The liberal identity fascinates me. So much so, that I spent the better part of my graduate career thinking about it. And then I wrote a dissertation about it. Anyone who has written a dissertation will tell you that while writing it, you come up with dozens of other ideas, typically tangential to your actual dissertation .
Now that I've defended and moved on, I'm shuffling through all of those random notes I made while writing. I find them all over the place. Sticky notes in a folder stuffed with articles. In the margins of papers that helped shape ideas my ideas. Last week I found a stack of sticky notes in my bottom desk drawer. I remember putting them there thinking, "Oh I definitely won't forget these."
One of those notes says, "What about in-groups and out-groups?" At the time I was working on building my theory for why the liberal label remained so unpopular after "the big shift" in the 1960s. Typically, series equilibrate. Ideological identification did not.
Something (OK, some things) had to aid that process. This little idea I had was that maybe liberal elites stopped calling themselves liberals.
There are dozens of ways to answer this question, all of which require some sort of content analysis. A quick and dirty (yet, useful) way to consider this is to look to the front page of The New York Times. The Times is a good proxy for other news sources and covers what politicians are saying: two non-controversial claims.
So, did liberals stop using "in-group" language like "we" and "our" when talking about their policies and themselves? And furthermore, did conservatives up their game and start capitalizing on the deflated rank of "liberal"?
See the figures, which plot the usage of in-group language ("we" or "our") and the ideological terms "liberal" or "conservative" from 1930s - 2000s. The first figure plots the number of articles mentioning the word "liberal" (dark blue line), the word "conservative" (dark red line), "liberal" with "we" or "our" (lighter blue line), and "conservative" with "we" or "our" (lighter red line) on the front page of The Times by decade. Notice that the colors move together---that is, both the mention of "liberal" and the usage of "liberal" with in-group language decline sharply after the 1960s. And just the opposite trend emerges with "conservative." Both the usage of the word itself and its usage with in-group language continues to increase over time (although dipping somewhat in the past decade; but, still at a higher rate the its liberal counterpart).
The second figure just pulls out the in-group rhetoric, making that conservative upswing a bit more obvious.
Looks like that sticky note was on to something. More work to be done, of course, and as always.