Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the early days of the 2016 campaign, many pundits seemed certain that Donald Trump couldn’t win the Republican nomination, because he was not a real conservative. The Republican base, conventional wisdom had it, would demand a hard-core ideologue—someone who was, in Mitt Romney’s tortured phrasing, “severely conservative.” Conservative intellectuals observed darkly that the real estate developer was, in fact, a former Democrat, lacking both principles and a true conservative ideology. But Republican voters either didn’t notice or didn’t care—or, most likely, both.

Neither Liberal nor
Conservative: Ideological
Innocence in the
American Public
Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
by Donald R. Kinder
and Nathan P. Kalmoe 
University of Chicago Press, 224 pp.

Trump instinctively understood this. Instead of studying up to pass conservative litmus tests, Trump talked about “winning” and “losing.” He was a fighter, not an ideologue. If you voted for Trump, you were picking a winner. And weren’t you tired of losing?

Pundits and writers didn’t grasp the appeal, because for them, politics was and is first and foremost about principles. But they live in a rarified high-information world of fellow travelers who have also devoted their lives to said principles. For most voters, principles are a lot more flexible. And a fair amount of research suggests that, for them, politics is a team sport, and they mostly just want to be on the winning side.

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.

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.”

Roughly half of Americans decline to call themselves a “liberal” or a “conservative.” From 1972 to 2012, slightly more than a quarter (27.5 percent, on average) declined to pick a category at all, and roughly a quarter (24.5 percent, on average) chose to call themselves a “moderate.” But as Kinder and Kalmoe write, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.”

When asked whether they are “liberal,” “moderate,” or “conservative,” many people may choose to call themselves “moderate” because it feels like the judicious choice. Beltway pundits often get confused by this self-identification, because in Washington “moderate” usually means “centrist.” For most people, however, “moderate” just implies sensible and not extremist.

But “moderates” do not form a meaningful voting bloc. They are all over the map on self-reported issue positions, and generally tend to be less informed about politics. And because they have no coherent ideology, no single coherent political program appeals to them.

Even many who identify as “liberal” or “conservative” may simply be expressing a kind of group attachment rather than reflecting a well-worked-out and stable political worldview. Repeated surveys show, as Kinder and Kalmoe also note, that “ideological identification is connected to membership in social groupings. . . . Blacks are liberal; whites are conservatives. Jews and secularists lean to the left; Protestants to the right.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is the remarkable stability of data: Converse’s 1964 paper was based on survey data from 1956 and 1960, a time when American politics was far less polarized, and a time in which sociologist Daniel Bell could plausibly write a book called The End of Ideology. Americans in general were not nearly as well educated, and access to political news was far more limited. Yet the ideological innocents still outnumbered ideological thinkers by about five to one.

What about the rapid increase in polarization between 1972 and 2012? Yes, “the ideological center has shrunk,” say Kinder and Kalmoe. But that change has been remarkably slow. As the authors write, “Americans, one could say, are inching their way toward an ideologically divided society.”

The big change is that America has become more partisan. And this is a key point: 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.

And after all, this is how political life is organized. People don’t support the liberal or the conservative party. They support Democrats or Republicans. As Kinder and Kalmoe note, “citizens are regularly offered the opportunity to act on their partisanship: to vote, argue, work on a campaign, give money, register, show up at a rally, and more. Such behavioral commitments reinforce and strengthen partisanship.” By contrast, “[t]here is nothing like this for ideology. . . . Parties are material realities in a way that ideologies are not.”

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.

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.

Neither Liberal nor Conservative is a slender volume, and a fast and clear read. It’s also a standard political science book, with the comprehensive theory that most Americans don’t think about politics in ideological terms, even if pundits do. But this targeted focus comes with limitations. For one, the very important point that group loyalties structure politics more than ideology gets tossed off as an aside at the end, with instructions to read Kinder’s earlier works on the subject.

For another, even if the public is mostly nonideological, ideology still has a crucial role to play in politics. The activists and policymakers and intellectuals who shape public policy are high-information ideological thinkers, and the ideologues who organize their thinking have profound influence on politics, since they set the agenda. (The book to read on this topic is Hans Noel’s excellent Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America.)

Kinder and Kalmoe also ignore the possibility that there might be other coherent ideologies besides the plain-vanilla “liberal” and “conservative,” but this omission reflects a larger problem with how political scientists have conducted surveys and thought about ideology for decades.

Still, Neither Liberal nor Conservative stands as an important corrective to the prevailing narrative that American voters are becoming more ideological. They are not. They are becoming more partisan. An optimistic takeaway is that politicians and parties have more flexibility than we might think they do. If ideology is somewhat rigid and prescriptive, partisanship is opportunistic, and perhaps even pragmatic. President Trump may yet pivot to the political middle, and if he does, many Republicans will come along for the ride if that’s what it now means to be a Republican. But if Trump is like most Americans in not being an ideologue, he is also like most Americans in seeing politics as a zero-sum battle between “us” and “them,” between “winners” and “losers.” In the end, this may turn out to be even more dangerous than ideology. Principles at least provide some limits and emphasize reason. But group-based conflict, being based primarily on emotion, lacks those same constraints.

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Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the New America Political Reform program and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.