Liberals in Disguise?

Our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” showed that even very smart people can fool themselves into confirming their own beliefs, especially when surrounded by peers with the same beliefs. reports on new research that shows young Americans self-identify as more conservative than they actually are:

“Commentators have presumed that America is a ‘center-right’ nation,” write psychologists Ethan Zell of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Michael Bernstein of Pennsylvania State University-Abington. “The present findings challenge this assumption.”

Their three surveys featured, respectively, 199 students at a Southeastern university, 360 adults recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (with a mean age of 28), and 154 students from two universities. The final group was weighted so that there were an equal number of people in each of seven political categories, ranging from very liberal to very conservative.

In each case, participants revealed how they define themselves politically on that seven-point scale. They then completed a quiz developed by the Pew Research Center for the PBS Newshour, in which they indicated their views on 12 major issues, including welfare and gay marriage.

Results were consistent across the board: Participants rated themselves as more conservative than their positions on the issues would indicate.

The researchers concluded that, even though there’s some confusion over what liberals and conservatives stand for, those in their study still preferred labeling themselves as conservative:

In addition, they found many hard-core conservatives mistakenly label liberal positions as conservative—“a mismatch associated with religiosity, low political interest, and low political knowledge.”

This suggests a whole lot of Americans don’t really understand what liberals or conservatives truly stand for, but prefer the label conservative. They may respond positively to the philosophy in the abstract, or simply wish to blend in with what they perceive as the majority culture.

science for smarts or preferences aside

the problem is of what both have no choice but to stand for to be consistent with the understanding of science as a human endeavor. It's already built into America's constitution
thanks to Ben Franklin.

Robyn A. Goldstein All Rights Reserved.

Johnnie Welker

What is liberal? What is conservative? The needle moves all the time, liberal in 1920 isn't liberal in 2010, maybe what the survey is missing that probably conservatives in 10-20 years will be different, closer to what we call liberals now


The labels "liberal" and "conservative" are over-generalizations. When I talk with real people I find that often a person will have opinions that fit in both categories.


Even the same opinion can come about from a liberal or conservative standpoint.

Eric H

Wow! I don't know about that test. I consider myself a moderate conservative and I'm a registered independent. That test put me to the right of the Tea Party!? The validity of the test really calls the research into question for me.

I think one unfortunate convention in politics today is that we reduce one’s political views to 12 very simple questions with polarized answers. I say polarized because every answer had “mostly” or “completely” as adjectives. There just wasn’t the option to pick moderate answers!! These are complex issues and we are all too comfortable making strong, broad statements on things we don’t understand completely. We need more humility in politics – the ability to say “I don’t know everything about that” or “both sides have good points”, etc.


Agreed, the questions were designed to force you one way or another into a predefined category. It also reduced very complex issues into basically slogans.

Kevin C.

This is why we need at least two axes on this type of thing. The quiz puts me right of tea party overall, but if you break it out I'm left of the average democrat on social issues and right of the tea party on economic issues. #LibertarianProblems


A very problematic Pew survey, and thus problematic results. Many true conservatives are not opposed to welfare, labor unions, etc. but just feel that these are used incorrectly, overextended, etc. Environmentalism is an extremely conservative impulse (note the term "conservationist"), yet the survey probably moves you to the left if you support strong environmental protection regulation. Back in the day there were people who opposed immigration primarily because a higher population meant a greater threat to natural beauty and ecosystems.

The findings may be useful in predicting how people will vote--indeed, young people vote heavily liberal--but that is itself hitched to a 2-party system which does not represent ideologies as much as it does a simple us-vs-them competition. Is anyone under the illusion that the Democrats' platform is ideal for, say, urban blacks (who vote something like 97%+ Democrat), or that the Republicans' platform truly caters to the interests of, say, married Christian whites (who vote about 65% Republican)?



"Back in the day..." Excuse me? What do you mean, back in the day? Unless the day's today.

But your larger argument is perfectly correct. What do Barry Goldwater-style conservatives have in common with the Christian right, except a desire to win elections? And where's the political room for a scientific pagan who wants to keep government out of both bedrooms and wallets? Conservative has become a meaningless label, while liberal is mostly defined as anything the Republicans are against.


'Conservative' until they get knocked up/come out as gay or transgendered/ declare they're against religion/don't think every yahoo in America should be carrying a gun - then realize all those teabaggers out there hate their guts. They may change their tune when the light dawns.

Ev Meade

Where's the cultural analysis, the inquiry into meaning making? When we analyze other people and places, we tend to assume that ideological interpretation applies to a narrow swath of intellectuals, activists, and elites, and that the perspectives offset ordinary people are shaped by various group and sub-group identities. Why not apply the same analysis to our own society (and ourselves, particularly on issues other than the half dozen or so that each of us might hold dear)?


The article didn't even provide hard definitions of the liberal & conservative platforms, but I doubt even liberals and conservatives could do that either. We do know that they would not agree on what the other stands for.


I've noticed that college graduates tend to move somewhat more to the right politically after graduation, when they get their first paycheck and see the amount of income and payroll taxes withheld.

Joe J

So they self identify more right thean they actully are. My experience is most people claim they are more moderate than they actually are.
My guess, they said I'm middle of the road, and vote leaning left.

Students who havent been in the real world yet, tend to be more left. Probably compared to university professors they are considerered conservative. The study was mainly students and young adults, so not representative of the true American population.

“Commentators have presumed that America is a ‘center-right’ nation,” can still very well be true, but the young tend to be more left.

My guess if the study was repeated with an averaage age of 40, they would find most people claiming more left but voting more right.


Funny. I think of myself as liberal as in Libertarian, but the quiz rated me as conservative republican. I guess their idea of liberty is different than mine.

Eric M. Jones

It is unfortunate that the term "Liberal" has been twisted into an epithet by deviously clever and skilled political operatives. This caused many Liberals to re-label themselves as Progressives.

Names are important, as the Whig and Know-Nothing parties discovered.


I'm not sure what kind of journal would allow authors to use expressions such as "hard-core", but not one that has a high regard for science. Politics isn't a linear scale so the paper doesn't really address any meaningful question. Are libertarian views to the right or left of conservative views? If I favor immigration is that liberal or conservative; like many issues it's the reasoning that leads me to a particular position that makes it conservative or liberal, not the position itself.

Setting aside the problem of definition the paper also fails to address a point that is very obvious to anyone 50 or younger who has taken even a few minutes to discuss with their peers why they identify as conservative. For younger people there is no "conservative" or "liberal" position on fundamental social issues such as abortion, gay rights etc. There is only the old outdated moral view that will fade away, and the new moral view that will be increasingly accepted. Abortion has been legal for their entire lifetime, that position has never been seriously threatened and the law will never change. It's an irrelevancy. The author's approach to distinguish political association based on social views is rather like trying to distinguish Catholics from Protestants based upon their views on contraception. In modern America, totally futile.



I have never voted Democrat, and have always identified as conservative. On the quiz I was a "liberal Democrat" and a "certain Obama supporter". Yes, I believe everyone should have access to good healthcare; that doesn't mean I favor bad health care policy that is based on political pandering rather than economic sense. Yes, I favor immigration, but not illogical policies that favor immigrants who are likely to be a net cost to society over those that would be a net contributor. Yes, women should have access to abortion in almost all cases, but every civilized country recognizes that there also have to be limits. The questions were frankly a travesty, representing a cartoon version of conservative views. I can't imagine any thoughtful person being categorized as conservative using that questionaire.

Dude in the US

Conservatives have embarked on a 40 year campaign to smear the word "liberal" and make it seem "controversial". Meanwhile they put the word conservative up on a pedestal, and try to weasel out of taking responsibility for any of the bad things that happen as a result of conservative policy.

For instance, conservatives have created the vast majority of the national debt, yet conservatives today (and in years past) constantly try to claim those people weren't "real conservatives". Then they elect new conservatives who continue the same borrow and spend, starve the beast policies.


Interesting...I was almost exactly in the center...pegged economic issues on the extreme right, social issues on the far left.