Labeling Ideology: Conservative, Liberal, Left, Right

Ideological labels are the stuff of everyday life. We talk with ease about Conservatives, Liberals, the Left, and the Right – and most of the time, most of us assume we are speaking in broadly intelligible terms. When survey researchers ask ordinary U.S. citizens to describe themselves or others using these labels, the vast majority are able to do so without difficulty. This allows us to map the landscape of ideological self-identification and to chart its changes over time. Yet, the brute facts of self-identification do not immediately make clear what people mean when they choose to name themselves “A” instead of “B.”

Consider two charts drawn from the 2012 American National Election Study. The first shows the percentage of respondents identifying as liberal, moderate, or conservative:

libcon

In the second, respondents were asked to place themselves on a 10-point scale from Left (0) to Right (10):

left_right

Three points stand out here:
  •  First, a very strong preference for identifying as Moderate comes through clearly. Whether asked to self-identify on a spectrum from Liberal to Conservative, or from Left to Right, most people in the U.S. choose the middle.
  • Second, both figures reveal a slight tilt toward the right. On the 7-point Liberal-Conservative scale, the mean response was 4.2. On the 10-point Left-Right scale, the mean response was 5.9.
  • Third, for most people, “Liberal” and “Conservative” seem to be closely associated with “Left” and “Right” respectively, but the association is not absolute. The overall shape of the two distributions is very similar and a statistical measure of association (gamma) is positive. But while the gamma for these two survey responses is positive (.39) it is not perfect. In other words, some people who identify as “Liberal” do not see themselves on the “Left” and some who call themselves “Conservative” don’t believe that they stand on the “Right.”

Much more work must be done to specify the content and meaning of these labels. Who identifies with them and what do those labels tell us about their worldview or policy preferences?

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