Do Americans Divide Themselves by Ideology?

The American public isn't neatly divided into "liberal" and "conservative."

Posted Jan 19, 2020

A new presidential election is just around the corner in the United States. Our political values will be put into stark relief as we grapple with candidates, their plans for the future, and the parties standing behind them. So how do people think about politics? With all the talk of “liberal” this and “conservative” that, it’s worth asking whether people even think this way.

Does the general public actually organize their views into neat packages of political ideology?

Back in the 1960s, political scientist Philip Converse asked exactly this question. He poured through the national political surveys available at the time, looking for any evidence that ordinary Americans approach politics with an ideology in mind. What he found instead was that people’s political opinions tended to be inconsistent and unstable over time. Sure, people who were deeply embedded in politics had coherent ideologies, but the rest of the population didn’t appear to.

Converse’s conclusions sparked a flurry of research and debate in political science. Could it really be true that most people are “ideologically innocent”? Recently, Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe set out to summarize this long and winding area of research and conduct new tests of the data. Their conclusion? Converse was right, he’s still right, and it seems like he’ll continue to be right. Let’s take a look at just some of the evidence they provide

Do People Use Ideological Labels for Themselves?

The simplest way to address this question is to just ask people to describe their political worldview. Do they tend to be liberal? Conservative? When asked in major national surveys between 1972 and 2012, fully 27.5% of Americans opted not to define themselves with any ideology. And even when people did choose an ideological label for themselves, a third of them identified as “moderate.” All of this is to say that no more than half of the American public takes a strong ideological position when approaching political issues.

But what about all this talk of polarization? Aren’t we more divided than ever? Perhaps not. By and large, people do not take extreme ideological positions, and even though there’s some evidence of growing ideological polarization over time, this trend is tiny.

What About Partisanship?

The wrinkle in all of this is that people do seem to use political parties to organize their attitudes. Unlike ideology, only a small fraction of Americans (around 5%) avoid thinking of themselves in partisan terms. Although some people’s partisan identity is “Independent,” most people can be found all along the spectrum. Whereas people tend to avoid extreme ideology labels, it’s more common for people to identify as “Strong Democrats” or “Strong Republicans.”

Interestingly, people’s party affiliations remain remarkably stable over their lifetimes while their ideological identities are more inconsistent. Compared to ideology, party identities also seem to be much more influential in people’s voting decisions and judgments of the political landscape. And unlike ideology, there’s more evidence that people are becoming more divided in their party loyalties.

The Importance of Political Knowledge

All this evidence might surprise you. After all, perhaps you and the people you know talk about “liberal” and “conservative” divisions all the time. Ideology means something to you, so something must be fishy with the data these political scientists are using.

To the contrary, these data are the result of careful methods to ensure that the conclusions are representative of all Americans. But if you were interested enough to read this article about political ideology, you’re probably especially interested in politics, and that’s pretty unusual. For many Americans, politics are just too boring or complicated to think carefully about. It’s this difference between people in political engagement that matters for ideology.

Once you zoom in on people who are quite knowledgeable about politics, ideology suddenly takes on meaning. For example, one early study gave high school students a brief quiz about public affairs and asked about their political ideologies. Almost all of the students who aced the quiz claimed to have a political ideology, but among the students who did the worst on the quiz, only about 25% claimed to be either liberal or conservative.

As it turns out, political knowledge matters for everything else we’ve discussed here. For people who do well on political quizzes, their ideologies are more stable over time and more predictive of who they vote for.

Ideological Innocence

So it seems Converse was onto something. In the grand scheme of things, the general public doesn’t seem to have a developed ideology that they bring to thinking about politics. “Liberal” and “conservative” tend to carry little meaning as a way to identify one’s political opinions.

Political parties, on the other hand, carry lots of weight among the American public. These institutions have long defined elections and political allegiances. And although political knowledge is necessary for ideology to mean much, that’s not the case for partisanship. Party identities matter across the spectrum of political sophistication—both the most and least politically savvy people turn to “Democrat” and “Republican” labels as a way to define themselves.

One lesson to draw from all this is simply to be careful when treating the American public as organizing into clearly define ideological camps. This may be true to politically sophisticated civilians and politicians themselves, but it’s not how many Americans think about themselves and their political choices.

References

Converse, P. E. (1964). The nature of belief systems in mass publics. In D. E. Apter (Ed.), Ideology and discontent. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Kinder, D. R., & Kalmoe, N. P. (2017). Neither liberal nor conservative: Ideological innocence in the American public. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kalmoe, N. P. (in press). Uses and abuses of ideology in political psychology. Political Psychology