A colleague at ACC and I have been conversing via a departmental Google+ site about the Tea Party and the positions of its members on social issues. We agree that Tea Party members are economic conservatives and that economic issues are most important to them; however, we disagree on whether Tea Party supporters are conservative on social issues (my position) or that many of them are liberal on social issues (and thus libertarians), which is his position. I am familiar with Abramowitz’s argument that Tea Party supporters are conservative on both economic and social issues and a similar finding by the Pew Center study, which states that “In addition to adopting a conservative approach to the economy, Tea Party supporters also tend to take socially conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage.”
My colleague did not provide the basis for his belief, but I subsequently found the following sources, which support his position. David Kirby and Emily Ekins wrote a report for the Cato Institute that claims that one-half of Tea Party supporters are libertarians. Emily Ekins had made a similar claim in an earlier working paper. David Kirby had also collaborated with David Boaz on a Cato Policy Analysis that considered the voting behavior of libertarians. The Boaz and Kirby policy analysis also provides the framework for their typology of ideologies, which is from Maddox and Lilie’s Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum (1984), which greatly influenced my ideas about ideologies in the United States.
So, do these studies actually substantiate their claim that one-half of Tea Party supporters are libertarian ideologically (that is, economically conservative but socially liberal)? By their measure of what constitutes a libertarian, they come close to substantiating their claim. But the rub is that their measure of libertarianism is very lax. In fact, I would contend that because of their methodology, their results are flawed. Here’s what I mean. By definition, an ideology involves a set of consistent and interrelated attitudes on a particular public policy dimension. Thus, any measure of ideology should include several questions on a particular dimension of public policy. Maddox and Lilie, for example, used three questions relating to government’s economic role and three questions relating to government’s social role to determine a person’s ideology. In most of the surveys that Kirby and Ekins use, they consider only one question relating to the social role of government. How can consistency be demonstrated using only one question? Second, that one question is whether government has a role in promoting moral values or not. This question is highly abstract. In only one survey do they use a specific question about a social issue, and the so-called “liberal” response on same-sex relationships is whether civil unions—not marriage—should be permitted for same-sex couples. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Putnam and Campbell note that two issues are most important to the Religious Right: abortion and same-sex marriage. These issues with whether one supports same-sex marriage and a women’s right to choose an abortion should have been used to determine whether there is a 50/50 split between libertarians and conservatives among Tea Party supporters. I contend that the so-called libertarians in the Tea Party are not really “liberal” on social issues; they are, by the most generous standards, somewhat less conservative on the social issues. Thus, they are not truly libertarian.