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Opinion

Why most Americans are both liberal and conservative

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

(Page 2 of 3)



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.

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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.

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