What is the ideological center of contemporary conservatism? In his book We Are Doomed, John Derbyshire described the phenomenon of the "metrocon"--urban conservatives who sympathesize with conservatives who live in the sticks--authentic conservatives--but who have lifestyles more similar to cosmopolitan liberals. To illustrate real conservatives, he writes about people from small-town America who believe that homosexuality should be illegal. Now that is a true conservative. Derbyshire doesn't know a single metrocon who thinks that homosexual behavior should be against the law.
Is there something to this idea that anti-homosexuality shows us what is at the heart of rank-and-file conservatism? Many liberals would argue this; that hate is at its core. Actually, the truth is that love is at the center of it; love of tradition, love of one's fathers.
At the same time, the recent debate over raising the taxes of the rich led some liberals to contend that the Holy Grail of conservatism is protecting wealthy Americans. Conservatives are obsessed with economic freedom for the privileged.
So which is it? I don't have access to a question about favoring laws against homosexuality, but the GSS does ask if homosexual sex is wrong. Respondents are also asked about taxes on the wealthy with answers ranging from "much too low" to "much too high." I correlated these measures with the degree to which one is politically conservative. The correlation between conservatism and wanting lower taxes for the rich is .16. The conservatism/anti-homosexual sex correlation, by constrast, is .39--much stronger.
Another way of looking at it is percentages. Seventy-nine percent of those who describe themselves as conservative think homosexual sex is almost alway or always wrong. Only 49 percent of conservatives say that the taxes paid by the wealthy are "too high" or "much too high." Opposing homosexual sex captures conservatism better than concern about high taxes for the rich.