Do liberals and conservatives know what they are?

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Jul 13, 2010 9:07 AMNov 19, 2019 10:02 PM


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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.

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")

AverageIntelligentNo College DegreeCollege Degree

ABANYSupports legal right to abortion for any reason



MARHOMOHomosexuals should have right to marry



HOMOSEXHomosexual sex not wrong at all



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



SEMIGUNSAllow semi-automatic guns to be sold to public



SPKRACAllow racist to speak in community



SPKCOMAllow Communist to speak in community



RACMARFavor law against racial intermarriage



CAPPUNFavor death penalty for murder



SPHLTHGovernment should spend much more on health care



NATFAREGovernment is spending too little on welfare



NATARMSGovernment is spending too little on military



NATARTSGovernment is spending too little on arts



NATCHLDGovernment is spending too little on childcare assistance



NATSCIGovernment is spending too little on scientific research



NATSCIGovernment is spending too little on highways and bridges



NATRACEGovernment is doing too little to assist blacks

(limited to whites for this question)



NATEDUCGovernment is doing too little to improve education



TAXFederal income tax is too high



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