Remembering Philip Converse

Just two weeks after Maurice Duverger passed away, a second giant of political science, Philip Converse, died, on Dec 30.

During his three-decade career, Converse authored foundational works across political behavior. But for me, he would be a giant with only one article. In 1964, Converse published The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics in an edited volume no less. John Zaller describes his Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, itself seminal, as “essentially a synthesis and extension” of this and another of Converse’s early papers. My own more modest book takes Converse as a jumping off point as well.

It’s safe to say that a large part of modern public opinion research is an extension of Converse’s work, and largely that one 1964 piece.

“Converse ’64,” as most political scientists would call it, relied on survey data of Americans. He laid out a number of insights about ideology (Converse preferred the term “belief system”) that are still underappreciated even today. Among the article’s insights:

  • Ideology is issue constraint. If your views on the war on terror, and on abortion, and on the minimum wage, and on police brutality all predict one another, then that’s ideology. Ideology is about knowing “what goes with what” among issue positions.
    This constraint is not necessarily logical. Some policy positions might be logically connected to others. But most ideological constraint is driven by adherence to some principles that ideologues socially agree go together, even if their logic is not as obvious to outsiders.
  • Most people are not very ideological. Converse estimated that only about 15 percent of voters were ideological or near ideological, such that they could think in terms of the principles that ideologues believe go together.
  • Most people instead think in terms of group attachment. Are you black? An evangelical? A small-business owner? Jewish? Male? Your political allegiance will be defined in part by who you think you are. These group attachments are the most central elements of any belief system, and what drive the constraint.
  • These things vary. Some voters are ideological. Others don’t even care about groups. As Figure 2 from Converse ’64 illustrates, those with low political knowledge have little to organize their political views. Then groups become very salient, to be replaced by ideological thinking among only the most informed.
  • Partisan identification is stable. Other more specific issue areas generally are less so.

There is more to the argument than these points, but they go a long way. And some things have changed. Probably more people are ideological now than in the 1960s, and the groups that matter have changed. Then, Protestant vs. Catholic was important. Now, it’s religious vs. secular. And the terminology we use now is more refined. We have made progress on how to understand public opinion in the last 50 years.

But if part of the mission of blogs like Mischiefs of Faction or The Monkey Cage (or this paper) is to communicate to journalists and other politicos some of the bedrock things that political scientists know, a lot of those things were outlined by Converse in 1964.

I had the pleasure of having lunch with Phil Converse while I was at Michigan in 2008-2010. We had a fun and (for me) very informative conversation. He then agreed to read a draft of some work that ended up being my book on ideology. He was very encouraging and liked the project, as I suppose he should have. After all, my research agenda was perhaps first described in … Converse ’64:

The second source of social constraint [the first was interests] lies in two simple facts about the creation and diffusion of belief systems: First, the shaping of belief systems of any range into apparently logical wholes that are credible to large numbers of people is an act of creative synthesis characteristic of only a miniscule proportion of any population. Second, to the extent that multiple idea-elements of a belief system are socially diffused from such creative sources, they tend to be diffused as “packages,” which consumers come to see as “natural” wholes, for they are presented in such terms (“If you believe this, then you will also believe that, for it follows in such-and-such ways”). (Converse 1964, p. 211)

This is how ideology works. And we were told about it fifty years ago.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Hans Noel

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.