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What makes a conservative or liberal

For a while, labels such as “conservative” didn’t mean much, or at least they didn’t have much analytic value. People were willing to label themselves, but the labels did not have real content. When asked what she meant by calling herself a conservative, one respondent said, “Well I don’t go out much and I dress pretty conservatively.” Such was the state of ideology in America that many offered such interpretations.

For a while, labels such as “conservative” didn’t mean much, or at least they didn’t have much analytic value. People were willing to label themselves, but the labels did not have real content.

When asked what she meant by calling herself a conservative, one respondent said, “Well I don’t go out much and I dress pretty conservatively.” Such was the state of ideology in America that many offered such interpretations.

In recent years, though, that has changed. Conservatism represents an increasingly coherent set of ideas, though not necessarily the ones you might think.

Think-tankers often seem to assume that attitudes toward government regulation separate conservatives from liberals. By and large, they don’t. Conservatives and liberals both want more spending for education and health, and both favor a ban on military-style assault weapons.

So what beliefs do differentiate conservatives from liberals? My list is hardly exhaustive, but I would nominate three categories of belief as primary.

• First, conservatives reject moral relativism, believing instead in absolute standards of right and wrong.

We posed two choices to voters: “Everyone has to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong in particular situations” or “There are absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone in almost every situation.” As befits a country almost evenly divided on cultural issues, 50 percent adopted a position of moral absolutism and 46 percent identified themselves as moral relativists. But only about a third of conservatives embraced relativism, while more than 60 percent believe in moral absolutism.

This debate, between personal autonomy and the authority of standards, permeates the culture issues we now debate. From gay rights to Terri Schiavo, this fundamental division matters to our politics. People don’t always work through the issue in the same way, but this is the stuff of the argument.

• A second difference relates to national security. Conservatives put a much higher value on the role of force and accord a lower priority to multilateralism. In our polling, 68 percent of conservatives but only 28 percent of liberals identified with the need to take unilateral action for our security regardless of what other countries might think. Pew found one of the most important determinants of Republicanism (and I would wager conservatism) was agreement with the view that military strength is the best way to ensure peace.

Those views certainly worked their way through voters’ views of the war. According to the exit polls, 78 percent of conservatives but just 26 percent of liberals felt safer.

• Finally, conservatives and liberals diverge on attitudes toward government.

In response to the exit pollsters’ question, only 28 percent of conservatives wanted the government to do more to solve problems, compared with 69 percent of liberals. In practice, of course, conservatives favor a large number of government programs — from education to healthcare to aid to the poor. But at the broader level of principle, conservatives are deeply suspicious of government’s ability to solve problems.

Of course, conservatism is in the midst of ideological crisis on the role of government. For decades, conservatives have seen themselves as the bulwark of states’ rights, against the encroachments of an intrusive federal government. Now, conservatives find themselves fighting against states’ rights and for the most intrusive federal government imaginable. Whether the issue is who won the 2000 election or gay marriage or Terri Schiavo, in recent years conservatives have been arguing against the power of the states and in favor of broader powers for the federal government than anyone has heretofore contemplated.

Despite this contradiction, conservatism may have found more coherence, and more meaning, than it has had in decades.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.