Opinion

Why most Americans are both liberal and conservative

Ideologically, we favor small government. But practically, we defend big-government programs.

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American politics is consumed by a bitter, at times violent, debate about the overall role of government and specific governmental programs.

Pundits often frame this divide in terms of geography (red states versus blue states), ethnicity (Hispanics and blacks versus whites), class (rich versus poor), or age and gender. Those factors matter, but seeing polarization only in terms of group versus group misses an important paradox about Americans: Most of us have both deep conservative instincts and liberal instincts.

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This personal inner conflict need not calcify our national divide. Instead, it could form the basis for a new and unifying consensus or civic ethos. To do this, though, our political leaders must build on the quintessentially American politics of today's Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2003), who prize individual initiative at the local level to achieve national goals.

Why we look left and right at the same time

American political opinion looks in two directions – both left and right, or liberal and conservative – at the same time. Social scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril were the first to use survey research to describe and analyze this paradox of public opinion that has always shaped US politics.

In their book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans" (1967), they maintained that Americans consistently demonstrate a conflict between their general attitudes toward "the proper role and sphere of government," (which drove the big GOP gains last November) and their attitudes toward specific governmental programs (which helps explain broad American support for "big government" programs like Medicare).

According to Mr. Free and Mr. Cantril, most Americans have conservative attitudes concerning the size of government, and liberal beliefs in support of programs to protect themselves economically. This leads majorities to favor smaller government, individual initiative, and local control while endorsing major governmental programs ranging from Social Security to student grants and loans.

Tensions go back to our founding

This tension has always been a part of American politics. The US Constitution was itself the product of fierce debate in the wake of the failed Articles of Confederation. The ingenious solution the Founders gave us was both a strong central government and equally powerful guarantees of individual liberty embodied in the Bill of Rights. Notably, that solution was largely the product of that era's young adults, the so-called Republican Generation.

Still, the Constitution didn't settle the question of the government's role in the economy and personal welfare. That wasn't resolved, at least temporarily, until the Great Depression, when Americans gave their strong support to FDR's New Deal programs. Again, it was that period's young adults – the "greatest generation" – that led the new consensus.

Small government, big programs

Such consensus, of course, doesn't erase our conflicting convictions. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, Gallup revealed this conflict between the public's programmatic liberalism and conservative ideology. On the one hand, large majorities believed that the government should provide free medical care to the poor (76 percent), extend long-term, low-interest loans to farmers (73 percent), and implement the newly created Social Security program (64 percent). By contrast, only a minority wanted the government to take over railroads (29 percent) and banks (42 percent), or limit private fortunes (42 percent).

In 1964, as President Johnson was announcing his Great Society initiatives, Free and Cantril, using the results of commissioned Gallup polls, determined that within the electorate, ideological conservatives outnumbered liberals by more than 3 to 1 (50 percent to 16 percent). But in those very same surveys, support for liberal government programs exceeded conservative opposition by a ratio of 4.6 to 1 (65 percent to 14 percent).

Using data from four of the Political Values and Core Attitudes surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center over the past two decades, we confirmed their research. Across four Pew surveys, from 1987 to 2009, ideological conservatives outnumbered liberals by a ratio of 3.5 to 1, but liberal supporters of specific programs outnumbered conservative opponents by a 2.2 to 1 margin.

In every Pew survey, there were always more conservatives than liberals regarding the overall role of government and a greater number of liberals than conservatives in support of programs designed to promote equality and economic well-being. In effect, the United States is neither a center-right nor a center-left nation; it is, and always has been, both at the same time.

Not surprisingly, voters who identify as Republicans have tended toward the conservative side of these two tendencies. And Democratic identifiers have leaned toward the liberal side. Although the gap between the identifiers of the two parties has widened recently, during most of the time since Free and Cantril first published their findings, the greatest number of both Democratic and Republican identifiers, as well as independents, has been ideologically conservative and programmatically liberal.

Moderates driven out

Today, driven by more liberal attitudes among the Democrats' young Millennial Generation and minority supporters, and the more conservative beliefs of the Republicans' older, white base, the leadership of the two parties is more polarized than at any time since the Great Depression.

For the first time ever, among Democrats in the House of Representatives, the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus contains more members than the moderate New Democrats and conservative Blue Dogs combined.

Across the aisle, few congressional Republicans are willing to call themselves moderates, and liberals, once a meaningful bloc in the GOP, have entirely disappeared.

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Despite these divisions, the leaders of each party must find a way to work together to synthesize both strands of America's political DNA – a belief in the importance of a strong national community and equality of opportunity as well as a strong desire to limit government's encroachment on individual liberty – into a new civic ethos that is broadly acceptable to most Americans.

Millennials can foster a new consensus

The belief of America's youngest adult generation, Millennials, in the efficacy of individual initiative at the local level to achieve national goals provides a basis for just such a solution. To once again bind the wounds of internal discord, our political leaders should adopt this approach and successfully appeal to the ideological conservatism and programmatic liberalism of the American people.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and coauthors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics" and the upcoming "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America."

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