Bryan Caplan  

Conservative Passion

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Several responses in the comments dispute my premise that the two issues conservatives are most passionate about are immigration and war.  I'd be happy to be proven wrong, but it's hard to believe.  The conservatives that I know can't stop talking about these topics.  They bring them up spontaneously, frequently, and invariably to express outrage about American weakness.  Can my sample really be that biased? 

Suppose we just did textual analysis of major conservative outlets for the last decade.  Is there really much doubt that immigration and war would be the two topics where words like "angry" "outrage" "get tough" etc. would be most pronounced?

The best counter-example in the comments was abortion - and here I will admit that I know relatively few staunchly religious conservatives.  But again, how much angry attention has this topic really gotten in major conservative outlets during the last ten years?  A minority of conservatives is clearly extremely angry about abortion, but a majority of conservatives seem extremely angry about Mexicans and terrorists.

P.S. If you'd like to propose a bet, I'm listening. 



COMMENTS (22 to date)
David C writes:

One commenter suggested taxes, and I'll second that. Republicans were pro-war in the 80s and 00s, but not so much in the 90s, so I'm not sure if I'd include it. My guess is the reason the conservatives you know can't stop talking about immigration and war, is that the conservatives you know are smarter than average, so they're among the few who know Obama's done a lot to cut taxes. So they're not going to make a big deal about it as long as the liberals are working with them on it. Also, you're also anti-taxes, so you probably just agree with them and then move on.

Sonic Charmer writes:

For the record, I didn't dispute your assertion, but I did question whether it was true. To see what it was based on for example.

And based on your response, I think the problem for your assertion (and for any 'bet', as well) lies in trying to define/measure 'passion' in this context. Question-begging seems inescapable.

Not clear what your proposed word-frequency metric really measures, for example. If indeed the phrase 'get tough' arises more in conservative writing on war than on taxes, would that nec. be a reflection of more 'passion'? Or could it just reflect the differing intrinsic nature of the topics?

I suspect what you're noticing is really just a proxy for the fact that, if someone is generally 'pro-war' and 'anti-immigration', the sentiment is almost naturally going to come out sounding 'passionate', regardless of the person's relative depth of feelings on other topics. Remember that your claim was a relative one. How is one to gauge the relative depth of 'passion' on different subjects? I would go not by which words are used but by things like consistency (I don't think 'pro-war' well describes late-1990s conservatives), longevity, and how widespread the view is. That's why - if we must indeed identify a 'passionately' held conservative view - taxes, on which almost all conservatives have consistently agreed for a very long time, was what immediately came to mind.

agnostic writes:

The GSS has questions that ask how important an issue is to the respondent -- women's rights, gun laws, etc. They show up when you search the Berkeley interface for "importance," but I didn't see one about war or immigration.

Maybe there are such questions, but they would have a different wording, "How strongly do you hold these beliefs" or something. But there were too many results with "strongly" to scan over quickly.

Arnie writes:

Immigration is still there, but I think that "WAR" has been replaced by "Financial house in order" for many conservatives. Note Dave Ramsey ("all debt is of the devil, governmental or personal") at the top of the podcast list of popularity and also the tea party wave into congress.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

In my experience, the most passionate people on war have been the Jane Fonda and Bill Ayers types; people who march in the streets and set off bombs for 'peace'.

Jared Barton writes:

"The conservatives that I know can't stop talking about these topics. They bring them up spontaneously, frequently, and invariably to express outrage about American weakness. Can my sample really be that biased?"

1. The likelihood that the people any one person happens to know are an unbiased estimator of overall public opinion, or of public opinion of a group of which they are not a member (in this case, conservatives) is pretty freakin' low. We should always be suspicious of our own experience as an estimator of anything but our own experience.

2. That said--and G-d do I hate giving you this, since it undermines everything I just said--but see this (scientific? Can't tell) survey of key issues to conservatives in the 2008 election. Immigration and war are right up there.

John writes:

Check out Google Ngrams here for the usage of the terms "war" and "immigration." While "immigration" seems unchanged, "war" seems certainly to be in a minor up trend.

I can draw no conclusions about conservatives ... I just think this is a neat new tool.

david souther writes:

I think Caplan is probably correct and mostly in-line with current scholarship on people's views (and voting) on issues & the way issues are framed by politicians, political elite, and the media ( see this recent paper reviewing the scholarship on this ) .

@patrick r. sullivan: That's a banal & outdated example that has nothing to do with Caplan's post.
It's the same as saying that I think the most passionate people on war have been the registered-Republican Party and NRA member-types, like Timothy McVeigh (cite) There are nuts on both sides of the issue--it doesn't help us evaluate Caplan's premise about conservatives current issue-orientation.


Jody writes:

If you look at publications, you'll get an disproportionate number of neo-con writers who are ideologically more in favor of better living through invasions.

However, most polling companies regularly ask voters which issues are the most important to them (or at least, "is the following item important") and at least provide tabs by party (sometimes by self-identified ideology).

So I suggest that polling data on what issues matter most to either self-identified conservatives (if sufficient data exists) or self-identified Republicans (as a backup proxy) would be the preferable means to measure issue interest to *conservatives* as opposed to *conservative pundits*. (Likely need to define a cumulative intensity measure of some sort to accommodate the suggested 2000-2010 window)

Jody writes:

Here's an example of what I'm thinking about. Pew Aug 2010 survey

I think that'll take you directly to the issues table. If not, it's in the section "Issue Priorities and the Vote for Congress".

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:
...you'll get an disproportionate number of neo-con writers who are ideologically more in favor of better living through invasions.

Such as for the French in 1944?

Scott Miller writes:

Whether conservatives are more outraged about abortion or immigration depends on what part of the country you live in. In the bible belt they are (at least the people in Kansas and Oklahoma I know are) more fixated on abortion, maybe less so now that George Tiller is dead. But immigration is reaching the equilibrium point in anger.

ajb writes:

Since the typical leftist perceives Bryan's libertarianism as conservative, it's not a surprise that the conservatives he knows are probably self-differentiating by focusing on their differences (i.e. non-economic issues).

Jon writes:

"But again, how much angry attention has this topic really gotten in major conservative outlets during the last ten years? A minority of conservatives is clearly extremely angry about abortion, but a majority of conservatives seem extremely angry about Mexicans and terrorists."

At the risk of getting facetious, maybe the reason could be explained by charts tracking terrorist activity and illegal immigration numbers from the past 10 years.

The first has a relevant data point around 3rd quarter 2001.

The second probably needs some reference to recent amnesty proposals... ones eerily similar to the Regan era betrayals on the same topic.

Surely it is too much to ask your sampled group to be "most passionate" about every topic, all the time, with no shift in focus corresponding to world events?

Troy Camplin writes:

You won't get any bets against you from this libertarian married to a Mexican-American.

I will note that I have heard a lot less about illegal immigration from conservatives since I started dating -- and married -- my wife.

Jeff writes:

It seems to me that many people who used to self-identify as conservative now call themselves libertarian, even if they don't agree with some libertarian positions. Others called themselves independents, particularly during the runup to the recent election, when the popular press was swooning over the "independent" vote.

The reason for this is that the "conservative" label was hijacked, first by the "national greatness" crowd at the Weekly Standard, and then by other big-government conservatives. When you start and/or drag out unnecessary wars, create a massive new entitlement, bail out the richest and least deserving, tap phones, lure people into attempting to commit crimes, elevate a nuisance into a "War on Terrorism" and thereby move towards a police state, that kind of gives conservatism a bad name.

The result is that only the people who actually approve of the Bush policies still call themselves conservative. And since Bush's appeal was mostly driven by the fear of outsiders, it's not surprising that his remaining supporters are anti-immigrant and pro-war.

Peter Finch writes:

I'll buy that immigration and war are important issues for conservatives. It's the "passion" I'd dispute, at least for war.

The hawkish conservatives have always been the sober/cerebral types, or at least presented themselves as such. Team Palin isn't leading this charge. I find it reflected in regular everyday conservatives as well - war is thought about more rationally, and with less emotional baggage by hawks. Now, maybe it should have more emotional baggage then they are giving it, but it seems hard to construe cold detachment as "passion".

Lars P writes:

I call Heisenberg.

People are only going to passionately discuss things they disagree about. When a well known libertarian like BC talks to conservatives, that means the lively debate topics are war and immigration.

Hyena writes:

My experience is that immigration and taxes are the big issues with immigration greatly at the forefront.

I was once talking about how taxes were too high in California and somehow my interlocutor shifted it to immigration....

Conn Carroll writes:

I think Bryan's dead wrong here and I have a bet proposal at the end if he is interested.

"Passion" is hard to measure. But as editor of The Heritage Foundation's blog, The Foundry, I see what posts get the most traffic and the most comments.
We blog about almost every conceivable public policy topic at The Foundry, and immigration and "war" are not traffic or comment generators.

Any foreign policy topic, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are almost always at the bottom of our traffic rankings. Immigration is about in the middle. Spending, debt, health care, and the U.S. Constitution are by far the most popular topics.

Here is the bet: Identify the three highest rated conservative talk show hosts (I think its Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck). Pick three random shows from each of them from this year. Then tally up the minutes they devoted to different policy areas.

I'd bet immigration and war are not the top two items on that list.

Dan Weber writes:

While "immigration" seems unchanged

Graph only "immigration" and you will see it's way up. Almost infinitely up since it starts around 0%.

Incidentally, while thinking about the things most liberals are most passionate for, I also come up with anti-libertarian things. It could just be that passion is the antithesis of liberty.

8 writes:

The issues where the general public polls wildly in favor/against a policy, and the government does the exact opposite, generate the most passion. Conservatives think the government is running a pro-illegal alien immigration policy. With Obama in office, some of the them think he's intentionally trying to bankrupt America.

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