Why most Americans are both liberal and conservative
Ideologically, we favor small government. But practically, we defend big-government programs.
American politics is consumed by a bitter, at times violent, debate about the overall role of government and specific governmental programs.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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).