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No, Americans Are Not Polarized By Ideology

Most people do not possess a system of logical constraints when it comes to politics.

The conservative intelligentsia’s failed assault on Donald Trump during the GOP primaries was, in my view, the most interesting and perhaps the most important moment of the entire 2016 election cycle. Convinced that Trump threatened conservatism and the Republican Party, most of the notable figures of the conservative movement uniformly declared that Trump was not fit to be the Republican nominee. This struggle crested in an entire issue of National Review dedicated to denouncing Trump.

Throughout most of 2015, leading conservative pundits and intellectuals were confident that Trump was a brief sideshow, one that would ultimately become nothing more than a curious historical footnote. Secure in the knowledge that a critical mass of Republican primary voters are “true conservatives,” most of the Beltway right was confident that, once the primaries and caucuses were underway, the Republican Party in the electorate would recognize Trump’s flaws and settle on a more conventional candidate.

Given all that these pundits “knew” about Republicans in the electorate, they mistakenly believed GOP voters would never line up behind a candidate whose support for conservative principles was perfunctory and clearly insincere. And why would Republicans want an ideologically-problematic candidate like Trump when they had plenty of Tea Party conservatives to choose from, including Ten Cruz, who was more of a Reaganite than Reagan?

But as it turned out, few Republican voters cared what George Will, Glenn Beck, Bill Kristol, or Erick Erickson thought about Donald Trump. As I predicted at the time, the conservative anti-Trump crusade was mostly ineffectual. The “leaders” of the conservative movement don’t actually have many followers.

Anti-Trump conservatives were surprised by their failure because they did not understand the nature of the electorate.

Although the 2016 presidential election is not mentioned in the text at all, Neither Liberal Nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public, a new book by political scientists Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe, is essential reading for those conservatives who were shocked by Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party. The book makes a case that will frustrate ideologues across the spectrum: the overwhelming majority of Americans hold no meaningful ideological convictions.

Kinder and Kalmoe’s argument is not original. They acknowledge that their project is a reexamination of Philip Converse’s seminal 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 (and many political scientists thought he was wrong even then), 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. Nor are Americans moderates in the sense that they fall in between liberalism and conservatism. It would be more accurate to simply not label them as anything.

Although true ideologues exist, they are found primarily among elites. Outside the Beltway, newsrooms, and state capitals, ideological thinking is uncommon. In Converse’s original estimation, about 2.5 percent of Americans could be classified as genuine ideologues. And it is worth noting that Converse set a very low bar for such a classification; almost any evidence of abstract ideological thinking was enough to earn such a classification. Kinder and Kalmoe’s work suggests very little has changed.

So what are we to make of all the apparent evidence for a polarized electorate?

Although Americans, on average, are not ideological, we are partisan. Our emotional attachments to political parties are real and enduring. But for most of us, our party identification is not the result of our ideological inclinations. If anything, it’s the opposite. After deciding that we are Republicans or Democrats, we start to also call ourselves conservatives or liberals, even if we have little understanding of what those terms mean.

This is a key point about polarization that is so often missed. 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.

Kinder and Kalmoe spend most of their book tearing down the idea that Americans are ideological. But their project is not just a work of destruction. In their closing pages, they argue that partisan politics is ultimately rooted in identity politics: “Public opinion arises, we say, primarily from the attachments and antipathies of group life.”

This will be discomfiting news to those conservative pundits who insist that, in the realm of politics, “ideas have consequences.” Or to quote National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, conservatives “hoist their ideas up a flagpole and then see who salutes.” That may very well be how conservative journalists view their role in American life, but the people who salute those conservative ideas do not do so because they have been persuaded via dispassionate, logical consideration. Instead, most of us determine our party identification and our ideological orientation (to the extent that we have one) based on our social identities.

If this makes politics sound overly simplistic, it is worth noting that social identity is complex. Most people do not define themselves entirely by a single characteristic. As Kinder and Kalmoe note:

For people who are completely identified with an in-group – the ardent feminist – or who are entirely consumed by hatred of an out-group – the fanatical racist – political views will be organized around this one commitment. But for the rest of us, which aspects of identity and attitude become important – which are activated – depends upon political circumstance. As a general matter, group-centered politics requires that citizens see a connection between some political dispute and some visible social grouping.

This section of the book, while well-grounded in pre-existing literature, was too short. I hope the authors pursue a follow-up project that develops these ideas further, although Kinder himself has already done some of this work in a previous book, Us Against Them.

Kinder and Kalmoe do not long dwell on the potential consequences of their findings, but they can be inferred. As suggested above, if their argument is correct, then some form of identity politics is probably inevitable. And rather than formulating coherent ideological arguments, the real role of political and cultural elites is determining which aspects of personal identity are salient and politically consequential.

This book also suggests that parties and politicians have more discretion when it comes to policy than most ideologues would prefer. The average Republican voter does not really care if his or her party maintains ideological consistency; there is a reason the charge of RINO (“Republican in name only”) so rarely leads to primary election defeats. Ideological progressives can be similarly frustrated that Democratic voters so rarely punish their party when it betrays basic progressive principles.

Neither Liberal Nor Conservative is a short book and can be read in an afternoon. It is aimed at an academic audience, and as such takes it for granted that readers will know how to interpret probit models and other statistical methods, but the authors explained their results with sufficient clarity that an intelligent reader should have no problem following its arguments. I advise ideologues of all inclinations to read this book and consider its implications for mass-based political movements.

George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, White Voters in 21st Century America, and Making Sense of the Alt-Right (forthcoming).



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