Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public, a new book by political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe, makes a clear and compelling case that most voters neither fully understand nor particularly care about ideology. The book didn’t come out until late May, nearly six months after the election was decided. But its antecedents go way back. In fact, Kinder and Kalmoe bill their book as an update of a classic 1964 essay by the renowned political scientist Philip Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.If we are not very ideological, why are our politics so ugly?
Converse documented that five in six Americans lacked a meaningful understanding of what it even meant to be a liberal or a conservative. For them, politics was a clash not of ideologies but of interests and group loyalties. They chose their leaders by figuring out who was on their side.
About one in six voters—roughly 17 percent—did, however, think in ideological terms. Interestingly, this number hasn’t changed in fifty years. These voters are still consistent in their opinions from year to year, and pay close attention to politics. They consume lots of news, and tend to be well educated. If you’re reading this article in this magazine, chances are that you are one of them.
But for most people, politics is still about groups and identities. As Kinder and Kalmoe write, “public opinion arises primarily from the attachments and antipathies of group life.” We can’t escape from a basic fact: there is a “deep human predisposition to divide the social world into in-groups and out-groups.” . . .
Ideology and partisanship are different things. Ideology is an intellectual framework, a “form of cognition” that “supplies citizens with a stable foundation for understanding and action.” Partisanship is a form of teamsmanship, an almost fervid attachment to one’s own side. Ideology requires a detailed policy understanding to make sense of politics. With partisanship, all you need to know is whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. . . .
Democrats generally espouse “liberal” policy positions, while Republicans generally take “conservative” ones. Loyal followers of both parties make these positions their own. As a result, what passes for “conservative” or “liberal” is mostly just what party leaders say it is. And when what they say is inconsistent, most voters follow without worrying about the inherent contradictions. Witness, for example, how much Donald Trump has managed to change Republican public opinion on trade policy and Russia, while still calling his position “conservative”—much to the chagrin of the true conservative intellectuals, who have a well-reasoned set of principles to guide their thinking.
This very much agrees with my experience. I remember once talking to a kinsman of mine who always voted Republican but seemed to have no clear idea what policies Republicans stood for. As far as he was concerned. Democrats represent blacks, Hispanics, big-city atheists, and labor activists, and Republicans represent white suburbanites like him.
Sometime the whole business just baffles me, like ancient debates over Arianism or Iconoclasm. But sometimes it makes me worry that we might take our politics as team sports approach all the way to civil war.