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.

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  1. science for smarts or preferences aside says:

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  2. Johnnie Welker says:

    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

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    • Mike B says:

      Most people are remembering the old school “Big L” liberalism of the 1960’s and 70’s and its ruinous economic policies and whiplash social policies. Today “conservatism” is becoming increasingly linked with fundamentalist Christians and the self-identification will probably flip as the younger generations reject that dysfunctional set of priorities just like the Boomers rejected Liberalism in the 1980s.

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      • Ben says:

        Ruinous economic policies?! The time from the beginning of FDR’s years to LBJ’s final year was by far America’s most prosperous. The GDP growth rate actually has declined since the beginning of Reagan’s presidency. (Having said those things, of course correlation != causation.)

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    • Oliver H says:

      If they want to define the US as a nation (“Commentators have presumed that America is a ‘center-right’ nation,” ), shouldn’t other nations be the comparative factor? If US researchers engage in such a study, they should be careful that their own cultural bias doesn’t skew the results.

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  3. Rick says:

    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.

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    • davey says:

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

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  4. Eric H says:

    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.

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    • Rick says:

      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.

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  5. Kevin C. says:

    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

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  6. NZ says:

    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)?

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    • James says:

      “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.

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      • tmeier says:

        Yes, I think most people who affiliate with a party are more against the other party and their perception of what it stands for, than for the party they they endorse.

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  7. anonymous says:

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  8. Ev Meade says:

    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)?

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