Are Americans Becoming More Conservative? They Think So, But...

Conservatives trumpet, and liberals pooh-pooh, this latest Gallup survey of American ideological self-assessment. It includes that although Americans say they're becoming more conservative, they're not voting that way, and they're not acting that way. I think George Will's classic saying is relevant here: Americans tend to be temperamental conservatives and operational liberals.

Since the 1970s, there has always been a conservative tilt to voters' self portraits, especially since liberalism is still a discredited word to non-liberals. Perhaps this will change soon, as liberals are reclaiming liberalism (and the word, too), and as the Republican brand implosion over the last five years will trickle over to the word "conservative," too. The survey's results may reflect a difference between aspiration and identity; voters wish they could be more conservative than they are. Or it could reflect the month the poll was taken it: we've been debating the deficit, Obama's approval ratings are slipping, the economy is a mess, etc -- the excitement of the first few months of the new administration have waned a bit. If Gallup had taken the same poll a few months ago, they might have found some differences, which may or may not be significant;I wonder whether these marginal changes in political identity shift from week to week...or, rather, that there are enough Americans who use their reaction to events to determine their ideological identity so as to make it appear as if, when a snapshot is taken, a trend is seen.  How can the country be conservative trending if it endorsed Barack Obama's liberal policies? This poll suggests that the answer is: it just... can.  Americans seem capable of separating ideology and operation, of judging how one is doing something, rather than what one is actually doing.

The poll also makes clear that the links between conservatism and the Republican Party are fraying. There is no contradiction in noting that the Republican party is weak and yet independents are growing more conservative. Indeed, this argues for a relative stasis in our politics: conservative independents used to identify as Republicans.