In the self-replicating world of grievance-mongering known as the Internet, it is hardly surprising that everything seems extreme. In a sea of a billion websites, the easiest way to get noticed is to be extreme, or to accuse others of being extreme. Nowhere is this more true than with political ideology, where conservatives and liberals battle to cripple the other side.
But which side is more extreme? Certainly, there's no shortage of claims in the media that conservatives are. Governor Andrew Cuomo is famous for claiming that 'extreme conservatives' are so extreme that they 'have no place in New York.' Even a left-leaning outlet like MSNBC is extremely conservative, according to Russell Brand. Google and Yahoo agree. A Google search for 'extreme conservative' returns 115 million hits compared with 78 million for 'extreme liberal.' Yahoo gives a similar ratio, with 4 million versus 3 million.
The odd part of this consensus is that the term conservative would seem to be the opposite of extreme. Liberals are known as being creative, radical, and willing to push the envelope; conservatives, not so much.
One way to approach this conundrum is to find an operational definition of extreme and then test how conservatives and liberals behave. Since talk is cheap but action is more meaningful, making beliefs operational is a way of ensuring honesty.
A non-partisan political analysis firm, Crowdpac, has done this by scoring the ideology of political donors based on the politicians to whom they have given money. For example, a donor who gives solely to highly liberal (Democrat?) politicians would be rated most liberal (10L) while one who gives solely to highly conservative (Republican?) politicians would be rated most conservative (10C).
Not surprisingly, Crowdpac found that some professions skew heavily one way or the other, with the entertainment industry and academia being the most liberal and mining, agriculture, and oil industries being the most conservative.
What is interesting, however, is the shape of each distribution. Consider newspapers and print media, which skew heavily liberal.
It's not simply that liberal donors outweigh conservative ones. Rather, note that the modal response of those donors is most liberal (10L). That is, of all donors that could be rated liberal, being as-liberal-as-possible was the most popular choice. Conservative donors, by contrast, don't prefer to give to highly conservative politicians, with a modal response in the middle (7C).
The obvious claim in response to this data is to suggest that extreme conservatives have been weeded out by the left-leaning profession, and that truly extreme conservative donors go into other professions. If so, we should see the opposite skew in conservative professions, like oil, gas, & coal.
Here we see that conservatives strongly outweigh liberals, as expected. But note that the modal responses are the same as before. For the much smaller group of liberals, donors still prefer to give to the most liberal politicians over any other outcome. The dominant conservative group, on the other hand, is still relatively diverse and centrist, with a mode of 7C.
A thorough inspection of the Crowdpac data shows that these tendencies hold for all professions that skew either right or left: liberals have a modal rating of 10L while conservatives have a modal rating of 5C - 7C. Only in highly mixed professions, like hedge funds, lobbyists, and banking does the liberal mode shift to non-extreme values, like 7L, though the 10L response is never as small as 10C for any profession (except mining).
The data seem pretty clear. Extreme is as extreme does, and conservatives don't do it well.