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In today’s world of intense ideological conflict at the elite level, the nature of mass belief systems has changed dramatically since the last time Converse’s famous levels of conceptualization were coded in 2000. This paper shows that the percentage of ideologues has doubled since then. It also introduces a new category termed “Policy Wonks” to reflect a sub-category that Converse only referred to in passing but which is now quite common. Policy wonks do not make reference to overarching concepts such as liberalism/conservatism or the scope of government, but they mention at least three public policy stands when asked what they like and dislike about the major parties and candidates.
Given that 21st century political debates have become so highly polarized and intense, it is to be expected that many people will form a coherent belief system by assessing the various policy issues of the day. A close examination of policy wonks shows that they are just as politically knowledgeable and consistent on issue dimensions as are traditional ideologues. Hence, policy wonks clearly express a well-defined belief system, thereby befitting Converse’s basic criteria for being counted as ideologues.
The substantial increase in ideologues accounts for virtually all of the increase in conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats since the 1980s. Though ideologues are no more consistent now, the fact that there are so many more of them has led to a marked increase in people whose ideological labeling matches their partisanship. On the other hand, the decrease in ideologically inconsistent partisans (i.e, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats) is found across all conceptualization levels. Thus, party polarization is found to be a combination of: 1) better developed belief systems increasing ideological-partisan consistency; and 2) sorting decreasing partisans who are out step with their party’s platform.
Past research has shown that Republicans are substantially more likely to be ideologues whereas Democrats are much more inclined to conceptualize politics in terms of group benefits. This pattern was quite evident in the ANES 2012 data. However, two developments occurred in 2016 that dramatically reshaped the partisan nature of belief systems. First, the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party evidenced a great deal of ideological thinking, thereby pushing Democrats to a record percentage of ideologues. Second, the voters who supported Trump in the Republican primaries were much less likely to be ideologues than those who supported more traditional Republican candidates. These developments combined to make Democrats and Republicans more similar than ever before in terms of ideological conceptualization in 2016. If Democrats maintain their newfound ideological fervor and Republicans return to their normal belief system pattern, then the nature of mass belief systems will move even further towards the ideologue camp in the future.