The Individual and the Nation: A Qualitative Analysis of US Liberal and Conservative Identity Content


  • Kristin Hanson
  • Emma O’Dwyer
  • Evanthia Lyons


Recent research highlights the significant role of political ideological identities in America’s increasing political polarisation. In line with social identity theory, self-placement as a US liberal or conservative predicts favouritism toward the ideological in-group and negative attitudes and behaviours toward the outgroup. The theory also holds that the link between self-categorisation and behaviour is mediated by the content of that identity, by what an individual believes it means to be a member of that group. Although previous research has done much to analyse the differences between US liberals and conservatives on various a priori dimensions, little work has been aimed at gaining a holistic account of ideological identity content from the individual’s lay perspective. Through qualitative analysis of 40 interviews (20 liberals and 20 conservatives), this study identifies central themes in the meaning self-identified US liberals and conservatives attribute to these labels and finds evidence for asymmetrical constructions of these identities. The liberal participant group’s identity construction revolved around identification as, and concern for, individuals, supported by reference to personal values and political issues and underpinned by a motivation to move toward a more equal society. Conversely, the conservative participant group connected the understanding of their identity directly to the political ideology of the nation through a thread of self-reliance and reverence for the national group. Implications for political behaviour and the study of ideological identity are discussed.