What Does it Mean to be Conservative/Liberal?

The title of this post may seem like a silly question to some, but there are many reasons it isn’t so. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean different things to different people. For some people, the terms are just euphemisms for “Republican” and “Democrat,” respectively. For others, it may mean “less government” or “more government.” It could mean to take a particular side on an issue that corresponds to the conservative or liberal labels to another group of people. Others may see their meanings as something completely different.

First, it’s important to distinguish between party/partisanship and ideology here. Yes, most conservatives are Republicans. Yes, most liberals are Democrats. But they are not 1:1 comparisons. Some Republicans lean more to the left, and some Democrats lean more to the right. The parties are not entirely cohesive ideologically. And I can say from personal experience with polling data that some Republicans will identify as “somewhat liberal” or “strongly liberal,” and some Democrats will identify as “somewhat conservative” or “strongly conservative.” People will have different reasons for this, but possibilities include an issue that they feel particularly strongly about is on a different end of the ideological spectrum compared to other views, or they just took the party label of their parents.

So, what exactly does it mean to be conservative or liberal? First, let’s take a look at how the public has seen the meaning of the two terms over time.

Understanding of Ideology, Ideological Shifts since the Mid-1950s

While the two parties are often characterized by their respective ideologies in contemporary times, there was a time where such leanings were a lot less obvious. In fact, in the mid-20th century their ideological persuasions were quite murky and the parties has visible ideological fractures. Southern Democrats, for example, were much different in their issue beliefs than their northern counterparts.

Such lack of uniformity in the two parties drew lamentations from the American Political Science Association (APSA), which they detailed in a 1950 report. The basic idea of the APSA’s report was that the parties had a responsibility to present clear, different choices for the American public to decide between, and that the blurred lines between the parties (and variation of ideologies within the two parties) was actually bad for democracy.¹

To a large extent, this lack of consistent ideological cues from the parties was also reflected in public opinion research. Voters, as a whole, didn’t think ideologically. Few were able to place “conservative” and “liberal” labels to the respective parties, and few of them had an understanding of what the terms meant. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that voters were able to start applying those labels to the parties they fit most, particularly with Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign where he made conservatism a core part of his message to distinguish himself from the eventual winner and his party, Democrat Lyndon Johnson.²

Since then, voters have increasingly been able to place “conservative” to the Republican Party and “liberal” to the Democratic Party, but it isn’t unanimous by any means. Recent research by Pew Research Center stated that 71% of respondents knew that the Republican Party was considered to be the more conservative party. Yet when it comes to which party generally supports a certain side of a given issue, lower proportions of respondents could give accurate answers.³

The voting public still isn’t ideological as a whole. That may sound strange to some. Of course, more ardent partisans tend to be more ideological, but they are also the more active and communicative ones. They tend to be heard a lot more and participate in politics more. They also tend to get more coverage in the media, making them seem more numerous than they actually are.

But some partisans still don’t think much about ideology, but find party loyalty more important. Some Republicans and Democrats try to distance themselves from the more ideologically-oriented wings of their respective parties. Just as aforementioned, party and ideology are not a 1:1 ratio. But comparatively, the Republican Party is more conservative and the Democratic Party is more liberal.

Even with this increased understanding of which party is which, there is still a large amount of discrepancy in what the labels mean to the public. A study of American National Election Studies (ANES) data by political scientist David E. RePass shows a variety of definitions that respondents give for conservative and liberal. A few conclusions from RePass include the following:⁴

  • 52% of self-placed liberals and 62% of self-placed conservatives “did provide at least some solid political or philosophical meaning to the terms”
  • Only about 17% of the electorate in 2004 could be considered strongly liberal or strongly conservative
  • In a two-wave interview (meaning they were questioned before and after the election) in the 2004 ANES, only 75% of those who identified themselves as conservatives or liberals chose the same placement on a 7-point liberal-conservative scale in both waves

There are plenty of other takeaways from the study done by RePass, but the basic point is that there are a lot of people who don’t think ideologically and don’t necessarily give a a solid response even if they do. These ideological labels mean different things to different people.

The Nuances of Conservatism and Liberalism

The above doesn’t even get into which context we are discussing. Are we talking about conservatism or liberalism in general? Or are we differentiating between economic and social issues? Or to be even more specific, are we talking about particular issues? How people consider themselves in these contexts vary.

General political ideology: On self-identified general ideology, 36% of Americans considered themselves conservatives, 34% moderate, and 25% liberal, according to Gallup data in 2016. This gap has been closing over time.⁵

Economic vs. social issues: There is a much greater divide between self-reported economically conservative vs. liberal people than there is self-reported socially conservative vs. liberal people, according to Gallup data. On economic issues, 39% considered themselves conservative and 19% considered themselves liberal in 2015. Yet on social issues there was no gap in 2015, with conservatives and liberals taking 31% each.⁶ This indicates a large proportion of people who take the label of “economically conservative, socially liberal,” such as many Libertarians.

Particular issues: Then there are factions within the ranks of conservatism and liberalism. Pew Research Center data over time has identified rather deep fissures in some cases, distinguishing between four basic groups each among both sides. Conservatives can vary widely on issues such as immigration and U.S. global economic involvement, while liberals can greatly differ on issues such as government regulation of businesses and U.S. involvement in trouble abroad.⁷

Symbolically Conservative, Operationally Liberal

Furthermore, what people identify themselves and what they really believe can also be different. What they symbolically are may not be the same as what they operationally are — that is, what they theoretically believe may not be compatible with what they believe in practice. This describes what is called “symbolically conservative, operationally liberal.” People who fall under this category may want less government involvement in issues, but when asked about specific issues (such as social expenditures) they actually give answers that indicate that they want more government involvement. This category isn’t necessarily a significant proportion of the population, but it is a fairly large one.

What being conservative or liberal means can often vary between people. There’s also the fact that ideology doesn’t mean much at all to a lot of the public as well, or at the very least it isn’t a strong part of their identity. The context in which we are talking about the topic also matters. Clearly, discussion of ideology in media, and politics in general, often misses its nuances.

  1. American Political Science Association. 1950. “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties.” American Political Science Review 44 (September): 1–96.
  2. Gerald M. Pomper. 1972. “From Confusion to Clarity: Issues and American Voters, 1956–1968.” American Political Science Review 66 (June): 415–428.
  3. Pew Research Center. 2012. “What the Public Knows about the Political Parties.” http://www.people-press.org/2012/04/11/what-the-public-knows-about-the-political-parties/
  4. The following data comes from: David E. RePass. 2008. “Searching for Voters along the Liberal-Conservative Continuum: The Infrequent Ideologue and the Missing Middle,” The Forum 6 (2).
  5. Lydia Saad. Gallup. 2017. “U.S. Conservatives Outnumber Liberals by a Narrowing Margin.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/201152/conservative-liberal-gap-continues-narrow-tuesday.aspx
  6. Jeffrey M. Jones. 2015. “On Social Ideology, the Left Catches Up to the Right.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/183386/social-ideology-left-catches-right.aspx
  7. Pew Research Center. 2017. “Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left.” http://www.people-press.org/2017/10/24/political-typology-reveals-deep-fissures-on-the-right-and-left/

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