Is America a Conservative Country?

That’s what pundits would have you believe, that we’re a “center-right” nation, that Reaganism is deep in the electorate’s bones, yadda yadda yadda.  But does the data bear it out?  Well, no.


James A. Stimson is a political scientist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the most well-respected public opinion researchers in the nation.  For years, he has developed a factor analysis of public opinion, developing a measure of the public’s ideological “mood”: the higher the number, the more liberal the public is.  Here is his most recent plot:

Does This Look Like a Reagan Revolution to You?


Whatever this graph tells us, it certainly belies the notion that Reaganism has had a major impact on US public opinion.  Currently, the public’s “mood” lies somewhere between 57 and 58, slightly above its level in 1972, and far above where it stood in 1981, the apex of the Reagan era.  Indeed, if anything, it shows that as soon as the public got a taste of the Gipper, it turned sharply in the other direction, as it did when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court.  That doesn’t mean that Reagan came from nowhere: the 70’s represented a sharp rightward shift.  Ditto with Gingrich ascendancy, which essentially caught up with great conservatism in the 1990’s.

Note well, however, that current opinion is not even close to the heights of conservatism, and is closer if anything to the Great Society of the mid-60’s and Nixonian liberalism of the early 70’s.  So this is a period when the public mood is somewhat sympathetic to progressivism.

Why during such a period the Right has been successful at framing and dominating the policy debate is an exercise left to the reader.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on “Is America a Conservative Country?”

  1. Of course we’re a center-right nation! Our policy preferences are pretty close to that of the center of the Democratic Party. If the Carter/Clinton/Obama Democrats aren’t center-right, nobody is.

  2. The late John Tukey said the first priority is ascertain direction, the magnitude is the second step. The “error” bars (I’d rather call it uncertainty) are wide, but the direction is clear. The trend is also pretty clear.

    There is another trend present in the graph, but it isn’t clearly shown. The magnitude of the uncertainty has increased pretty steadily over the last 20 years. Without knowing the models being fitted, one can only speculate about the cause.

    One possible explanation is increasing polarization of the electorate. If Stimson is fitting models that don’t allow for differential means, then that variation is going directly into the residual (unaccounted variation, a combination of error and lack-of-fit issues).

    That said, it’s not immediately clear to me how one would fit models that allow for an increasingly polarized electorate.

  3. It seems like Americans come out center-right when polled with questions that contain cues to which side they’re voting for — ask them about “Obama’s healthcare plan” and they don’t like it. Remove the political cues and poll them purely on policy and we’re a solidly Democratic country. Lots of people want conservatism and spending cuts for others, but not for them.

    To Dennis’ comment above, yes, there is a great deal of polarization in the electorate but to some extent it seems to attach more to the “team” one is loyal to than the actual policies one believes in when the team is taken off the table.

    1. “Remove the political cues” is a pretty big tell. Because the “political cues” are what billions of dollars of right-wing funding are buying.

  4. “ an exercise left to the reader..” How about progleft clustering? Everybody left goes to live in cozy Berkeley (Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Austin) and then there are a lot of districts – nice, geographically contiguous, etc – where there is a moderate preponderance of the right. And add in the further effort to make minority-majority districts, even when neither nice nor geographically contiguous, and the progleft is fighting with one hand behind its back.

  5. Isn’t this begging the question? How is “conservative” defined?
    Is it “conservative” to be extreme religious? 200 yrs of European History says so.
    Is it “conservative” to favor substantial rapid changes to the political system?
    Is it “conservative” to want higher taxes on the rich? What if that’s coupled with a desire to prevent gays from marrying?
    Is it “conservative” or “liberal” to believe that the US should spend rather less time telling the rest of the world what to do?
    etc etc etc

    And that doesn’t even get to EMRVentures’ point.

  6. “…when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court.”

    While some members of the Supreme Court majority may have disgraced themselves it’s my impression that they did not decide the 2000 presidential election.


    A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.

    Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore. A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

    Even under the strategy that Mr. Gore pursued at the beginning of the Florida standoff — filing suit to force hand recounts in four predominantly Democratic counties — Mr. Bush would have kept his lead, according to the ballot review conducted for a consortium of news organizations….

    1. Even if Bush would have won anyway, the Supreme Court appointed him. The only thing that your information, if accurate, demonstrates is that the Court’s appointment was unnecessary for it to accomplish its goal and that the majority of the justices destroyed the Court’s reputation needlessly.

      1. I see what you mean but am still concerned that Jonathan’s phrasing suggests that were it not for the US Supreme Court Gore would have been President.

  7. Um – it looks like the “model” is a fairly good inverse correlation to the party that holds the presidency. Which is to say that people, being temperamentally bitchy about prominent politicians, tend to favor whatever political ideas are not being pushed by the regime in power. The fact that there is a “trend” leftward since 1980 is thus an indicator that republicans have held the Presidency for 20 of the last 31 years.

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