A big thanks to Christian Gonzalez for his insightful and civil critique of my previous blog post in which I argued that the political spectrum is a fiction. As it turns out, the main thrust of his counterargument doesn’t go against my position at all and is entirely consonant with the “social theory of ideology.” Gonzalez points out that each political tribe deploys persistent rhetorical tropes, but this is a separate issue from whether or not there is an essence underlying and validating the political spectrum.

The social theory of ideology simply makes the commonsensical claim that there is more than one issue in politics (e.g., abortion, income taxes, immigration, affirmative action, military action, etc.). This should not be controversial, but far too many people — including virtually all pundits, commentators, academics, and politicians in America today — adhere to the strange notion that there is actually just one single, essential issue (such as “change,” “equality,” or “tradition”) underlying and binding all others that we can model on a political spectrum.

To illustrate how Gonzalez’s insights harmonize with my own, let’s review how each theory views the relationship between political principles, positions, and tribes:

The essentialist theory says that those on the left or right:

  1. Start with an essential principle
  2. Use this principle to adopt a set of political positions
  3. Join the political tribe (left or right) that just happens to agree with them on all those positions

The social theory, by contrast, says that this is backward and that those on both the left and the right:

  1. Begin by anchoring into a political tribe
  2. Adopt all the positions of that tribe as a matter of socialization
  3. Invent a story to explain how all those positions grow out of a single essence

When Gonzalez makes the point that “equality” is a common rhetorical trope on the left, he’s simply substantiating point 3 of the social theory. The fact that there is more “equality” talk on the left than the right says nothing about equality being the essence of the left; it only tells us that people on the left are more likely to invent stories about how equality unites the many unrelated positions their tribe stands for.

Astrologers do the same thing, and enduring rhetorical tropes validate the essentialist theory of ideology no more than they do the astrological theory of personality. For instance, astrologers have consistently told creative ex-post stories to justify the claim that all Leos (people born between July 23 and August 22) manifest a common set of traits (e.g., courage, laziness, stubbornness, honesty), but we know these traits don’t naturally cohere because there is no correlation between them except among the small proportion of the population that believes in astrology. This shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the correlation of “Leo characteristics” is entirely a function of conformity to a false category.

This is precisely how we know beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no essence behind left-right ideological categories. Study after study has confirmed that there is no correlation between the various beliefs of left or right except among that small proportion of the people who have been socialized into the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) left-right way of thinking. The categories of the political spectrum, it turns out, are just as fictitious as astrological signs.

I thank Gonzalez for making the important point that there are persistent rhetorical tropes among our ideological tribes (just as there are persistent rhetorical tropes among astrologers), but he would likely agree that this doesn’t militate in favor of the essentialist theory of ideology any more than common stories about the courage, laziness, stubbornness, and honesty of Leos militate in favor of astrology. We can use the language of equality to justify school choice or abortion restriction (many conservatives, in fact, do exactly that) just as easily as we can use it to justify public school or abortion freedom, but stories do not essences create (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”).

Now to another issue Gonzalez raises where we might have a fundamental disagreement. He says, “The difference between left and right, however, is not the same thing as the division between Democrats and Republicans.” This was certainly true earlier in American history — both Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson were progressives, for instance — but it no longer is. In the 21st century, left-right ideologies have become coterminous with their associated parties, and as the parties evolve, the ideologies evolve right along with them. Fifteen years ago, Republicans and self-described conservatives believed strongly in free trade and the Iraq War, but as soon as Donald Trump rose to leadership of the Republican Party and repudiated both free trade and the Iraq War, Republicans and self-described conservatives flipped to the opposite view on each of these issues.

In their study of American political beliefs, Jeremy Pope and Michael Barber expected to find “principled” ideologues behaving differently than “tribal” partisans, but instead found that partisans and ideologues were equally tribal. Conservatives and liberals were just as likely to shift their views with social priming as were Republicans and Democrats. There was, they noticed, no difference between the views and behaviors of a “strong conservative” and a “strong Republican” or a “strong liberal” and a “strong Democrat.” Republican and conservative and Democrat and liberal, they found, were synonymous.

If parties were independent of ideology, we would expect to see conservatives holding fast to “essential” conservative principles (such as free trade) even as the Republican Party turned against them. Instead, when the Republican Party changes what it stands for, conservatives change their views accordingly and then, predictably, invent ex-post stories using the same rhetorical tropes (e.g., “tradition”) to justify these new, opposite positions. This and dozens of other similar historical episodes demonstrate conclusively that party and tribe come first, and beliefs and stories come second, just as the social theory predicts.

Many journalists, such as Jonah Goldberg and Ezra Klein, have finally conceded this point, and perhaps Gonzalez can concede the point too. As Klein put it,

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.


Thanks, again, to Christian Gonzalez for engaging in this interesting and thought-provoking debate. I look forward to reading more of his scholarship on ideology in the future.