The book makes a case that will frustrate ideologues across the spectrum: the overwhelming majority of Americans hold no meaningful ideological convictions.Hawley then asks, if Americans have no ideology, then why are we so partisan? Because of an irrational, personal, emotional attachment to our party:
Kinder and Kalmoe’s argument is not original. They acknowledge that their project is a reexamination of Philip Converse’s 1964 article, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” In that controversial piece, Converse argued that most people do not possess a system of logical constraints when it comes to politics; their policy preferences are not bounded by a set of abstract ideals. In fact, most people do not even understand what the major ideological categories stand for.
Much has changed since 1964, and one might argue that, even if Converse’s analysis was correct in 1964, ideology is surely important to Americans in today’s polarized climate. But Kinder and Kalmoe carefully examined multiple data sources, trying to find some indication of ideological thinking among the general public. Again and again, they found scant evidence to support the notion that Americans are bitterly divided into competing ideological camps. . . .
The anger, fear, and mistrust in American politics is real. Polarization is not “fake news.” But political polarization is not ideological in nature. The battle lines are not, ultimately, about the proper size of government, or the trade-off between liberty and equality. Nor is there a vast chasm between Republicans and Democrats on most major policy issues.As Kinder and Kalmoe put it,
Public opinion arises, we say, primarily from the attachments and antipathies of group life.That gets me back to my sense that the most important document for understanding human life was Meerkat Manor, a semi-reality show about all the ways social mammals drive each other crazy.
In one way this analysis is encouraging, because it suggests that even if people are wedded to their identities they can change their views about important issues. For example, from the 1960s to the early 2000s one of the key planks of Republicanism was getting tough on crime. This started to shift as the great crime wave eased, sociologists kept harping on the harm to communities that had lost so many men to prison, and Republican lawmakers began to worry more about spending than crime. And then Trump came along and brought tough on crime talk back, which is too bad, but anyway the story shows that just because people have a fixed identity as conservatives doesn't mean they have fixed views about mandatory minimum sentences.
The problem with our non-ideological partisanship is the way important issues can get caught between the clashing rocks of partisanship and mangled to bits. Like what seems to be happening with healthcare now. It has become a conservative article of faith that Obamacare is bad and must be repealed, so Republicans are bound and determined to do it, whether their replacement bill makes any sense or not, even if the only way to get is passed is to keep it secret until after the vote. Rational discussion of immigration has been ended by a war of suspicion: progressives suspect that all immigration restrictions are just codified racism, and Trumpists suspect that all immigration is a progressive plot to flood the electorate with anti-American voters.
To make progress it is necessary to abstract the issues from the partisan background; it is worth pointing out that some important criminal justice reforms were made in single-party states like Georgia where partisan wrangling was curtailed by the collapse of one party.
Once we get past the name-calling, a majority of Americans agree on a bunch of issues. There ought to be a way to give those agreements political force.