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Conover and Feldman: The origins and meaning of liberal/conservative self-identifications

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Conover and Feldman. 1981. The origins and meaning of liberal/conservative self-identifications. American Journal of Political Science 25 (November): 617-.

Main Contribution

Conservatives and liberals aren't just looking at different sides of the same coin; they're using completely different currencies. Loving conservatives doesn't require hating liberals--it's not bipolar. Rather, we base our evaluations of liberals and conservatives on affective evaluations of symbols (groups, ideas, maybe policies) associated with each group. For example, I evaluate liberals based on my feelings about NARAL, Martin Luther King, and peaceniks; I evaluate conservatives based on my feelings about the NRA, Iraq, and evangelicals. In fact, cognitive (issue-based) evaluations play second fiddle to these symbolic evaluations when I judge each side.

Since we judge liberals and conservatives by referencing different symbols, people's evaluations of liberals and conservatives are not necessarily negatively correlated.

Compare with Ansolaberehe and Iyengar's (1994) "issue ownership" argument.

Two Take-Home Points

  1. "I'm a conservative because I think of myself as like people that are conservative." "Members of the NRA, churches, business leaders, etc. are like me, so I must also be a conservative."
  2. My feelings about liberals are independent of my feelings about conservatives. There is no correlation (positive or negative) between them.

Evidence: Three Key Findings

  • There isn't a strong negative correlation between people's evaluations of liberals and conservatives
  • Our symbolic evaluations predict self-identification better than our cognitive (issue) evaluations.
  • Liberals and conservatives emphasize "different categories in their definitions of ideological terms" (64)