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The Changing Nature of Mass Belief Systems: The Rise of Concept Ideologues & Policy Wonks


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 (Campbell et al., 1960; Converse, 1964) were coded in 2000.  This paper shows that the percentage with well-developed belief systems based on a clear understanding of public policy choices has increased substantially 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.  Unlike respondents whom I classify as “concept ideologues” in this paper, policy wonks do not employ overarching concepts such as liberalism/conservatism or the scope of government.  Rather, policy wonks just refer to at least three public policy stands when asked what they like and dislike about the major parties and presidential candidates.  Although it was very rare for citizens in the 1950s to show a clear belief system based on the specific choices of government action, today’s highly intense and polarized policy debates have made programmatic-oriented belief systems quite common.  A close examination of policy wonks shows that they are just as politically knowledgeable and consistent on issue dimensions as concept ideologues (i.e., those who employ ideological terms).  Hence, policy wonks possess a well-defined belief system based on employing an understanding of public policy, thereby befitting Converse’s criteria for classification at the top level of conceptualization.   

The substantial increases in both concept ideologues and policy wonks accounts for virtually all of the increase since the 1980s in respondents whose partisanship matches their ideology (i.e., conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats).  Not only are respondents at the top of levels of conceptualization more numerous than they used to be, but being more consistent than they used to be has led to a marked increase in the overall correspondence between partisanship and ideology.  On the other hand, the decrease in ideologically inconsistent partisans (i.e., liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats) has occurred across all conceptualization levels.  Thus, party polarization is a combination of:  1) better-developed belief systems increasing ideological-partisan consistency; and 2) partisan sorting decreasing partisans who are out step with their party’s ideological stance.

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 2008 and 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) responses that I personally coded.  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 at the top level of ideological conceptualization.  Second, the voters who supported Trump in the Republican primaries were much less likely to be ideologues or policy wonks 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. 

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