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Think Again: Is America Getting More Conservative?

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Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and a senior editor at The Atlantic, wants to explain "Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative." He notes, as does everyone who writes about the topic, that "Americans at this political moment are significantly more likely to identify as conservative than as liberal: conservatives outnumber liberals by nearly two to one. Forty percent identify as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 21 percent liberal."

That's hardly news. What Florida thinks is worth paying attention to, however, is the map he draws of "The Conservative States of America," which he uses to illustrate his point that America is becoming more conservative. He originally wrote about it in March 2011 and now updates his analysis with Gallup's year-end data.

Florida admits that the "associations" between certain kinds of people and certain kinds of political attitudes at the state level that he and his colleague developed in their research do not explain much. As he notes, "correlation does not show causation." Even so, he says, "they reflect the deep cleavages of income, education, and class that divide America."

In order to continue with this line of reasoning, the reader is forced to gloss over a few points--the most obvious being one of definition. The word "conservative" has different meanings in different places. To be "conservative" in New York City might make you nearly communist in parts of Mississippi or Alabama. And while "conservative" states may have people who self-identify as "conservative," they might not hold views that the popular media identify as conservative.

So what does it mean to be "conservative" by Florida's (and the Pew Research Center's) definition? According to a Pew survey released this month, more than half (57 percent) of lower-income Republicans (those with family incomes of less than $30,000) said that government does not do enough for the poor, while less than one in five (18 percent) said it does too much. On the other hand, higher-income Republicans (those with family incomes of $75,000 or more, perhaps not surprisingly) overwhelmingly think government does too much.

It would appear that, according to this crucial measurement, being more "conservative" is simply a matter of having more money, though even here the matter is complicated. Florida notes that "while rich voters favor Republicans, rich states favor Democrats."

It's also apparently a matter of having less education. Florida recognizes that, "Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones," something that is also true on an individual level. The higher your educational attainment is, the more likely you will shed right-wing views. "The [negative] correlation between conservative affiliation and the percent of adults who are college graduates is also substantially higher than before (-.76 vs. -.53)." This may explain why conservatives are always seeking to cut student loan funding and other educational programs for the poor and middle class.

Florida also notes that states with more conservatives are less diverse. "Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants (-.56), or gay and lesbian ( -.60)." Given that Florida's argument is about how America is becoming "more conservative," one might have expected him to note that America is becoming both more ethnically diverse and tolerant when it comes to what used to be called "alternative lifestyles." Even half of Republicans support gay marriage or civil unions these days. (And let's not even talk about contraception.) So maybe it's not time to break out the beer and pretzels quite yet.

Nor does the future look so bright for conservatives when one factors in the role that class continues to play in determining political attitudes.

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