In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

The Problem of Labels


Socialist, liberal, libertarian, conservative? (Edited: Amazon)

Whilst much attention has been focused on the Republican nomination, the Democratic race is intriguing too. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) is facing Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, who served in the Senate between 2001 and 2009.

Young people overwhelming favour the Vermont senator [1]. The Iowa entrance poll found that 84% of Democrats aged between 17 and 29 wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders, compared to 14% favouring Hillary Clinton. Older voters support Hillary Clinton.


The age differential matters. (Source: FiveThirtyEight)

Socialists and libertarians

The term “socialism” appears to be more favourable among younger voters too. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly, and proudly, described himself as a “socialist” or a “democratic socialist”. As polling analyst Nate Silver writes:

I’m just old enough (38) to have grown up during the Cold War, a time when “socialist” did not just mean “far left” but also implied something vaguely un-American.

The younger age bracket (18 – 29 years old) have a net favourable view of socialism, whereas this becomes dramatically negative as voters get older.


Age matters in American politics. (Source: FiveThirtyEight)

This does not translate into large support for “socialist” policies. The General Social Survey has a question about wealth redistribution, asking American respondents if the “government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor… perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor”. This does not fully encapsulate Senator Sanders’ economic programme, but does represent a general proclivity towards supporting redistributive policies.

Younger Americans do not deviate far away from the overall response on this measure. Moreover, younger voters have a smaller standard deviation on this measure, meaning that they are more concentrated towards a centrist position.


Younger voters show greater favourability towards more redistribution, but the difference is not that large. (Source: FiveThirtyEight)



Comparing Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul, and socialism to libertarianism, Nate Silver brings up labels:

The cynical interpretation of this is that the appeal of both “socialism” and “libertarianism” to younger Americans is more a matter of the labels than the policy substance. Relatedly, it’s hard to find all that much of disagreement over core issues between Clinton and Sanders, who voted together 93 percent of the time when they were both in the Senate from 2007 to 2009.

It is the problem of labels. Labels may shift over time. In US politics, “liberal” and “conservative” often act as mere place-holders for Democrat and Republican, rather than steadfast political philosophies. This shift over labels may not indicate any great difference in economic policy, but could differentiate on social and cultural matters.

What matters is not what people call themselves, but what they believe.


[1] Silver, N., 2016. Why Young Democrats Love Bernie Sanders. FiveThirtyEight. Available from: [Accessed: 6th March 2016]



This entry was posted on May 11, 2016 by in American Politics and tagged , , , .
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