Are We All Ideologically Confused?

Towards the end of a backpacking trip in the Smokies last week, I encountered a large SUV plastered with bumper stickers extolling the virtues of private property rights and decrying eminent domain – sitting in a public parking lot next to a public waterway in a national park.

My first somewhat cynical thought was of the infamous Tea Party banner, “Keep government out of my Medicare!”  It seemed incongruous for this person to bumper-lecture others about the abuses of government condemnation while enjoying the beautiful surroundings of more than 500,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, land acquired through a mix of private donations and state and federal government use of eminent domain that displaced thousands of people and private businesses  from the area in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee in the 1930’s.  A conservative might have a similar reaction, for example, encountering a liberal parent dropping off their kid at a private school with their foreign-made car covered in Obama stickers and end inequality and racism banners.  “Yeah pal, keep up the fight,” they might be thinking.

But thinking through it a bit, the scene made more sense.  I’m no libertarian but I sure would not want the government to take my home even with compensation.  Yet I love hiking the national park system on a regular basis.   Maybe the libertarian driver I encountered recently had a fight with a local government over their own land and needed to unwind away in a peaceful spot by the river, government owned or not.

Understanding that this is just a small anecdote, it’s fair to ask whether people on the whole are ideologically blinded or just plain confused about what they believe.

In highly polarized political times, we often overlook the fact that few Americans are ideologically consistent.  In 2009, we conducted a large-scale study of political ideology that explored reactions to 40 different statements split evenly between progressive and conservative ideas.  The survey asked people to rank their level of agreement or disagreement on a scale of 0-10 with progressive statements such as, “The gap between rich and poor should be reduced even if it means higher taxes for the wealthy,” and conservative ones like, “Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient.”  Combining responses to each of the 40 statements, we determined a composite score for various groups (you can determine your own ideological score by taking this quick quiz based on the survey):

As the chart above highlights, American ideological attitudes basically converge in the middle.  “Although there is a substantial range of ideological positions (from conservative Republicans at 160.6 to liberal Democrats at 247.1), no one group approaches the most extreme poles on either the progressive or conservative side of the continuum. Second, this middle convergence implies that Americans are not fully convinced of many ideological positions on their own side are open to ideological positions that may be different than their own.”

We also found that people’s self-described ideological labels (liberal, progressive, moderate, conservative, and libertarian) did not correspond directly to attitudes about government and society and often overlapped with beliefs typically ascribed to different ideological views:

Case in point: Majorities of self-identified conservatives agree with four out of five progressive perspectives on the role of government while majorities of self-identified progressives and liberals agree with conservative economic positions on things like trade and Social Security.

Additionally, self-identified progressives and liberals share many views and beliefs about government and the economy but hold somewhat differing beliefs on cultural and international concerns. Likewise, although conservatives and libertarians are frequently considered to be part of the same tribe, our research finds that self-identified conservatives look rather poorly upon the libertarian approach (only 35 percent of conservatives rate “libertarian” favorably).

This research shows the highly fluid nature of political ideology and suggests that people can hold seemingly contradictory political ideas in their heads without undermining their overall political identity.    The libertarian driver by the river in the national park was being reasonable if not entirely consistent with his bumper sticker views — something that affects most of us based on this data.