'Conservatives' may be more liberal than they let on

February 8, 2021

Conservatives are more likely than liberals to hold a wide range of political views. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Many self-identified conservatives hold views that are at odds with their ideological label, a phenomenon researchers say helps explain why they’re more likely than liberals to have friends from across the political spectrum.

According to research published Jan. 11 in Public Opinion Quarterly, conservatives in general aren’t as likely as their liberal counterparts to exclude ideological rivals from their social circles because many people who report right-leaning identities “are not particularly wedded to conservative policies.”

But when comparing liberals only to ideologically “consistent” conservatives — or those whose identities line up exactly with their policy preferences — much of the difference in behavior disappears, a result the researchers said sheds light on how the gap between political identity and policy preferences ultimately shapes the dynamics of polarization.

When it comes to understanding why conservatives appear less likely to avoid their political foes, “The gap between identity and policy preferences is an important phenomenon that needs to be taken into account,” according to co-authors Deborah J. Schildkraut, Jeffrey M. Berry and James M. Glaser of Tufts University.

The researchers set out to better understand recent studies showing that self-described liberals are likelier than people who call themselves conservative to shield themselves from contact with their ideological out-group, including by blocking them on social media and cutting out would-be friends because of their views.

For example, data from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study corroborated the asymmetry between the groups, showing that liberals are more likely than conservatives to report both blocking and being blocked over political differences. 

They were also more prone to cut friends out altogether when political differences arose, according to the study. 30% of liberal respondents said they ended friendships because of politics, while only 17% of conservatives said the same thing.

Shunning one’s political opponents generally isn’t healthy for democracy, Schildkraut told The Academic Times, as it throws up barriers to civic dialogue and frays the bonds of cooperation that make the system work.

While there are views that people rightly feel can’t be compromised on, “The point is that you can’t work on solving the problems of society without engaging with the other side,” she said.

Mounting polarization is already having consequences in the U.S. and around the world, recent research has shown, eroding the quality of liberal democracy in nations where social divisions have been running high for long periods of time.

Given the high stakes, Schildkraut said it’s important to explore what drives liberals and conservatives out of each other’s lives — including why liberals seem particularly primed to turn their networks into ideological bubbles.

The asymmetry may actually boil down to an apples-to-oranges comparison, the researchers said, noting evidence suggesting that left- and right-wing identities may not always be analogous to one another.

That’s based on evidence from earlier research that almost 30% of people who call themselves conservatives are prone to back liberal policies, according to Schildkraut, Berry and Glaser. By contrast, just 3% of self-described liberals had non-liberal policy preferences.

“People who hold more liberal policy preferences but that think of themselves as conservative … may not find the ideas of liberals all that objectionable when you actually talk about ideas, and [therefore] may not find it as upsetting or conflictual to engage in conversation with them,” Schildkraut told The Academic Times.

This group of “operationally” liberal conservatives — who actually don’t hold conservative preferences on key issues — partly accounts for what at first looks like a big “avoidance asymmetry” between the ideological camps, the researchers found.

The researchers focused on respondents from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study who identified as conservatives, using their responses to 10 economic and social policy questions to gauge their operational ideology. 

This allowed the researchers to tease apart “consistent” conservatives, whose identity matched with their policy preferences, from “inconsistent” conservatives they reasoned were more likely to keep friends across the political divide.

Schildkraut and her colleagues could then make a more relevant comparison between liberals — who have been shown to have almost entirely consistent policy views — and "consistent" conservatives in particular. The gap in "bubble-seeking behavior," or the tendency to surround oneself with like-minded individuals, shrank substantially compared to the broader liberal conservative match-up, showing that most of it had stemmed from the influence of conservatives with views closer to liberals.

Schildkraut said that in a time of intense political polarization, this group could potentially be playing an important role in maintaining social ties across political divides — as long as the tendency to put on an ideological label isn’t ultimately doing more harm than good on the whole.

But it’s also true that liberals are still likelier than conservatives to seek ideological bubbles even after accounting for policy preferences, according to the researchers, who said further research should explore whether factors unique to liberals might explain the remaining difference.

For now, Schildkraut said, her team’s research should prompt a more nuanced understanding of how individuals across the ideological divide react to the other side.

The asymmetry “can lead to all kinds of questions we might want to debate about why it [exists] and whether it’s a good or bad thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that conservatives are ‘better’ just because they’re more likely to have conversations across the divide — it’s more complicated than that.”

The article “Ideological Bubbles and Two Types of Conservatives,” published Jan. 11 in Public Opinion Quarterly, was co-authored by professor Deborah J. Schildkraut, professor Jeffrey M. Berry and professor James M. Glaser of Tufts University.

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