What is political conservativism anyway?

In large part, it means you embrace the term “conservative” for symbolic value far more than a desire to cut government spending and regulation.  The latest Tom Edsall piece bringing in great political science is wide-ranging and ostensensibly about the “Republican Establishment” , but this is my favorite part:

The right-wing media was purposefully created by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, in part to help resolve a basic contradiction in the movement, according to Grossmann and Hopkins:

Conservative candidates have also long grappled with the challenge of attracting electoral support for an ideological movement primarily dedicated to the perennially unpopular objective of limiting or rolling back major government programs and social benefits. [emphases mine]

Grossmann and Hopkins point out that a majority of American voters, when asked about specific policies, support federal spending. An April 2017 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found “that 61 percent of Republicans and 95 percent of Democrats would maintain or increase funding for health care” and that 61 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats “would maintain or increase spending for ‘economic assistance to needy people in the U.S.’ ”

Crucial to the continued survival of the Republican Party, however, is the fact that when questions about taxes, spending and the role of government are put in generic, symbolic, abstract terms, without reference to specific policies, the majority of Americans take a conservative stance.

How does this work? Substantially more voters identify themselves as conservative than as liberal, according to GallupGallup also found that the public believes that the government wastes 51 cents of every dollar. In August 2017, Gallup reported that 52 percent of the public had an unfavorable view of the federal government and 29 percent had a favorable view.

To counter potential defections to the Democratic Party, according to Grossmann and Hopkins, the right must focus on “conservatism as a brand name, or as a collection of general principles and values,” which is far more popular “than conservatism as a package of detailed policy positions.”

And this very much reminded me of some great recent research by Lilliana Mason that I had meant to blog about and his very much on-point:

The distinction between a person’s ideological identity and their issue positions has come more clearly into focus in recent research. Scholars have pointed out a significant difference between identity-based and issue-based ideology in the American electorate. However, the affective and social effects of these separate elements of ideology have not been sufficiently explored. Drawing on a national sample collected by SSI and data from the 2016 ANES, this article finds that the identity-based elements of ideology are capable of driving heightened levels of affective polarization against outgroup ideologues, even at low levels of policy attitude extremity or constraint. These findings demonstrate how Americans can use ideological terms to disparage political opponents without necessarily holding constrained sets of policy attitudes.

I love this so much that I actually did a conference paper on it 10 years ago.  Alas, not enough to actually have good follow-through, because that was the last of it.

So, yes, of course, there is some value and policy content to being “conservative” but as much as anything it means you like being “conservative” and hate liberals.


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

8 Responses to What is political conservativism anyway?

  1. Could one also apply what Mason contends about ideology to partisanship? People say that they’re independents because they don’t like either party, but those independents who participate by voting (assuming that they want to affect the outcome) choose candidates from one of the two major parties. Their partisan activities are limited because their identity is “independent.” I know that we’ve been here before, but it’s a recurring issue on which I don’t want to close the debate.

    • R. Jenrette says:

      Maybe people want to be independents to avoid in their own minds any blame for what happens politically.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Maybe they like the idea of identifying themselves with powerful people who they see as Republicans/conservatives. But how that fits with the attitude of resentment is beyond me. Maybe a psychiatrist or a social psychologist is needed to interpret this.

  3. Steve Greene says:

    ” Using a unique psychological survey of voting-age adults, I find that leaners are different from true partisans in four areas: relatively less emphasis on affect and more emphasis on cognition in partisan attitudes; less partisan social identity, but heightened independent social identity; different patterns of parental socialization; and more negative attitudes toward parties in general.”

  4. homeys44 says:

    We spend more than any other country on healthcare, but 95% of Democrats want to maintain it or increase how much we spend. Terrific, although that sounds mighty generic. Go vote for Democrats and get your wish. We’re not conning anyone about this,

    • Steve Greene says:

      The problem is the massive inefficiency of our health care spending. Something most Democrats actually want to do something about and most Republican proposals exacerbate. It’s not easy to get there from here, but, the evidence is crystal clear that single-payer is dramatically more efficient and gets better outcomes for less money than we currently have.

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