Evidence for low liberalism and why it has no conservative equivalent
Previously on this Substack, I have written about the growth of low liberalism, a non-elite and crude form of liberalism. Whilst such voters think ideologically, their conceptual understanding is limited and they embrace populist methods, failing to understand that, in a liberal democracy, politics should have limits. Substantively, low liberals combine traditional liberalism (e.g. support for immigration) with parts of social justice ideology (e.g. support for the pulling down of statues) and authoritarianism (e.g. support for the jailing of conservative opponents).
Whilst I thought that low liberalism had an equivalent on the right, data from the British Election Study (BES) suggest this may not be the case. BES’s panel structure and scales, which measure economic and cultural ideology, enable analysis of the extent to which British voters think in ideological terms, i.e. understanding that (say) opposition to the death penalty ‘goes’ with (say) support for the welfare state (or the inverse).
Increasingly, all British voters think more ideologically. Table 1 shows this, higher correlations indicating greater propensity to match the ideological positions of one’s ‘side’. This is novel; historically, non-elites tend not to think in ideological terms.
But trends on the right and left are different. On the right, less has changed. Self-identified right-wingers (over 7 on the 0-10 BES scale) tend not to think like traditional conservatives. Rather, such voters combine culturally conservative and economically left-wing positions, table 1 showing negative correlations. Admittedly, elite right-wingers are increasingly thinking in such terms, yet it is difficult to argue that the positions of non-elites have changed drastically. Table 1 shows limited change and such voters have thought in these terms historically; international data on the preferences of non-elites also resembles this pattern.
On the left, there have been marked changes. As table 1 shows, the views of left-wingers (under 3 on the 0-10 BES scale) are becoming more ideologically organized, i.e. there is a higher correlation between support for economically left-wing positions and culturally liberal ones. Though I must undertake further evaluation of the data – the panel structure of BES enables analysis of the trajectories of individual voters – I would imagine that these voters are non-elites and tend to embrace low liberalism.
The new BES culture war questions (which ask respondents about issues such as offensive speech, statues of slave owners and transgender rights) tell us more. Though one cannot conduct historic analysis of responses – the questions were only asked this year – results are consistent with my argument. As table 2 shows, left-wingers are ‘better’ at matching responses to the cultural ideology scale and culture war questions.
Some will object that ‘liberal’ responses to the culture war questions represent social justice values rather than traditional liberal ones (broadly, I agree), yet this is typical of low liberalism. As I observe above, the ideology includes parts of social justice ideology.
One reflects on reasons for different trends among liberals and conservatives. Aside from the greater tendency of liberals to think in ideological terms, conservatism primarily being opposed to change, we may contemplate the influence of education. Historically, the educated tend to be more ideological, reflecting socialization patterns and greater exposure to relevant ideas.
Today, liberals tend to be more formally educated than conservatives, potentially explaining different ideological sophistication. This flatters liberals, yet low liberalism is crude, potentially contaminating elite versions of the ideology. If majorities of liberals think like this, there will be implications for the wider movement.
Low liberalism’s penetration of elite professions is concerning. On X (formerly Twitter), certain academics and barristers play to uninformed followers. Given the implications of low liberalism for liberal democracy, discussed here, one can argue that ideology should remain the preserve of elites.
Of course, recent trends in conservatism are scarcely rarified. Across the West, conservatives have developed a dumbed down media which is aimed at non-elites and threatens liberal democracy. Just as liberals have Carol Vorderman, conservatives have Laurence Fox. Nonetheless, data suggest that (at least in Britain) this is a particular problem among liberals.
There is much work to do. What is happening in other countries? Similar processes are taking place in the United States, but different effects on liberals and conservatives remain unclear. What are the drivers? Research explains tribalism with reference to changing media consumption and the formation of echo chambers, yet the trends discussed here require specific explanations.
I shall work on these questions and publish results here.
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