Public Opinion

The Multiple Meanings of “Conservative”

Oct 1 '10

For anyone trying to make sense of the recent commentary on the rise of conservative self-identification among Americans (I’m thinking of David Broder and Kristen Soltis), a paper by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson provides some critical and under-appreciated background. Their basic point: in contemporary America, the term “conservative” is more of a catch-all than the term “liberal,” in part because many Americans associate it with religious conservatism. The authors identify three different types of conservatives — “constrained conservatives,” “moral conservatives,” and “conflicted conservatives.” While the first group is heavily Republican, the second group backed George W. Bush in 2000 at a rate of 65%. For the conflicted conservatives, the figure was just 51%. To understand the political implications of people’s ideological identification, you need to understand which category they fall into–and what they mean by the term “conservative.”