Speed Reads

parsing politics

What it means to be liberal or conservative depends a lot on where you live

One of the first lessons of majoring in political science, I can tell you from experience, is that "liberal" and "conservative" are extremely malleable terms, denoting very different perspectives in different times and places. In modern Europe, for example, a "liberal" typically is someone with views Americans would call "fiscally conservative."

But that malleability happens on a smaller scale too, reveals a recent study published in the Public Library of Science, an academic journal. As the researchers explain at The Washington Post, they found we all have a fairly local "political reference point," which is our conception of what is politically "normal" or average. So, for example, "if you live in a very red state, what seems middle-of-the-road and therefore moderate will likely be different than if you lived in a deeply blue state."

In practice, this means that red-state "liberals" and blue-state "conservatives" actually have a lot in common, even though they consider themselves polar opposites. What seems like a liberal view in Alabama might be conservative territory in Oregon, and though our binary labeling system suggests deep political polarization, geographic variation means many Americans have more in common politically than they may believe.