How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics

The forthcoming article “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publicsby Eric GroenendykErik O. Kimbrough, and Mark Pickup is summarized by the authors below. 

Since the publication of Converse’s classic chapter on the nature of belief systems in mass publics, scholars have expressed concern about Americans’ apparent lack of ideological consistency. The concern is that, if voters’ belief systems are unconstrained by an ideology, they may be unable to develop coherent preferences over candidates and platforms and thus will struggle to ensure that democracy holds elites accountable.  We point out that the normative implications of the large literature confirming Converse’s findings depend crucially on how we think about the nature of ideology.  The validity of these concerns depends crucially on the extent to which ideological constraint arises from principled reasoning, as it is often assumed, or from pressure to conform to identity-based norms established by ideological elites, as we theorize.  

If ideological constraint is the product of norm conformity pressure, the normative implications of Americans’ famous lack of ideology are completely changed. Lack of constraint may not be the product of ignorance (or “innocence” as it is often termed in the literature). It may instead reflect pragmatism—knowingly preferring some policies despite their inconsistency with doctrine. Furthermore, to the extent norms are shaped by political elites, voters who show ideological constraint may actually be more susceptible to elite influence than pragmatists who are happy to “agree to disagree.” 

To test our norm conformity theory of ideology, we combine widely used survey questions measuring individuals’ own policy preferences with an incentivized coordination game that separately measures their knowledge of what other ideological group members expect them to believe.  This allows us to distinguish knowledge of ideological norms—what liberals and conservative believe ought to go with what–from adherence to those norms when expressing personal preferences.  We then assess whether conformity pressure causes ideological conformity using a question order experiment that varies whether ideological norms are primed prior to eliciting preferences.  

Our results confirm that a significant portion of what has been defined as ignorance (or “innocence”) can be attributed to pragmatism. And when ideological group norms are primed prior to measuring personal policy preferences, ideological conformity rises.  This suggests that ideological constraint is at least partially attributable to norm conformity pressure.  Together these findings raise doubts about whether ideology is actually desirable or if it instead allows elites to reverse the direction of democratic accountability by shaping the very norms that define what it means to be a “good liberal” or “good conservative”. 

About the Authors: Eric Groenendyk is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Memphis, Erik O. Kimbrough is a Professor of Economics at Chapman University, and Mark Pickup is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. Their research “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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