Is America Getting More Conservative?

It’s one of those headlines that tend to sink into the subconscious as reflecting a fact rather than an opinion. “Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative,” published at The Atlantic website, by celebrity “urban studies theorist” Richard Florida, doesn’t actually answer its own question, or even document its premise.

If you look at the Gallup data on which Florida’s entire “analysis” (mainly just a charting of ideological self-identification by state) rests, it certainly doesn’t show any dramatic recent rightward trend. The percentage of Americans self-identifying as “conservative” since 1992 has varied from a low of 36% to a high of 40% (a high it reached in 2004, before dropping to 37% in 2008). As it happens, the percentage of Americans (again, according to Gallup) self-identifying as “liberal” has also gone up 4% since 1992 (from 17% to 21%). The percentage self-identifying as “moderates” has, accordingly, drifted down from 43% in 1992 to 35% in 2011, though the number was only two points higher in 2007 and 2008.

If you want a simple explanation of this very small trend, it’s pretty obvious: the increasing ideological rigidity of one of America’s two major political parties, along with the media infrastructure supporting it. And it’s at best a mixed blessing for the GOP, because whatever pull its exerts on self-identifying conservatives is offset by its lack of appeal to self-identifying moderates, whom Democrats routinely carry in close elections.

This whole way of looking at ideology, of course, is deeply flawed. As study after study has documented for years (most recently, in John Halpin and Karl Agne’s State of American Political Ideology 2009), the simple C-M-L typology does not come particularly close to capturing how Americans feel about the values that actually influence political allegiances or issue positions. More nuanced typologies produce very different results, and in the end, elections are the best measurement of where the electorate stands.

But this will not keep those who profit by it from citing Florida’s “analysis” as proving this “center-right nation” is trending further “right.” You can count on it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.