Beyond liberals and conservatives

An article in today’s USA Today discusses the results of a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll survey that outlines the diversity of attitudes toward government in the United States. Rather than depicting Americans along the traditional one-dimensional left-right/liberal-conservative continuum, this survey instead attempted to measure political attitudes along a two-dimensional axis with different measures for economic” and “moral” policy attitudes. This two-dimensional grid (complements of OntheIssues.org) can be visualized like this:

Higher values correspond with an increased preference to keep the government out of that particular area of political life. For example, a “0” on the “social issues” axis would indicate that the person is in favor of active government regulation of citizen’s social lives (i.e. pro-life, anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage). A “0” on “economic issues” on the other hand, would indicate a person who is largely in favor of government intervention in the economy. This person would favor more progressive taxation policies, increased regulation of the health care industry, etc. Accordingly, most Democrats would fall in the left-center quadrant of the grid while most Republicans would fall in the right-center quadrant. (Feel free to go to OntheIssues.org and take a quiz that will show you where you fall on the grid.)

Interestingly, the USA Today/Gallup Poll survey found that:

  • 22% of Americans fall in the upper “libertarian” quadrant.
  • 17% fall in the right “conservative” quadrant.
  • 24% fall in the left “liberal” quadrant.
  • 20% fall in the bottom “populist” quadrant.
  • 17% fall in the “moderate” center.

Much more can be made of this survey, and I encourage you to visit the USA Today website to learn more. It suggests that Americans aren’t quite as polarized as they’re often portrayed to be in the media. Indeed, there are roughly equal numbers of Americans in all five primary regions of the two-dimensional political ideology grid, much more diverse than the simple two-dimensional liberal-conservative spectrum.

My only criticism with the report is that USA Today describes those in the “libertarian” quadrant as having “Tea Party” tendencies. While it is uncontested that Tea Partiers are very libertarian when it comes to economic issues, polls have also regularly and convincingly shown that most Tea Party supporters are also very socially conservative. Most favor increased government intervention to limit access to abortion, limit immigration, and prevent same-sex marriage. Thus, I argue that those with “Tea Party” tendencies are more likely to be found in the right-most quadrant of the grid, leaving likely very few “pure” libertarians in the American electorate.

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