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What Is Ideology?

• August 06, 2013 • 8:00 AM


Why do those who support universal health care almost always also desire a ban on assault weapons? Ideology is more than just the sum total of our own individual political beliefs. An ideology is, in some ways, like a coalition of ideas.

Recently, Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz and John McTague posted an interesting piece here at Pacific Standard about the role of Jewish U.S. senators in promoting the acceptance of same-sex marriage among American political leaders. Noting that Jewish senators were among the earliest to back same-sex marriage, they conclude, “The Jewish faith has an unmistakably liberalizing effect on the Democratic Party, including LGBT rights.”

I responded with an analysis at Mischiefs of Faction noting that ideology, rather than religion, does a better job explaining when senators endorsed same-sex marriage. It was the more liberal senators who backed it first, and Jews happen to be among the more liberal senators, at least in part because they represent more liberal states.

Conservatives have a heightened startle response relative to liberals; they startle more easily when exposed to loud noises or shocking images.

But that answer isn’t entirely complete. After all, what is it that makes some people liberals and others conservatives? Yes, our religious practices are part of the story; Jews have tended to lean left and evangelical Christians have tended to lean right in recent decades, and in general, those who report attending religious services weekly tend to be more conservative than those who attend less often.

But religion is just one of many influences that cause us to believe the things we do. We tend to hold many of the same political beliefs as our parents. Some of that is due to the things that they teach us, either overtly or through example. Some of that is because we tend to belong to the same religion as our parents, befriend similar sorts of people, and have similar jobs and incomes. And there’s at least some evidence that they transmit their ideologies to us genetically.

And these beliefs make a real difference in how we perceive not just politics, but the world in general. Some interesting recent research suggests that conservatives’ brains work very differently from liberals’ brains. For example, conservatives have a heightened startle response relative to liberals; they startle more easily when exposed to loud noises or shocking images. Conservatives and liberals use different parts of their brains when evaluating risk, too: Democrats tend to use the insula, which is used in the monitoring of one’s internal feelings, while Republicans tend to use the amygdala, which is the brain’s threat response center.

But ideology is more than just the sum total of our own individual political beliefs. An ideology is, in some ways, like a coalition of ideas. As Jon Stewart wrote:

Do you support universal health care? Then you must also want a ban on assaults weapons. Pro-limited government? Congratulations, you are also anti-abortion. Luckily, all human opinion falls neatly into one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus, the two-party system elegantly reflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought.

He’s not really wrong about this. Ideology is essentially a determination of what issues go with what other issues. As Kathleen Bawn argues, ideology is what gets us to care about an issue in which we have no direct, material stake. “Many men,” she writes, “strongly support (or oppose) abortion rights, even if they believe that their own wives and daughters would never have an abortion.”

How do we end up determining just what goes with what? As Hans Noel shows in his forthcoming book, ideological coalitions are cobbled together over long periods of time by journalists, intellectuals, and activists—what he calls the “coalition merchants.” For example, economic and racial liberals were forming a civil rights coalition in magazines and the op/ed pages of American newspapers a good two decades before any members of Congress ended up voting along these coalitional lines. It is these ideological coalitions that determine what parties will be arguing about in the coming decades. Assemble the right coalition, and you can control a party. Control a winning party, and you can run the country. (Please see this award-winning article [PDF] by Bawn, Noel, Marty Cohen, David Karol, John Zaller, and me for more details.)

Ideology is thus one of the most important (if least well-understood) concepts in American politics. We know it determines the political behavior of parties, politicians, activists, and voters, and it profoundly structures the way we view the political world. But we’re still struggling to understand just what brings an ideology into existence, how it survives and adapts in changing political circumstances, and how its messages are transmitted from one person to another. To return to the example from above, why would a heterosexual liberal support marriage rights for gay couples? Possibly the best answer we have right now is, because that’s the sort of thing that a liberal would do.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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