Political Animal


February 13, 2012 5:02 PM Is America Getting More Conservative?

By Ed Kilgore

It’s one of those headlines that tend to sink into the subconscious as reflecting a fact rather than an opinion. “Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative,” published at The Atlantic website, by celebrity “urban studies theorist” Richard Florida, doesn’t actually answer its own question, or even document its premise.

If you look at the Gallup data on which Florida’s entire “analysis” (mainly just a charting of ideological self-identification by state) rests, it certainly doesn’t show any dramatic recent rightward trend. The percentage of Americans self-identifying as “conservative” since 1992 has varied from a low of 36% to a high of 40% (a high it reached in 2004, before dropping to 37% in 2008). As it happens, the percentage of Americans (again, according to Gallup) self-identifying as “liberal” has also gone up 4% since 1992 (from 17% to 21%). The percentage self-identifying as “moderates” has, accordingly, drifted down from 43% in 1992 to 35% in 2011, though the number was only two points higher in 2007 and 2008.

If you want a simple explanation of this very small trend, it’s pretty obvious: the increasing ideological rigidity of one of America’s two major political parties, along with the media infrastructure supporting it. And it’s at best a mixed blessing for the GOP, because whatever pull its exerts on self-identifying conservatives is offset by its lack of appeal to self-identifying moderates, whom Democrats routinely carry in close elections.

This whole way of looking at ideology, of course, is deeply flawed. As study after study has documented for years (most recently, in John Halpin and Karl Agne’s State of American Political Ideology 2009), the simple C-M-L typology does not come particularly close to capturing how Americans feel about the values that actually influence political allegiances or issue positions. More nuanced typologies produce very different results, and in the end, elections are the best measurement of where the electorate stands.

But this will not keep those who profit by it from citing Florida’s “analysis” as proving this “center-right nation” is trending further “right.” You can count on it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Steve on February 13, 2012 5:20 PM:

    As Ed says, this is strictly about self-identification and doesn't actually mean anything. Having said that, it's still somewhat puzzling that after a disastrous period of Republican governance between 2001 and 2006, "conservative" does not seem to have become a dirtier word.

    Maybe Ed has a better take on the history, but I always thought "liberal" lost its luster as a result of liberal policies implemented during the 1960s and 70s that were perceived as either failures or at least controversial. Without some basis in either reality or perceived reality, I don't think conservatives could have successfully demonized the term by sheer force of will.

    If the Bush years weren't enough, one wonders what it would take for "conservative" to lose its branding.

  • slappy magoo on February 13, 2012 5:21 PM:

    Right. It's an article that was written to people who hope you're too lazy to pay attention can say see, it must be true, there was an article about it.

    I'd also counterargue that this word they keep using, I do not think it means what they think it means. Mainly because this word they keep using, "conservative" varies in degrees according to the person using it. A man can say he considers himself "conservative," yet when you press him on various individual issues, he may align on some of them with moderates or even liberals. You look at someone like Ron Paul who on the one hand seems to want to bring America back to a kinder, simpler time, the 1780s, but at the same time tends to not give a crap about laws that prohibit gay marriage or prostitution or drug use (lest it need to be said, my using Paul as an example does not constitute a pro-Paul stance). Some conservatives are only conservative on economic issues and couldn't care less about social issues; not every Evangelical is a Conservative and not ever Conservative is an Evangelical. But if YOU think you're a conservative, but I think you're a moderate based on how you answer my questions, what are you, really?

    Self-identified labels are essentially bull**** and anyone who would use them to make an argument is ethcially challenged. or a Republican. Tomayto Tomahto.

  • DAY on February 13, 2012 5:26 PM:

    "self identifying as conservative"
    What does that even MEAN?

    As a Flaming Progressive, I "believe" in a strong national defense, keeping my short term debt at zero, and saving for my old age. I own both a gun and a bible, although neither has been deployed lately.

    I also want kids to stay off my lawn, and I actively conserve energy by taking frequent naps. . .

  • jjm on February 13, 2012 5:27 PM:

    I think they've found recently that "progressive" is a positive and popular self-identifying term, much more so than liberal, which has been so bedraggled by GOP assaults on it for being both totalitarian and lily-livered that it doesn't make sense to use it.

  • ahoy polloi on February 13, 2012 5:37 PM:

    i guess every publication has one: an author that can churn a seemingly endless number of articles out of one decent idea.

    it's richard florida for the atlantic, and tom "the world is flat" friedman for the nytimes.

    and now they're both officially on my nerves.

  • Peter C on February 13, 2012 5:55 PM:

    Self delusion is a promotable skill.

  • nerd on February 13, 2012 5:58 PM:

    Isn't this a form of 'push polling'? I mean, stating your conclusion as if it was a question is a pretty standard way of pushing a certain point of view without having to produce facts to support it.

  • bcinaz on February 13, 2012 6:55 PM:

    None of these Conservative/Liberal/Moderate polls ever seems to ask the truly relevant questions that would identify a conservative, a liberal, a moderate or what ever else.

    Why not pose policy/program questions. I have discovered that many people who think they are conservatives will defend their liberal government benefits at all costs. Design polls that ask questions like:
    Do you support strengthening Social Security and Medicare? or Are you in favor of privatizing social security and voucherizing medicare?
    Do you support spending to create a strong infrastructure?
    Are you in favor of or opposed to invading Iran?
    Do you think the current tax structure is fair for all?

    I'm not a pollster person and do not know how to frame with neutral language, however, identifying what a person actually believes might tell me more than 'self identification'. Especially since a good many folks are so good at self delusion.

  • rrk1 on February 13, 2012 6:56 PM:

    Florida offers meaningless blather. Conservative is a garbage pail term into which a lot of crap gets thrown. There are so many different versions of 'conservative', with little coherence, fiscal, social, movement tea, to name just four, and many of them fight with each other.

    Do elections define the mood of the country? Yes, but not in the way Kilgore says. An election doesn't tell us whether we are becoming more conservative or more progressive, else how can you explain 2008, and then two years later 2010? Did the country suddenly become much more conservative in 2010 than it was in 2008? Hardly. Voters liked what they heard about hope and change in 2008, and wanted to believe it would happen. 2008 saw a big turnout. When it didn't turn out the way Obama promised, even though it certainly wasn't all his fault, they got pissed off and registered a protest vote, because that's all the two party system permits. Many didn't vote out of disgust.

    Elections are largely about emotions. That's what they measure. There are the ideological voters for sure, the tribalists, but lots and lots of voters go by their gut and 2012 isn't going to be any different. Vicious attack ads, unlimited money (ala Citizens United) 24/7 blather, all affect the gut.

  • Cha on February 13, 2012 10:02 PM:

    If by "conservative" he means that the Lying Liars and Gross Ugly Hate Machine is getting more so because they're so many fucking treasonous profiteers..then yes. Fuck yeah.

  • Surf City Tom on February 14, 2012 2:11 AM:

    I've always believed that people in these polls conflate political conservatism with personal attributes such as attending church, walking little old ladies across the street, not spitting on the sidewalk, enjoying classic black and white movies, being true to one's spouse, dressing neatly, displaying proper manners, etc.

    For example, I'm as liberal as can be in politics, but my daughter believes I'm a conservative old fart when it comes to many aspects of popular culture.

  • Krowe on February 14, 2012 8:14 AM:

    Polling about labels instead of issues is merely about TRIBAL IDENTITY.

    I know plenty of self-identified conservatives who actually hold some fairly liberal opinions, but who hate "liberals" so much they'd never describe themselves that way - just like the way they hate the fans of the sports team in the next state over.

  • JEA on February 14, 2012 8:17 AM:

    Ed, I hate to tell you this, but when 40% of the population identifies as conservative and 35% as moderate, and only 21% identify as liberal, youíve got yourselves a center-right nation no matter how you try to twist the numbers otherwise.

    I donít understand liberalsí need to keep deluding themselves on this. The country has veered right to left to right over and over again. This isnít some great mystery.

  • scott_m on February 14, 2012 8:49 AM:

    Florida points to a genuine problem for the left, but it's not what he says it is: The word "liberal" is tainted for many of the reasons that have been pointed out by other commenters. Sure, when you ask policy questions, Americans tend to favor the liberal/progressive/populist take on them, but with the two-party system we have, the voter's choice is two candidates on different points of a liberal-conservative continuum. Liberals then are at a disadvantage.

    The question for us on the left should be what to do about this. An easy answer is to switch the label back to "progressive" (FDR switched the label from "progressive" to "liberal" way back when), but that glosses over the actual differences between liberalism and progressivism. We need to start on the long, difficult job of repairing the Liberal brand, and it wouldn't hurt to smudge up what the other side calls itself.

  • liam foote on February 14, 2012 10:21 AM:

    Many comments on various political sites reflect our current polarization, exaggerated claims and outraged accusations. Childish name calling is consistent, both sides using pejorative terms and, interestingly, both sides in confirmation of Godwinís Law, often eventually refer to those in the opposition as ďNazis.ď

    In reality, studies such as Gallup indicate that the wingnut elements of either political party tend to be rather small, suggesting that extremists on the right comprise about 9% of those polled while those on the left number about 5%. This total of 14% means that the remaining 6 out of 7 Americans, whether Conservative (31%), Liberal (16%) or Moderate (35%), are not extremists.

    To say that all Liberals (21% of Americans) should be smeared as radical because of their loony 5% makes no more sense than saying Conservatives (40% of Americans) should be denigrated because of the actions of their nutty 9%. Let us try to keep things in perspective and admit that a vast majority of us are pretty sensible and agreeable folks, regardless of party affiliation.

  • liam foote on February 14, 2012 10:33 AM:

    For those who haven't taken the interesting test at Political Compass, entailing assessment of both economic and social political inclinsations, please follow the link. Cheers.


  • qwerty on February 14, 2012 10:44 AM:

    America isn't getting more conservative, just more stupid.

  • Al B Tross on February 14, 2012 3:19 PM:

    Recent research in has shown that those that self-identify as "Conservative" are, in fact Authoritarian.
    They score high on the RWA scale (a 90% accurate measure of one submission to Authority), show a very high degree of cognitive dissonance, are aggressive toward minority groups, and tend to accept political violence toward their perceived enemy.

    They have such little capability for self-refection, when given a description of their own personalities, they agree that "those people" should be removed from society.


  • JAM on February 14, 2012 7:39 PM:

    Um... has it been so forgotten or overlooked as of late that the right-wing propaganda machine via AM radio gasbags like Limbaugh is the primary reason that the word "LIBRUL" is now a dirty word in most Americans' minds? And therefore by comparison so many inattentive simps now instinctively self-associate with opposing yet empty terms like "conservative"?