I’m an elite and a very high information voter. You probably are too. The idea that most people don’t make their political decisions based on ideology is somewhere between odd and crazy. However, it seems to be true…
If you asked an average voter in 2000 whether they were liberal, moderate, conservative, or none of the above, their answer was only 63 percent predictive of what they’d tell you two years later. For voters with very little political knowledge, ideological identity is so fragile it’s probably not even worth calling it an identity. If you are a diehard liberal or conservative who hasn’t changed your views in 20 years, look at this table and reflect on just how unusual you are.
These findings pose a profound challenge to traditional models of politics. In theory, ideology comes first and party comes second. We decide whether we’re for single-payer health care, or same-sex marriage, or abortion restriction, and then we choose the party that most closely fits our ideas. You’re a liberal and so you become a Democrat; you’re a conservative and so you become a Republican.
The truth, it seems, is closer to the reverse: We choose our party for a variety of reasons — chief among them being the preferences of our family members, core groups, and community — and then we sign on to their platforms. In this telling, write Kinder and Kalmoe, “ideological identification is primarily an effect, not a cause, of a person’s political views.”
This theory makes a prediction: If party identification is stronger than ideological identification, then as parties change their ideological identities, their loyalists will change with them, rather than abandoning them. And that’s a lot closer to what we see. The exception is high-information voters, who keep their party identification and ideological identification linked.
“One enduring lesson to carry forward is an appreciation for the deep divide between elites and publics,” write Kinder and Kalmoe. For elites, politics is driven by ideology, and that seems like the most natural thing in the world. But it’s not, and it’s hard for highly ideological actors to appreciate just how weird they really are.