Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Does the Rise in Liberals Mean?

Gallup issued their end of the year poll on self-identified ideology recently. The headline announced the increase in liberals. The lead paragraph and graph are below: 

Liberal Self-Identification Edges Up to New High in 2013
Fifteen-percentage-point conservative advantage ties as smallest to date
by Jeffrey M. Jones
PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans continue to be more likely to identify as conservatives (38%) than as liberals (23%). But the conservative advantage is down to 15 percentage points as liberal identification edged up to its highest level since Gallup began regularly measuring ideology in the current format in 1992.

But what are we to make of the fact that although 23 percent of Americans are liberal, a much larger percentage a (38 percent) are conservative, and 34 percent are moderate?

First, the increase in liberals is small and only one percent higher than the previous high of 22 percent, which occurred in 2007, 2008, and 2012. Furthermore, the gap between liberals and conservatives is the same as it was in 2007 and 2008. So there’s not really much news here. 

Secondly, I have always been skeptical of measures of ideology based on self-identification. Since ideology involves a person’s consistent set of beliefs about the proper role and size of government, I have trouble believing that people responding to the poll actually know what liberalism and conservatism mean as well as being politically sophisticated enough to hold consistent views on issues. My initial concern resulted from reading Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril’s 1967 book—The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion. My concern is validated by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson’s recent book—Ideology in America (2012). There are many Americans (about 22 percent of the population) that are symbolically conservative (they self-identify as conservatives) and operationally liberal (they hold liberal issue preferences). What are we to make of these people: Are they really conservative or are they really liberal? Ellis and Stimson state:

The label “liberal” was never fully popular, even when a popular Democratic president, in the guise of the popular New Deal package of social programs, tried to make it so. Part of the reason for the relative popularity of the “conservative” label rests outside politics: its relative esteem in contexts well divorced from the political realm. And part of it rests with the value system that predominates among mainstream citizens – patriotism, temperance, respect for tradition, and the like – that citizens use to guide their personal lives and would (all else equal) like to see guide political life as well. Similarly, operationally liberal preferences are popular. This is again, at least in part, a result of the relatively weak opposition expressed by elite conservatives to the specific social goals of mainstream liberalism. But it is also born, as we have explored, of individual self-interest, a desire of citizens to receive social benefits of both the purely individualistic (such as cash redistribution) and collective (clean air and good schools) sorts.
But we have seen that, there is no easy resolution to understanding which set of beliefs are “correct” and which are not. People really are liberals – in the sense that they see a greater need, at the level of specific policies and issues, for a stronger government role in providing equality of opportunity, softening the edges of the market, prohibiting discrimination, and the like. And people really are conservatives – in the sense that they believe that government policies should be guided by principles of caution, restraint, and respect for traditional values, moral and economic.
Does it matter for American politics that so many Americans mix liberal public policy preferences with conservative self-identifications? It ought to. Because what conflicted conservatives take to the voting decision is absence of the automatic vote. Because they are conflicted between symbols and policy preferences, they are potentially available to both political parties in American elections. They can tune into the conservative ideological frames of Republicans. And equally they like the policy stances of Democrats. As such, these types of citizens are likely to be critically important to understanding election outcomes and political change. Consistent operational ideologues constitute the partisan and ideological bases of the two major parties.

So what should attentive political observers do about reports of changes in self-identified ideology in the United States? I would recommend approaching the results with caution. Even significant changes, which these weren’t, are to be viewed skeptically. Rather, one should emphasize changes that occur in the public’s policy preferences that indicate a conservative, liberal, libertarian, or populist trend. One should also be attentive to the newest generation of voters and their policy preferences. Are the Millennials conservative, liberal, libertarian, or populist? Also, what issues most concern them? What generation are they replacing and what were their policy preferences? These are the questions that should guide any attempt to understand any change in the public’s ideology.   

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