Conservatism As Identity Politics--Pt2: Hard Core Data
“Identity politics” is a term generally associated with the politics that came out of social liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as black power/black liberation, women’s liberation, and gay liberation. In all these movements, there was a concern with analyzing how people as a group had been oppressed, not just politically, but socially, culturally, psychologically... at all levels. Yet, all these movements-despite being politically progressive-were necessarily a reaction to already-existing forms of identity politics that were not nearly so analytical-the identity politics of privileged groups: white identity politics, male identity politics, straight identity politics, etc.
In future posts, I will examine two attitudinal constructs-rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO)-that strongly correlate with political conservatism, and that help us understand how all these forms of identity politics reflect common underlying mechanisms. But first, I want to present some direct evidence that conservatism involves the basic rudiments of privileged identity politics. That is the purpose of this post.
America’s Liberal Conservatives
In 1967, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril published a landmark study, The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion, based on surveys done by Gallup in 1964. Among the most striking findings, they discovered that more than half the people who described themselves as “conservative” supported increased or roughly stable spending on the sort of social programs that defined New Deal liberalism. While much has certainly changed since then, this finding has proved remarkably robust, and gives strong support to the presumption than other related findings remain true as well-a presumption that also receives other forms of more recent support.
Before turning to Free and Cantril, it’s worth looking at supporting data from the General Social Survey (GSS), arguably the most thorough survey of American public opinion, administered 25 times since 1972. This data-which shows remarkably consistent findings across all the times it has been administered-represents the gold standard when it comes to American public opinion research, and it provides undeniable evidence of conservative support for welfare state social spending.
Since 1984-the first year all the relevant questions were asked in the GSS-a majority of extreme conservatives (self-identified 7 on a 1-7 scale) said we were spending too little on a combined measure (call it NatWelfComp) of whether people think we’re spending too little, too much or about right on seven different areas-Social Security, welfare, “improving [the] nation’s education system,” “improving & protecting [the] environment,” “improving & protecting [the] nations health,” “improving the conditions of blacks,” and “solving problems of big cities.” The number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too little on one or more programs (net: i.e. “too little” on two, but “too much” on one is a net of “too little” on one) was nearly twice the number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too much: 59.3% to 30.7%. This can be seen in the last column of the chart below.
If we combine conservatives (self-identified 6) with extreme conservatives, operational liberalism increases to almost 2 ½ -1: 64.7% to 25.2% And if we combine all those self-identified as right-of-center (self-identified 5,6,7), operational liberalism leaps to better than 3 ½-1: 71.0% to 19.3%. This last, broadest definition of “conservative” equals 34.1% of the population-close to the number of people commonly identified as conservative. This can be seen in the right-hand column of the chart below.
Some might argue that conservatives have changed since 1984. And indeed, they have. But not in this respect. If we limit ourselves to 2000 and later, the operational liberalism increases slightly: 73.0% to 17.7%. Clearly, Free and Cantril’s findings hold up to the present day.
The strong confirmation of this startling finding gives added weight to related findings that have been less systematically documented, our primary focus, to which we now turn.
Three Spectrums Introduced
Free and Cantril used three measures of political orientation: one based on self-identification, one on ideology (laissez-faire, individualist=“conservative”), and one operational (support for social spending=“liberal”). The interactions of these measures are crucial to my argument, so the measures need to be examined a bit.
Self-identification is fairly straightforward, except that Free and Cantril discovered found that those with little knowledge of politics tended to have vague and counter-intuitive notions about who qualified as “liberal” or “conservative”-an indication that their own self-identification would be less reliable. Still this sort of ignorance-based confusion is a fact of life in American politics, and cannot simply be wished away.
The operational measure was the most straightforward. It was based on five questions-dealing with federal aid to education, Medicare, the Federal housing program, the urban renewal program, and the government’s responsibility to do away with poverty.
But the ideological measure needs closer inspection, so I begin by presenting the five questions used to construct the ideological spectrum:
Ideological Spectrum (Statements presented with respondents asked to agree or disagree):Several points need to be made.
- The Federal Government is interfering too much in state and local matters.
- The government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system.
- Social problems here in this country could be solved more effectively if the government would only keep its hands off and let people in local communities handle their own problems in their own ways.
- Generally speaking, any able-bodied person who really wants to work in this country can find a job and earn a living.
- We should rely more in individual initiative and ability and not so much on governmental welfare programs.
First, these statements are primarily anti-government. Four out of five contain the word “government” or “governmental” and refer to it critically. This negative perspective allows for the co-existence of two contrasting-if not mutually hostile-perspectives, the social conservative (more focused on “local communities” and “local matters”) and the libertarian (more focused on “interfering with the free enterprise system.”)
Second, these statements derive from a perspective that was previously considered in liberal, in contrast to the aristocratic forms of conservative thought that dominated in Europe, where conservatives had controlled governments for centuries on end. American conservatism has coalesced around themes of autonomy, self-reliance and laissez-faire economics that represent dominant trends in liberal political thought up until the 1870s, when Britain’s “New Liberals” began a serious attempt to deal with the obvious failures of laissez-faire economics, which produced the widening extremes of wealth and poverty portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens. The ability of government to promote liberal values-to empower individuals through education and other social programs-gradually gained ground among liberals, first in Britain, then in America. But it did not gain full ascendancy in America until the Great Depression.
Third, although it wasn’t realized at the time, it’s now well-recognized that statements presented in the agree/disagree format have a bias toward agreement. The preferred methodology is to present two equally plausible, but contrasting options, and to ask which one people agree with more. For example, the first question above could be reframed thus:
- “Some people say that the Federal Government is interfering too much in state and local matters. Others say that many problems are national in scope, are too big for states and local governments to tackle alone, and require a consistent approach to treat all Americans fairly. Which do you agree with more?”
As a result of how they framed these questions, Free and Cantril surely exaggerated the number of people identified as ideological conservatives. But this misidentification is primarily significant in comparing the percentage of people identified as ideological conservatives to similar measures by others. It was still a valid measure of conservative tendencies per se, particularly when used consistently in analyzing their data.
Fourth, there is a connection between the previous two problems. Free and Cantril themselves noted that there was not a coherent, principled language for expressing operational liberalism-as opposed to the pragmatic language used above. This is highly significant, since it strongly suggests that at least one part of the problem that liberals and Democrats have to this day is much older than is usually supposed. We will return to this point later on.
We can proceed to look at how the spectrums inter-relate.
Three Spectrums Analyzed
Free and Cantril found striking differences in how many people qualified as “liberal,” “conservative” or “middle of the road,” depending on the basis used, as the following table shows:
Graphically, it looks like this:
Because of these striking differences, it makes very good sense to look at how the three spectrums relate to one another. For example, we discover that almost all ideological liberals are operational liberal, while ideological conservatives are badly split:
Graphically, it looks like this:
Cutting to the chase, Free and Cantril found that self-identified conservatives had a strong tendency to be ideological conservatives (70%), but a very weak tendency to be operational conservatives (just 29%, compared to 44% who were operational liberals.) If we take NatWelfComp as a good measure operational position, this number has actually dropped to less than 20% since 1984. This indicates that-at a first level of analysis-conservative identity is very much related to ideology, at least in the rudimentary form that Free and Cantril identified. This is consistent with conservative claims that they are motivated by principle. But there are further twists, as we’ll soon see.
In contrast, liberals had a very weak tendency to be ideological liberals (just 28% compared to 26% who were ideological conservatives, and 42% ideological moderates), but a very strong tendency to be operational liberals (81%). This indicates that liberal identity is very much related to what people believe in doing, despite significant differences in ideological orientation. By their fruits ye shall know them.
Yet, if these were the broad meanings of the terms, one could argue that the hard core meanings-those who are consistent in ideology and policies-were reversed. This, the hard core of operational liberals were ideological-people who conceived their support for social programs in terms of recognizing the inadequacies of a laissez-faire approach. And the hard core of conservatives were operational-people who backed up their ideological support for a laissez-faire world view by rejecting support for social spending.
Numerically, the liberal hard core was a mere plurality-42%-of all operational liberals, while the conservative hard core was a small minority-26%-of all ideological conservatives. Neither “hard core” could speak for the whole. But looked at internally, the other way around, Free and Cantril showed that 90% of ideological liberals were operational liberals. Likewise, their data also showed that 84% of operational conservatives were ideological conservatives. This is why they deserve the label “hard core.” They are the groups where ideology and policy attitudes line up consistently to a very high degree.
Let’s think a minute about what this means. Ideological liberals are overwhelmingly liberals on welfare state ideology. This strongly suggests that their ideology reflects a systematizing of their views, along the same lines that a scientific theory systematizes the findings of experiments. This is consistent with the long-standing associations between liberalism, progress, empiricism and science.
In contrast, ideological moderates or conservatives who are operational liberals do not change their ideological views to match their actions. This suggests that they are more inclined to treat those ideological views as more like matters of faith than theories of action.
On the other hand, operational conservatives are overwhelmingly ideological conservatives. This strongly suggests that they are operating like religious true believers (unlike the vast majority of ideological conservatives, who are operationally either liberal or middle-of-the-road.) This is the first twist on the notion that conservatives are motivated by principle: those who consistently are-or appear to be-represent only a tiny minority, and their belief in principle represents a resistance to recognizing when reality is saying something different. This is consistent with the long-standing associations between conservatism, resistance to change, blind faith and religion.
The majority of ideological conservatives, however, keep their faith, but set it aside for practical reasons. They are neither true believers, like the hard core operational conservatives, nor are they consistent thinkers, like the hard core ideological liberals.
Thus-to summarize the confusion: It’s inaccurate to say that conservatives want to cut social spending, if by “conservative” you mean ideological or self-identified conservatives. But it’s accurate in reference to operational conservatives-those who, by definition, want to cut social spending-of whom 84% are ideological conservatives.
Likewise, it’s inaccurate to say that liberals are in favor of “big government,” if by “liberal” you mean operational or self-identified liberals. But it’s accurate in reference to ideological liberals-those who, again, by definition, recognize the inherent (not just occasional) shortcomings of laissez-faire-of whom 90% are operational liberals.
For me, this is the analysis I find most fascinating. Given the failure of laissez-faire economics-which large majorities admit in one way or another-it shows the following patterns: Hard core liberals are empirical and rational, while hard core conservatives are anti-empirical, and faith-based. It also shows that those in between are not more reasonable, but rather, simply less consistent in a way that makes practical sense, but leaves an ideological muddle. Finally, it shows that the conservative identification with ideology represents a form of faith-directly contrary to the Gospels, such as Matthew 25:31-40-that denies those who are needy, what the Gospels call “the least among us”:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy[c] angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
In denying this true Gospel, hard core conservatives are practicing a “faith of the elect” that is all about their own salvation as a privileged group, and nothing about their obligations to the rest of God’s children. This “faith” is a false one, which leads to eternal damnation, as the subsequent passage, Matthew 25:41-46, makes clear:
41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
44 “Then they also will answer Him,[d] saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This is what the above analysis shows-that conservatism is a form of privileged identity politics. But it’s not the most whack-you-upside-the-head convincing. It’s only the prelude. The best is yet to come. Because this analysis has firmly established that operational conservatism represents conservatism at its most hard core. We now show that what operational conservatism tells us about attitudes towards classic out-groups in WASP America: They don’t like ‘em. Not one bit.
Operational Conservativism And Rejection of Outgroups
First, let’s looks at what Free and Cantril found out about general attitudes toward sharing power with various outgroups. People were asked if blacks (“negroes”), Jews, Catholics, and unions should have “more influence,” “less influence,” or if the present amount of influence was “about right.” Amazingly-or perhaps not so much-those saying that blacks should have less influence was just slightly more (31%) than those saying they should have more influence (30%).
Graphically, it looks like this:
At the time this survey was taken, blacks were widely disenfranchised throughout the South, had barely any representation in Congress, and no leadership of any large city. The notion that they had too much influence could not be equated with any objective criteria-it was a measure of prejudice, nothing more. The case is less extreme for the other out-groups, but the opposition to them having more influence was much more clear-cut. Yet, none represented a truly dominant power in American life. At best, they stood up to defend their spheres of interest, winning some, losing some.
What’s really striking, however, is how perceptions of outgroup power grow increasingly alarmed as one moves toward the conservative end of the operational spectrum:
Graphically, it looks like this:
For every group but Jews, the percentage saying they have too much influence more than doubles between operational liberals and operational conservatives. For blacks and labor unions, the percentage saying they have too much influence nearly triples. And remember, operational liberals represent just under 2/3 of the entire population. A majority of them (58%) are either ideological conservatives (22%) or moderates (36%). Clearly, the operational conservatives see these four outgroups in much more negative terms than the majority of Americans do. This is a powerful indication that they see these groups as “others” who threaten them.
We can get a somewhat similar perspective on gender from GSS data. We can refine the measure of support for social spending on 7 items-NatWelfComp-by splitting those who support increased spending into three groups-those who support increasing spending on 6 or 7 items, those who support increasing spending on 4 or 5 items net, and those who support increasing spending on 1-3 items net. This breakdown gives us an extremely liberal operational group that is roughly the same size as the operationally conservative group-that wants to cut spending on 1-7 items net. We can then use this scale to look at three gender-related questions asked between 1972 and 1998 and one asked from 1972 to date. These are:
FeHome: (Agree/disagree) “Women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country
up to men.”
FeWork: “Do you approve or disapprove of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her?”
FePres: “If your party nominated a woman for President, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?”
FePol: (Agree/Disagree): “Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.”
There was virtually no difference for FeWork, but the other three-which differ by specifically addressing participation in politics-show a strikingly similar pattern to that seen in Free and Cantril’s work:
From this analysis, we’ve learned that American conservatives self-identify in terms of their anti-government ideology, but only the small fraction who take it seriously and oppose social spending form the hard core of conservatism, the operational conservatives, who are the most consistently hostile to outgroups perceived as other, outgroups claiming more power than they ought to have.
Next we look at two attitudinal factors that correlate with conservatism, both of which involve concepts of group identity. The next installment looks at rightwing authoritarianism (RWA), and the one after that will look at social dominance orientation (SDO).