Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Where does ideology come from?

Ideology remains one of the most difficult concepts in the study of political parties. We have a general sense that ideology is a way of sorting out "what goes with what." That way, people who want lower corporate taxes also tend to want more restrictions on abortions and fewer restrictions on handgun purchases, even though those three issues have essentially nothing to do with each other. But who decides what goes with what?

Hans Noel has come closer than anyone to answering this question. Be sure to check out this nice profile from Matt Yglesias of some of Hans' recent research, which looks at the role that pundits have played in organizing American ideologies since the 1850s. Hans finds evidence that public intellectuals basically built ideologies regarding slavery in the 1850s, civil rights in the 1960s, and abortion in the 1980s and constructed the debating spaces that the parties would occupy in the following years.

2 comments:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"[L]ooks at the role that pundits have played in organizing American ideologies since the 1850s. Hans finds evidence that public intellectuals basically built ideologies regarding slavery in the 1850s, civil rights in the 1960s, and abortion in the 1980s and constructed the debating spaces that the parties would occupy in the following years."

I'm pretty skeptical of that reading. Geographical tendencies in ideology are remarkably stable over time (much more so than political parties and ideology). For example, the states that were doves and hawks in foreign policy were virtually the same when George Washington was proposing the construction of the first naval ships to fight pirates in Tripoli as they are today. Electoral data show that this holds true right down to the county level. Initial migration patterns explain much of the rest of ideology-geography links, again suggesting very high levels of stability even as specific policies that represent the liberal or conservative direction shift. The civil rights debate was a very natural outgrowth of the debate over slavery. And, issues like abortion, civil rights, slavery, creationism and many more really have common and quite direct origins in the Second Great Awakening in the American South which can fairly be described as a moment of ethnogenesis of Southern Culture and identity (before then, the South was the most secular part of the United States).

I think a better read is that the revivalist ministers of the South (and various founding groups in the North) established ideologies and that pundits merely applied these ideologies in natural and direct ways to subsequent issues as they arose.

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