What “Conservatives” believe

So, after a recent Gallup poll, Charles Krauthammer (I've not enough time to debunk all the fallacies and misinterpretions in the column) and some other not particularly bright individuals have been crowing about what a conservative country this is because on the recent poll, self-identified conservatives outnumbered moderates and liberals 40 to 36 to 20.  The problem with using these data to conclude that America is a conservative country is the fact that most people have almost no idea what it actually means to be conservative (or liberal, but especially conservative).  All they know is that they are a white Southern man, so they must be conservative, or they hate socialism, or that big government is bad, or something equally nebulous. A solid plurality of "conservatives" actually support increasing spending on social security and on public schools and keeping welfare spending the same or increasing it.  Not exactly the shrinking of government Krauthammer and all the right-wing pundits would have you believe.  The tea-party morons are a passionate, but truly small fringe of American politics.  Anyway, I ran some numbers using 2008 NES data to further make this point.  Among those who self identify as conservatives, the following:

  • 45% favor increasing SS spending; 38% keep the same
  • 47% favor increasing spending for schools and 35% favor keeping it the same
  • 28% favor increasing spending for "welfare" and 35% support keeping it the same
  • 26% favor increasing spending for health care and 20% for keeping it the same
  • 27% favor increasing spending for "government spending and services" and 25% for keeping it the same
  • 23% support abortion as "always a woman's choice" compared to 18% saying it should never be legal
  • 18% support gay marriage and another 34% support civil unions

Not exactly right-wing ideologues, eh?  Heck, even just favoring the status quo is clearly contravenes contemporary elite conservative ideology, but not only do most "ordinary" conservatives support that, but many seems quite ready to "expand government" when it gets down to specific issues.  Of course, one explanation could be that there's a lot of measurement error going on here and if we looked at liberals, we'd see plenty of them taking "conservative" positions.  Alas, not so…  Among liberals, 15% favor cuts to social security spending, 10% favor cuts to public schools, and 7% favor less government services and spending.  Not at all the opposite of the conservative numbers above.  My own theory (literally, I've got a PS paper on it) is for very many "conservatives" this is largely a social identity largely devoid of much genuine ideological content, as opposed to liberals, who are more likely to actually hold liberal beliefs.  Take-home point: any time anybody tells you how conservative this country is based on all these self-proclaimed "conservatives," don't believe them.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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