are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?

Hardly a day goes by without news about polarization. Americans are said to be divided into hostile camps on the left and right.

That observation contradicts a line of political science research launched in 1964 by Philip E. Converse. In “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Converse argued that the vast majority of Americans lacked organized systems of beliefs that could explain or predict their views of candidates or their political behavior. He wrote, “The political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary people are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” Most Americans were not recognizably liberal or conservative–or anything else. Mainly because they did not spend much time thinking about politics, and especially not in abstract ways, most people were not influenced by the ideas that concerned pundits, intellectuals, and politicians.

Even though many observers assume that the US has become more ideologically polarized since that time, it remains entirely possible to defend Converse’s case. That is the task of Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public by Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe (University of Chicago Press, 2017). This book is dedicated to “Philip E. Converse, Scholar Unsurpassed” and it ably updates his argument. Some of the key points:

  • People’s opinions about various issues correlate with each other at very low rates (an average of .16 in the American National Election Studies from 1972-2012). If most people held organized systems of belief, then many pairs of issues would correlate strongly. For instance, those who wanted lower taxes would also want to cut spending. The low correlations in the ANES indicate a lack of organization. Nor is there an important change in this measure over time.
  • Most people do not identify as liberals or conservatives, and those who identify as moderates have low information and are relatively unlikely to participate. Few Americans are principled and active centrists, but many are just not engaged.
  • Changes in the majority coalition (such as Reagan’s victories in the 1980s) are unrelated to changes in public opinion. Individuals also seem to change their opinions about most surveyed issues in random ways (notwithstanding some interesting exceptions, such as abortion).
  • Partisanship predicts voters’ choices much better than ideology does. Consistent with that finding, there are still considerable numbers of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and they vote for their parties.

How could this be true in a world of Fox News and MSNBC? Well, Fox News averages about 1.5 million viewers per month, and there are about 258 million adult Americans, so Fox speaks to–and possibly for–less than one in a hundred people.

In some ways, my colleagues and I have found similar results. For instance, in a 2012 survey, CIRCLE reported that just “22% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could choose the issue of greatest importance to themselves and answer two (out of two) factual questions about the candidates’ positions on that issue.” Scholars in tradition of Converse would say that this was not evidence of anything especially wrong with civic education, Millennials, or the 2012 campaign. Instead, for Kinder & Kalmoe, it is an international and transhistorical reality that most people lack organized thoughts about politics.

I think we must take this argument seriously, but I would raise two main doubts.

First, Kinder & Kalmoe conclude that groups, not ideologies, drive politics. They explicitly mention race, gender, and religion (p. 137). “Scores of studies show that public opinion on matters of politics is … shaped in powerful ways by the attitudes citizens harbor toward the social groups they see as the principal beneficiaries or victims in play” (p. 138). For some people, these attitudes are well-developed and stable. For instance, an “ardent feminist” is one who consistently sees gender as a basis for injustice (p. 138). But most of us can be influenced by events or political leaders to make different identities salient.

In her review of Kinder & Kalmoe, Samara Klar writes, “Group identities are a fundamental informational source in the course of preference formation. But must ideology be cast aside? Perhaps we can instead consider how ideology is intertwined in our identity politics.” In fact, this point seems fundamental to me. Each of the groups that Kinder & Kalmoe offer as an example reflects a complex mix of ideas and material realities.

For instance, race is not simply an idea. In the USA, people can be designated with a race at birth because it as seen as an inherited trait. And even if space-aliens arrived and erased all awareness of race from everyone’s brains, it would remain the case that White families have 10 times as much net wealth as Black families because of historical injustices.

Yet race is also about ideas. The whole concept was invented at specific times for specific reasons and has been imbued with meanings. To think of people as having racial identities is surely a form of ideology, and then to add notions of white supremacy, or ostensible color-blindness, or opposition to inequality, or pride in a minority racial status–these are powerful ideological additions. Racial identities offer politicians opportunities and challenges but are hardly created by current political leaders. They persist and recur. It would be odd to describe Americans as “innocent” of ideology if Americans see society in racialized terms (albeit with a variety of value judgments).

Religion is different in detail but similar insofar as it involves both ideas and material facts. For instance, the Catholic Church summarizes its core ideas in its creed and catechism, although it also encompasses a rich diversity of thought. Some Catholics are devout believers. For some, their ex-Catholic identity is important. Although Catholicism is not genetic, it runs in families due to socialization; and even renouncing the faith indicates that the religion is important. The American Catholic church owns tangible resources, from parochial schools and soup kitchens to cathedrals, but it also often holds a subordinate position compared to mainline Protestantism. Catholics have the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but Protestants have the National Cathedral. Catholics founded Boston College, but Protestants had Harvard.

Again, the point is that material circumstances and ideas are tightly connected. (And this is true for gender as well.) Thus ideology is powerfully active and omnipresent. And just as an opinion about race or religion combines ideas with material interests, so does an opinion about a classic policy-wonk question, such as whether the government should provide health insurance. If people lack opinions about health insurance but hold opinions about race, I don’t see why that makes them “innocent of ideology.”

Second, the kinds of questions fielded on surveys like the ANES are designed to assess where people stand on the kinds of issues that are debated by Democratic and Republican politicians. Insofar as people are asked about ideas outside this official mainstream, not too many usually express support. For instance, although about 40 percent express a positive view of socialism, few of those seem to define it in a radical way that would imply substantial changes in current policies. But this is not evidence of a lack of ideology. It is a sign that there is a dominant ideology in the USA, which contradicts many alternative ideologies available in the world or on paper. Not very Americans are theocratic Shiites, Maoists, or anarchists, and that is an important fact about America. The country is ideological, even if ideology does not explain the outcome of electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans.

History tells us that the dominant ideologies of whole societies can shift, sometimes surprisingly quickly. But such ruptures are not predictable with time series like the ANES.

Reading work in the tradition of Philip Converse can be a bit dispiriting. The data undermine what Achen & Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy, according to which we debate policies and values, form opinions, vote based on our opinions, and influence policy. The data suggests that most people are not part of this process.

At the same time, this tradition is also basically complacent about the political system. If people demonstrate a surprising lack of ideological awareness in 2022, that is because they always have. It is even the case in other countries, according to Kinder & Kalmoe. Concerns about shifts toward polarization or extremism are overblown, because the actual trends move at a “glacial pace” (p. 87). For instance, the proportions of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives doubled from a very low base between 1972 and 2012. If that pace continued, it would take more than a century for those groups to predominate (p. 176).

The ultimate message seems to be that we should abandon romantic notions of an informed, deliberating electorate and yet not worry about the fundamental condition of our polity, which is stable and “innocent” of ideology.

Theodore Lowi concludes his great book The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979) by saying:

Realistic political science is a rationalization of the present. The political scientist is not necessarily a defender of the status quo, but the result is too often the same, because those who are trying to describe reality tend to reaffirm it. Focus on the group, for example, is a commitment to one of the more rigidified aspects of the social process. Stress upon the incremental is apologetic as well. The separation of facts from values is apologetic.

There is no denying that modern pluralistic political science brought science to politics. And that is a good thing. But it did not have to come at the cost of making political science an apologetic discipline. But that is exactly what happened. … In embracing facts alone about the process, modern political science embraced the ever-present. In so doing, political science took rigor over relevance.

Political science that is both relevant and rigorous takes seriously the evidence about human cognitive limitations but is also serious about moral critiques of the current society and aims to help people change it.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; US polarization in context; affective polarization is symmetrical; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.