I like the distinction in Why most conservatives are secretly liberals.
In Ideology in America, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson describe a striking disjuncture. When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose ‘conservative’ far more than ‘liberal.’ In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s.
But when it comes to saying what the government should actually do, the public appears more liberal than conservative. Ellis and Stimson gathered 7,000 survey questions dating back to 1956 that asked some variant of whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas. On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down. For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).
Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are ‘consistent liberals’ — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are ‘consistent conservatives’ — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.