How Americans label their own political identities

David MontgomerySenior data journalist
October 12, 2023, 3:38 PM GMT+0

Are Americans liberal or conservative? Moderate or radical? Libertarian or nationalist?

A new YouGov survey finds that the answer for some is none of the above — and for others, all of the above.

YouGov asked Americans about the degree to which each of these six labels and 10 others describes their own political views: Anarchist, centrist, conservative, feminist, left-wing, liberal, libertarian, moderate, nationalist, populist, pro-choice, pro-life, progressive, radical, right-wing, and socialist.

For each of the 16 labels, no more than 33% say it matches them “well.” But 80% say at least one of the labels describes them well, and less than 5% say none of the labels describes them at all.

The median American says two of the 16 labels describe them well and five describe them partially.

Some labels are more popular than others. Topping the list are two normally opposed labels that activists deliberately crafted to be appealing: “pro-choice” (33%) and “pro-life” (29%). Other popular labels include “conservative” (28%), “moderate” (21%), “progressive” (18%).

On the other end, just 1% say “anarchist” is a good description of their politics, while only 4% say the same about each of “radical” or “populist.”

Americans are more willing to say labels describe their politics “partially,” with more than half saying the most popular labels describe them to this extent.

The party divide in political identities

Many of the results line up with expectations. Among Republicans, 87% say “conservative” describes their politics, with 59% saying it describes them well. Similarly, 73% of Democrats identified at least partially with the label “liberal” — slightly more popular than the other major term used to describe left-of-center Americans: “progressive” (66%).

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call themselves at least partially “feminist” (60% vs. 18%), “left-wing” (54% vs. 6%) and “socialist” (52% vs. 7%), while Republicans lead the way on accepting “right-wing” (64% vs. 16%) and “nationalist” (38% vs. 19%).

Majorities in both parties say they are at least partially “moderate.” Few Americans call themselves “radical,” but 24% of Democrats accept that label, compared to 4% of Republicans. "Moderate" is much more popular as a label than “centrist” (54% vs. 23%).

While "pro-choice" and "pro-life" lead the labels in the share of Americans who describe themselves as such at least partially, they're few people's primary label. Americans are most likely to say in a follow-up question that the label that best describes them is "conservative" (25%), "moderate" (19%), or "liberal" (11%) — all ahead of "pro-life" (8%) and "pro-choice" (7%). (Respondents chose from among any labels they had previously said at least partially described them.)

"Conservative," "moderate," and "liberal" are also top choices for Americans when describing their politics in their own words. Other open-ended responses went well beyond the 16 labels offered, including degrees of the major labels ("fairly conservative"), hybrids ("Libertarian leaning independent caucusing with Democrats"), individual approaches ("my own"), opt outs ("not really political"), or statements ("I believe that the people are more important than politicians or corporations.")

Overlapping political identities

The median American says two of the 16 labels describe them "well" and another three labels "partially."

Some of these overlaps are expected. Among the 12% of Americans who identify strongly as "right-wing," for example, 76% also strongly identify as "conservative." Similarly, 66% of "left-wing" Americans say "progressive" describes them well. More than two-thirds of self-identified "centrists" say they are "moderate."

Other overlaps are counterintuitive. Around 27% of Americans say both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are labels that describe their politics well, which follows other surveys finding significant numbers of people adopting both labels.

While 73% of liberals say "pro-choice" describes them well, just 35% of pro-choice Americans say they're clearly liberal. There's no equivalent split on the right, where 56% of conservatives say they're pro-life, and 56% of pro-lifers say they're conservative.

The survey finds just 6% of "conservatives" identify strongly as "populist," and just 4% as "libertarian" — comparable to the 8% of conservatives who identify as "progressive." (Small sample sizes make it hard to know which of these groups with overlapping labels is largest.)

On the other side of the aisle, just half of "liberals" say they're also "progressive," and vice versa.

— Taylor Orth contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on September 19 - 23, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (urbazon)

Explore more data & articles