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Fusion, Fission, or More of the Same on the Right?

- July 15, 2008

The marriage of cultural conservatives and economic conservatives is often viewed as one of convenience based on suppression of more basic ideological disagreement. During the George W. Bush years, that marriage has sometimes shown signs of strain. In a recent study, John Zumbrunnen and Amy Gangl analyze the coexistence of different strands of conservatism among members of the mass public, an inquiry that enabled them to address the possibilities that the different types of conservatives might come to a parting of the ways or, to the contrary, that they might fuse.

Drawing on a 2006 national internet survey of American adults and on the 2004 American National Election Study, Zumbrunnen and Gangl report that:

bq. Market conservatism (measured by the beliefs that the marketplace is more efficient and less wasteful than government and that market processes are inherently democratic) and cultural conservatism (measured by responses to questions about the role of religion in one’s life and the need for a return to more traditional values vis-a-vis marriage, family, and sex) are positively but quite modestly related to one another.

bq. Both market and cultural conservatism are also positively related to idelological dentification (measured as self-placement on a liberal-conservative scale) as a conservative, though the former relationship is much stronger than the latter one.

bq. Market conservatism is positively related to “limited government conservatism” (measured by responses to the statement that “While government is necessary for performing certain functions, its economic, social and morla influence must be kept within very definite limits”).

bq. Cultural conservatism isn’t related to limited government conservatism.

bq. Limited government conservatism isn’t related to ideological self-identification.

These analyses “point towards the presence of two strands of conservative attitudes, with the traditional belief in limited government as valuable in and of itself no longer a clearly conservative idea.”

More broadly, Zumbrunnen and Gangl conclude that their data provide “little support for either liberal dreams of fundamental ideological concflict among conservatives or conservative dreams of fusion between advocates of the market and social traditionalists. In general, we find a story of coexistence — perhaps uneasy — among the different strands of conservatism.”

Zumbrunnen and Gangl’s study, titled “Conflict, Fusion, or Coexistence? The Complexity of Contemporary American Conservatism,” appears in Political Behavior 30 (2008): 199-221.)