What does it mean – with respect to questions about material equality – when Americans describe themselves as ideologically “liberal” or “conservative?” At first glance, the 2012 American National Election Study seems to offer few surprises. Looking a bit more closely, I think some important conclusions about contemporary U.S. politics are lurking here.
First, the unsurprising news: people who describe themselves as “liberal” and “conservative” disagree about the importance of inequality and about the ways in which the powers of government might be used to correct it. Here, for instance, I’ve compared the responses of people who self-identify as “liberal” and “conservative” to the proposition that we would be better off if we worried less about equality:
Should government ensure that people have good jobs and a good standard of living? Or should individuals be allowed to get along on their own? Should government provide people with health insurance or should this be left to the market?
Is less government always better or should government be doing more?
Again, nothing seems especially notable here: liberals and conservatives disagree about the role of government in providing public goods. But notice that in every figure except the first, liberals are closer to the center than conservatives. The question about health insurance brought out the strongest response from liberals, but even here, they remained closer to the center than conservatives.
The same tendency can also be seen with respect to party identification. When asked to place themselves on an ideological spectrum from Left to Right, Democrats and independents placed themselves near the center, while Republicans placed themselves toward the Right:
What should we make of this? If I am correct in assuming that there is a strong tendency for Americans to default toward a perceived ideological center, the fact that supporters of the Republican Party place themselves further from that center (in both ideological identification and policy preferences regarding equality) is evidence of more powerful and more successful transmission of ideology by the Republican Party and its allies. Intriguingly, part of that ideological sharpening seems to involve a contrasting image of the liberal-Left as radical. But if those in the U.S. who describe themselves as “liberals” do have radical policy preferences, they are doing an effective job of concealing that fact from the ANES survey-takers.