liberals. Regardless, all of us (except for the politically-oblivious and the partisan extremists) desire some kind of balance.

If it is true that these voters are basically rational, though, then it calls into question basic assumptions E&S had for their analysis. Maybe they should start over!

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