What the Heck is “Ideology” Again?

Matt Karp, a Princeton historian (and a past winner of C. Vann Woodward award–the best dissertation in Southern history in a given year) and a contributor to the Jacobin magazine, is extremely smart and insightful, but occasionally, frustratingly ignorant of what people talk about in political science, as seen in this article.  In a way, that’s a good thing.

The op-ed piece by Achen and Bartels that they are addressing is both insightful and frustrating because it tries to sidestep the problem that political science has never really confronted face to face:  defining “ideology” with anything approaching clarity.  At best, we have not moved beyond the original definition, in the early days of public opinion research, that “ideology” consists of a set of positions across multiple issue areas that “serious” people who supposedly pay attention to politics believe are somehow linked together.

The problem of course, is that, there is usually no clear logic behind their linkage, or indeed, what “really” goes with what.  As noted in a previous post, it is the same problem as in translation–we sort of know what a “liberal” and a “conservative” are much better than we can define “liberalism” and “conservatism,” so rather than try to rigorously define the rules (which may not even be possible–at least not to everyone’s satisfaction) we have simply avoided the question.  (This is why DW-Nominate and related techniques are so popular–we do not know what exactly “liberalism” is, but whatever it is, someone is a “liberal” if his score is less than -0.75 or something so we don’t need to care what exactly this “liberalism” thing is.)

One can be a bit more agnostic about trying to define ideology and still conceptualize the politics:  Converse and others, in the early days of public opinion research, disdained the “politically unsophisticated” (usually, the poor, undereducated, politically inattentive) for lacking consistent ideology.  In practice, they may be perfectly aware of the problems they face, but might be unsure of how the government can best address them:  I know I am having problems X, Y, and Z, but is raising taxes a good thing or a bad thing in response to these?  I don’t know!  This is hardly a revolutionary idea:  I can’t remember the specifics, Chris Achen himself has made much contribution to a more nuanced approach to understanding ideology, along these lines in fact, if I remember corectly.  Certainly, a long tradition in political science, especially the revolutionary work by Richard Fenno from long ago (which, unfortunately, gets neglected these days because it can’t be science(tm) because it doesn’t measure stuff) points out that, in presence of much uncertainty, trust in persons and symbols trumps “ideology” as defined in terms of specific policy positions.

Perhaps 2016 is reminding us to bring back the old insights we have shunted aside in search of what we thought was the better “science” because, in search of things to measure, we have committed a grave sin of selection bias.  Not everything that can be measured offers insights and there are potentially valuable insights that cannot be easily measured and quantified.  Somewhat ironically, 538 offers this charming story about fuzzy logic–something that may or may not lead us out of this mess.  The following passage is worth a few moments of thought:

“When Zadeh attended conferences, one of his Berkeley colleagues, William Kahan, often shadowed him to give public rebuttals, recalled Heidar Malki, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston who specializes in fuzzy logic. One encounter between the men was chronicled in a 2002 journal series: “Fuzzy theory is wrong — wrong and pernicious,” Kahan said. “The danger of fuzzy theory is that it will encourage the sort of imprecise thinking that brought us to so much trouble.” Such thinking, he and other mathematicians lamented, didn’t require the rigor demanded by probability theory, the kind of logic we most often use here at FiveThirtyEight. That approach was seen as the only path to true knowledge.”

Well, real people don’t do probability theory, at least not very precisely.  That doesn’t mean they don’t think or their thoughts can and should be ignored.  Sanders and Trump are showing that, occasionally, we should pay attention.

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3 thoughts on “What the Heck is “Ideology” Again?

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