Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Conservative is to Liberal what Republican is to Democrat... or is it?

I remember those word association questions on the SAT, and if the test designers had put the above question in the test, I would have certainly gotten it incorrect, according to Gallup.

I've always associated conservatism with the Republicans and liberalism with the Democrats, so I've found this poll by Gallup to be quite counterintuitive. At a time when the Republican party seems to be trying to find it's voice, has gotten it's arse kicked in a few recent elections and when various pundits are writing it off, people who self identify as conservatives match the highest recorded level going back to 1992.

For me, the only part that makes sense is that the number of self-identified liberals has gone up 4 percentage points since the low in 1992... but that's still only half the number of self-identified conservatives and not much more than the rise in the number of people self-identifying as conservatives in just the last year. Do liberals just prefer to call themselves moderates because of some stigma attached to the word "liberal?" Has the Democratic party become the "big tent" that all the folks in the middle want to flock to? Has the Republican party lost it's bearings so that conservatives no longer feel welcome? Is the idea of conservative so broad in the vernacular, that it offers relatively little in predictability of people's political ideology? Off the top of my head, those seem like obvious potential reasons, but I'm sure there are more and I have no idea which reasons are the primary drivers in this phenomenon.


Kevin said...

You analyzed it well. They should do some polls which try to narrow down what these terms actually mean to people.

A classical liberal and a social liberal are two significantly different animals. Liberal and liberty are strangely different now. Maybe this confusion is also contributing to moderates shying away from the term?

I think concern over the government's role in the economy is what is giving conservatism an ideological uptick. Social liberalism and fiscal conservatism are largely at odds. Plus, I think "conservative" may be more well-defined, which is ironic since its literal meaning is ambiguous in denoting political principles... i.e. "conservative" relative to what? In that sense, maybe "conservative" is opposite "progressive".

Another semi-arbitrary and loosely related data point that comes to mind is that the faculty in universities leans so far to the left that moderates relative to that culture are actually liberal relative to the rest of the US.

I think you're right that people have felt alienated by elected Republicans, so they're latching onto an ideology that they feel has not been implemented. The persistent divide between theory and practice may be key here. In the case of the economy, I think it is far easier to adopt a laissez-faire belief system than to actually implement it by standing by and allowing catastrophes.


MamasBoy said...

Interesting point about liberals in academia. One could also say that there are conservative extremists, but they aren't as accepted or mainstream. I wonder if that paints the two sides differently, making the conservative moniker more centrist by nature.

I think you're probably right about the reviving role of government in the economy and people's unease with it spurring a rise in self-identification with conservatism.

Thanks for building on this idea.


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Travel abroad and try explaining to someone from a different culture and language the differences between Republicans and Democrats -- it is not as easy as it seems!