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Conservatives vs. Liberals: More Than Politics


Thomas B Edsall  Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor, Columbia School of Journalism 02/08/2012

The contest for power between Democrats and Republicans pits two antithetical value systems against each other; two conflicting concepts of freedom, liberty, fairness, right, and wrong; two mutually exclusive notions of the state, the individual, and the collective good.

A wide range of academic scholarship exploring political belief-formation reveals that those who identify themselves as politically conservative, for example, exhibit distinctive values underpinning their world view and their orientation towards political competition.

Conservatives, argues researcher Philip Tetlock of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, are less tolerant of compromise; see the world in “us” versus “them” terms; are more willing to use force to gain an advantage; are “more prone to rely on simple (good vs. bad) evaluative rules in interpreting policy issues;” 1 are “motivated to punish violators of social norms (e.g., deviations from traditional norms of sexuality or responsible behavior) and to deter free riders.” 2

Some of these conservative values can be discerned in public opinion data.

In one September 2010 survey question, The Pew Research Center asked voters, “If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?” White Republican men chose a smaller government by a 92-7 margin and white Republican women made the same choice by an 82-12 margin. Conversely, white Democratic men chose bigger government by a 53-35 margin and white Democratic women by 56-33. This is an ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats of 57 points among white men and 49 points among white women. 3

Along similar lines, Pew asked voters to choose between “Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard” and “Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.” White Republican men and women both picked “hard work” by decisive margins of 78-21 and 73-24, respectively. White Democratic men and women, in contrast, were far more equivocal, supporting hard work by modest margins of 52-44 and 53-43. 4

These Pew findings demonstrate that the differences of opinion between liberals and conservatives are far greater than the differences in opinion between men and women commonly referred to as the gender gap.

* * *

The Pew questions are designed to test opinion on public policy issues. The strength of the Pew surveys and other comparable, well-designed polls is that the sample is carefully selected to be representative of either the general public or of all voters. The limitation of such surveys is that they are not designed to reveal more subtle distinctions that can be equally or more significant.

This less easily answered question has been explored by a team of academic researchers collaborating at a website — — designed to test a variety of theories about the connection between views on morality and politics. Jonathan Haidt and Nicholas Winter of the University of Virginia, and Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, have collected and systematized very large numbers of responses to questions designed to elicit new information about political values orientation. Haidt et al. have ranked responses to a set of online public opinion surveys to show where self-described liberal/moderates differ most sharply from conservative/moderates. The strength of the surveys lies in the large number of respondents; the weakness grows out of the fact that the participants are self-selected, and represent well-educated elites on the left, right, and center, with little representation of the poor, working class, or lower-middle class. 5

The findings published by Haidt et al. powerfully reinforce the paradigm of two roughly equivalent political coalitions: the first, a socially and economically dominant coalition on the right; the second, a coalition on the left composed of relatively disadvantaged (subdominant) voters in alliance with relatively well-educated, well-off, culturally liberal professionals (‘information workers,’ ‘symbol analysts,’ ‘creatives,’ ‘knowledge workers,’ etc.). 6 The Haidt et. al. data sheds new light on what it means, across a gamut of issues, when someone says he or she is a liberal or a conservative. 7

What kinds of questions and values statements provoke the sharpest divide between left and right? The team looked at responses to 107 questions and found that the most divisive questions included those in the following areas: 8


On key questions and statements in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: “I believe peace is extremely important”; “Understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”; “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal”; “How close do you feel to people all over the world?”

On other key questions in this area, conservatives scored high, and liberals low: “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict”; “There is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you.”


Again, on some questions in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: “I believe that offenders should be provided with counseling to aid in their rehabilitation”; “What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another.”

On other questions, conservatives scored high and liberals low: “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed”; “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn”; “I believe that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the correct philosophy behind punishing offenders”; “The ‘old-fashioned ways’ and ‘old-fashioned values’ still show the best way to live”; “It feels wrong when…a person commits a crime and goes unpunished.”


Liberal high, conservative low: “It feels wrong when . . . an employee who needs their job, is fired”; “I think it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing”; “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

Conservative high, liberal low: “[I place a high value on] safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self”; “[It’s desirable when] employees [who] contribute more to the success of the company receive a larger share”; “[I value] social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.”


Liberals high, conservatives low: “I see myself as someone who . . . is original, comes up with new ideas”; “Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself”; “What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another.”

Conservative high, liberal low: “If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems;” “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong;” “Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs that traditional culture provide”; “[I favor] restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.”

Their findings show how profound the chasm is on values questions between liberals and conservatives. Generally speaking, not only do liberals place high importance on peace, mutual understanding, and empathy for those who have difficulty prevailing in competition, they demonstrate concern for equality of outcome, while conservatives place pointedly low or negative importance on such values. 9 On the other side, conservatives believe that the use of force is a legitimate method of conflict resolution across a range of domains, from war to law enforcement to the discipline of children. 10 Conservatives are more likely to believe in an “eye for an eye,” are more likely to respect received tradition, and are overwhelmingly committed to the proposition that individuals are responsible for their own economic condition — all views rejected by liberals. 11

From a different vantage point — taking data from American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys conducted between 1972 and 2004, the University of Virginia’s Nicholas Winter analyzed the words respondents used to describe the two political parties. In “Masculine Republicans and Feminine Democrats: Gender and Americans’ Explicit and Implicit Images of the Political Parties,” Winter categorized words respondents volunteered as stereotypically “male” or “female:”

[M]asculine men are thought to be active, independent, and decisive; feminine women are thought to be compassionate, devoted to others, emotional, and kind. These core traits are linked with a range of other features, including other traits (masculine men are aggressive, practical, tough, hardworking, and hierarchical; feminine women are gentle, submissive, soft, ladylike, and egalitarian); physical characteristics (masculine men are big, strong, and muscular; feminine women are small, weak, and soft-spoken). 12

This excerpt first appeared at

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