Do liberals and conservatives know what they are?

By Razib Khan | July 13, 2010 12:07 am

Matthew Yglesias says:

I only wish the same level of scrutiny were applied to assertions about whether the public is “liberal” or “conservative” where I believe there’s strong circumstantial evidence that many people just don’t understand these terms in the way political and media professionals understand them. For example, when you break these things out by race you find that whites are more “liberal” than blacks, which simply doesn’t describe either voting behavior or views on issues correctly.

I am sympathetic to Matthew Yglesias’ point, but looking at the General Social Survey he does seem incorrect in regards to his assertion that whites are more liberal than blacks. Rather, blacks seem a bit more liberal than whites, though not nearly as liberal as their voting for the Democratic party would suggest. But most humans not are very intelligent, and Americans are humans, so there’s a good chance that they don’t really know what liberal and conservative mean (here my liberal readers will observe that there’s been nearly two generations of usage of the term “liberal” as an insult in American politics to the point where the public may be unaware of what liberalism even entails aside from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll).

To see if there is a strong relationship between avowed political ideology and particular policy positions I decided to look at the GSS. I limited the sample to the last 10 years of the GSS, 1998-2008. I focused on the POLVIEWS variable, which asks people their own political ideology, from a spectrum of very liberal to very conservative. I want to focus on those who admit to being rather ideological, so I’ll focus on the very liberal and conservative, and those who assert that they’re just liberal or conservative without qualifiers. This excludes those who are slightly liberal or conservative, as well as moderates. The sample size then is ~2,000 for liberals, and ~3,000 for conservatives at most most (some of the cross-tabs have way smaller N’s as only a subset were asked both sets of questions).

Next I want to compare these self-identifications with policy positions which I presume are ideologically polarized. But, I also want to see how the attitudes of liberals and conservatives change by intelligence and education. One assumes that the more intelligent and educated actually have a better coherent sense of their ideological orientation and how that orientation presumably aligns with policy. So I took the WORDSUM variable, which records results on a vocabulary test from to 10, as well as the DEGREE variable which records the highest education attained. I combined WORDSUM results 0-6, which is the bottom 60% of the distribution, and labelled it average. 7-10 is the top 40%, and I termed that intelligent. For education I combined those with no high school diploma all the way to those who had some higher education, but no four year bachelor’s degree, as those without a college degree. Obviously the balance have a college degree (inclusive of those who have graduate degrees as well).

Here are the results for a range of variables (I’ve given the variables in caps so you can look them up in the GSS yourself). From left to right the columns go from the average, to the intelligent, to those with no college degree, to those with college degrees. The rows alternate between liberals and conservatives as one goes down the variables.

Average Intelligent No College Degree College Degree

ABANY Supports legal right to abortion for any reason

Liberal 54 73 53 82
Conservative 21 18 21 21

MARHOMO Homosexuals should have right to marry

Liberal 52 82 60 85
Conservative 15 12 15 11

HOMOSEX Homosexual sex not wrong at all

Liberal 40 72 49 74
Conservative 8 14 10 14

FEHOME Women should take care of home not country (leave running country to men)

Liberal 19 2 15 3
Conservative 30 13 25 12

SEMIGUNS Allow semi-automatic guns to be sold to public

Liberal 15 22 20 19
Conservative 26 27 27 26

SPKRAC Allow racist to speak in community

Liberal 62 81 63 81
Conservative 50 69 55 72

SPKCOM Allow Communist to speak in community

Liberal 62 92 69 93
Conservative 53 79 58 83

RACMAR Favor law against racial intermarriage

Liberal 10 2 10 2
Conservative 18 7 17 4

CAPPUN Favor death penalty for murder

Liberal 66 47 64 34
Conservative 78 82 77 84

SPHLTH Government should spend much more on health care

Liberal 51 53
Conservative 25 10

NATFARE Government is spending too little on welfare

Liberal 29 34 26 38
Conservative 19 11 17 6

NATARMS Government is spending too little on military

Liberal 16 12 18 7
Conservative 36 40 38 40

NATARTS Government is spending too little on arts

Liberal 27 68
Conservative 14 16

NATCHLD Government is spending too little on childcare assistance

Liberal 66 67 66 70
Conservative 52 38 50 30

NATSCI Government is spending too little on scientific research

Liberal 48 55 49 59
Conservative 37 36 36 35

NATSCI Government is spending too little on highways and bridges

Liberal 37 39 38 35
Conservative 44 41 40 37

NATRACE Government is doing too little to assist blacks
(limited to whites for this question)
Liberal 43 55 42 58
Conservative 20 13 16 18

NATEDUC Government is doing too little to improve education

Liberal 78 85 78 87
Conservative 63 61 63 57

TAX Federal income tax is too high

Liberal 67 50 63 41
Conservative 65 70 67 67

Note: Recodes: POLVIEWS(r:1-2″Liberal”;6-7″Conservative”) WORDSUM(r:0-6″Average”;7-10″Intelligent”) DEGREE(r:0-2″No College”;3-4″College”)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, GSS, Politics
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  • John Emerson

    “Liberal” and “conservative” are moving targets, just like “Democrat” and “Republican”. They both define coalitions of groups / interests, and “liberal” and “conservative” issues are defined in terms of these coalitions.

    For example, take right to life v. choice, hawk v. dove, little government v. big government. The standard conservative and liberal positions are cut and dried, but there are six possible mixed combinations and they are all actual. (Huckabee is relatively OK with big government, Buchanan is anti-war, some libertarians are pro-war and some are anti, some neocons are socially and economically liberal but pro-war, and some New Deal liberals are anti-abortion, anti-war, and pro big government).

    Most of these combinations are not numerically significant when the chips are down at election time, except for the neocons who really have made the Democrats into the second war party. But this is mostly because at election time it always comes down to column A vs. column B, and regardless of sympathies most people will vote for a major party candidate.

    As time went on, neocons tended to become more conservative on government spending and social issues too, not just their original issues (law and order and war). But not all made the transformation.

  • Jumblepudding

    “Most humans are not very intelligent, and Americans are humans.”
    Sometimes bluntness can be refreshing.

  • Chris T

    The lack of understanding of the meanings of the two words also leads to party platforms that are frustratingly inconsistent.

    I would also point out that the instinct for social identity and inclusion can easily override intelligence. It’s likely that most intelligent people do not identify themselves based on pre-held policy positions, but instead adopt positions based on what they ascertain those who they want to identify with as holding. They’re simply better at retroactively justifying it to themselves.

  • Katharine

    Hmmm. Based on percentages, the categories on which similar changes up or down in opinion occur based on intelligence in both liberals and conservatives occur in these categories:


    and the changes are in opposite directions between liberals and conservatives in these categories:


    Any particular reason why?

  • Katharine

    I would also point out that the instinct for social identity and inclusion can easily override intelligence. It’s likely that most intelligent people do not identify themselves based on pre-held policy positions, but instead adopt positions based on what they ascertain those who they want to identify with as holding.

    I’d like to see a further examination of this data based on measures of introversion versus extroversion and need for social identity/inclusion.

  • Razib Khan

    katharine, a rough rule of thumb i’ve seen is that

    1) liberals exhibit more variation on social issues (income, educ. etc. being the drivers)

    2) conservatives exhibit more variation on economic issues

    poor/stupid/uneducated liberals are more socially conservative, while poor/stupid/uneducated conservatives are more fiscally liberal.

  • Katharine

    Makes sense. That tends to be the pattern I’ve seen.

  • Katharine

    I was also under the impression, regarding tendencies of different ethnic groups, that black people tended to be more socially conservative but more fiscally liberal than white people.

  • Razib Khan

    re: #9, yes. using the data above, 60% of white liberals agree with abortion on demand, 40% of black liberals. no difference for conservatives by race.

  • John Emerson

    Perhaps I didn’t underline it strongly enough, but the point of my comment above is that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are ill-defined composites and you don’t have to be stupid to have an unclear idea of what they mean.

    The particular collections of issues bunched as “liberal” and “conservative” are pretty much unique to the US. There are a lot of historical, cultural, and constitutional reasons why things break differently here than elsewhere (though other countries also have their own unique ways of bunching issues).

    The biggest confusion I see in the definition of “liberal” is that the center has moved so far right that centrists like Clinton and Obama are thought of as liberals, and actual liberals are thought of as leftwing. Dennis Kucinich’s positions would have been left of center but still mainstream in 1979, but now he’s a far outlier. (Some people think of Clinton and Obama as Socialists or Communists, but those are crazy people).

  • Razib Khan

    john, his economic positions. it is telling that kucinich had to flip from pro-life to pro-choice in 2004. there may be something to brink lindsey’s contention that the american center of gravity is far more libertarian today than it was a generation ago.

  • John Emerson

    Kucinich is an example of the anti-war, big government, right to life liberal, one of the exceptional but actual mixes.

    The big split people talk about is the libertarians (little government / pro choice), but even they split into pro and anti war. (I think that pro-war libertarians are crazy, but they exist). Libertarians split the ideological space on two dimensions, and I just added a third. You might even be able to add a fourth dimension, populism vs. elite administration (many freemarketers and many liberals are anti-populist, but both ideologies take populist forms too.)

  • Caledonian

    I try to avoid using terminologies whose meanings have, with a great deal of effort on the part of various interest groups, been effectively effaced. ‘Liberalism’ now has very little liberal about it, and ‘conservatism’ isn’t conservative in any real way – the vision of the past it tries to recreate in the present has little connection to actual previous events or ideologies.

  • Chris T

    Really, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are mostly used as labels for grouping unrelated policy ideas that often conflict. Any underlying ideology has been long forgotten except by people heavily into political philosophy, which the vast majority of people are not (including high intelligence people).

    Ironically, the problem with modern politics is not that people are too ideological, but that they lack any kind of ideology altogether.

  • abb3w

    You might also wish to play with REGION; those in the south seem to understate the degree of their conservatism.

  • John Emerson

    American liberalism is actually a compromise between individual-freedom liberalism and social-welfare thinking which is essentially socialist. The idea is that no one can be free if they’re destitute and dependent. It’s not only American — John Stewart Mill believed something like tha.

  • Clark

    I’m shocked at the conservative gun statistic! I wonder if the responders understood what a semi-automatic pistol is.

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  • sth_txs

    As a libertarian, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are just synonyms for statist.

    Also, marriage is not a ‘right’ whether gay or straight. Marriage license is just another government revenue stream and probably used in the past to prevent interracial marriages.

    Any person whether left or right that thinks ‘government’ gives them something, especially civil rights, is already working from a position of weakness.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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