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."
Founded in late 2007 by philanthropist Sara Miller-McCune, Miller-McCune is a nonprofit print and online magazine harnessing hard data and breaking research to support journalism that focuses on finding solutions to social problems. Supported by a combination of grants and advertising, Miller-McCune rejects any overriding ideology, believing that the best answers can come from anywhere.