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The difficulty of leftist politics

January 9, 2015

In preparation for the beginning of my first semester as a Master’s student in Political Science, I’ve been revisiting some old works to refresh my memory. Of particular interest is a paper by Philip E. Converse from the 1960s titled The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.

The main takeaway from the article is that most people don’t have a logically coherent ideology that guides their political actions. There is a fairly sharp distinction to be drawn between political ideologues and near-ideologues, who make up about 15% of the population and whose political views are largely coherent, and the rest of the population, who have political belief systems that aren’t very far-ranging or logically consistent. In short, as a person’s political information and engagement decreases, so does the consistency among different positions.

Within this discussion, Converse touches on a difference between leftist and rightist politics and political elites which I have often observed but have struggled to state clearly. Converse comes pretty close with the following passages:

“[I]deologically constrained belief systems are necessarily more common in upper than in lower social strata. This fact in turn means that upper social strata across history have much more predictably supported conservative or rightist parties and movements than lower strata have supported leftist parties and movements.”

And in the next paragraph:

“The net result of these circumstances is that the elites of leftist parties enjoy a “natural” numerical superiority, yet they are cursed with a clientele that is less dependable or solid in its support. The rightist elite has a natural clientele that is more limited [smaller] but more dependable.”

So a working class Democrat is more likely to buck his party’s ideology and support conflicting beliefs because she is more likely to be a low-information voter than a typical Republican. Wealth confers an ability to gain education and engage more in public affairs, so wealthy interests are naturally better organized and more consistent.

The study also makes clear that the non-ideological voters tend mostly toward thinking in terms of group interests. This is somewhat of a silver lining, as increased education among poorer voters can help them to discern their class interests and behave in a more advantageous way in the political arena. I think the conclusions also support a general contention that the non-voting part of the electorate probably tends toward working class and leftist issue positions.

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