Ideology and Party: Evidence of Republican Party Polarization?

What is the relationship between ideology and the two major U.S. political parties? Again, the answer seems obvious with respect to ordinary political discourse: the Democratic Party is liberal; the Republican Party is conservative. Taking the terms “liberal” and “conservative” at face value (that is, avoiding the sort of historical/conceptual analysis I suggested in a previous post), does the story really end here?

Using data from the 2012 American National Election Study, I’ve asked two questions about ideological labels and the major political parties. First, how do people who identify as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents refer to themselves ideologically?


There is some evidence here for the proposition that ideological polarization has been stronger for Republicans than for Democrats. The group of Democrats appears to include more ideological diversity than the group of Republicans.

Second, how do people perceive the ideologies of the two major parties as compared with their own ideology?


On this chart, ideology is plotted horizontally: 0 = liberal, 7 = conservative. Notice that those who identify with one of the two major parties perceive a strong correspondence between the party’s ideology and their own. As we might expect, those who identify as independents see themselves somewhere between the two major parties, ideologically. But notice also that while Democrats, Republicans, and independents all agree as to the ideological placement of the Republican Party, Republicans perceive the Democratic Party to be significantly more liberal than Democrats or independents believe it to be.

Finally, though, what does any of this have to do with the politics of equality? My next post will get at that question, asking what ideological labels tell us about political beliefs and preferences regarding material equality and inequality.

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