Expert Commentary

Pathways to ideology in U.S. politics: Analyzing conservatism

2011 study by researchers from Bucknell and UNC Chapel Hill on the varied political views of those who self-identify as "conservative."

The 2010 midterm elections shifted the balance of power in the U.S. Congress. Before, Democrats held significant majorities in both chambers; after, their margin of control shrank in the Senate and disappeared entirely in the House. Some commentators said that the elections showed that the United States had become a “conservative majority” country, an assertion supported by polls that indicated that 42% of Americans described themselves as “conservative,” up from 37% two years before.

A 2011 study by researchers from Bucknell and UNC Chapel Hill indicates that caution should be used considering the potential implications of an increase in the number of those who self-identify as “conservatives.” The study, “Pathways to Ideology in American Politics: The Operational-Symbolic “Paradox” Revisited” (PDF), suggests that the word “conservative” has different meanings to many of those who embrace it.

The study’s findings include:

  • Only 26% of self-identified “conservatives” exhibit good knowledge of and support for what is commonly understood by the term “conservative,” including positions on moral issues and the role of the government in private and public life.
  • 34% consider their social, cultural or religious values to be conservative, but at the same time they approve of a number of government programs, spending and market interventions.
  • 30% consider themselves to be conservative, but this isn’t supported by their personal or political opinions. Researchers suggested that they may have chosen “conservative” as a label simply because they liked it better than the other two options, “moderate” and “liberal.”
  • The remainder were conservative on economic issues but liberal on social issues, making them closer to libertarians than conservatives.

By comparison, 66% of those who self-identified as liberals held social, cultural or religious views that were consistent with that label.

In an earlier related study, “On Symbolic Conservatism in America” (PDF), the authors found that self-identified “conservative” voters often don’t truly understand what it means to be politically conservative. When asked about government programs on education, environmental protection or business regulation — often seen as “liberal” — the majority of voters approve. Yet when the same voters are asked to self-identify politically, up to 25% respond “conservative.”

Tags: Congress, elections, polarization

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