Policy Preferences and Mass Belief Systems

May 05, 2018

Analyzing data from the 1992-2012 American National Election Studies and a novel survey experiment, my government honors thesis argues that Americans base their political ideologies both off of their attitudes toward political and apolitical groups (mainly the ideological labels themselves) and off of their preferences for government policy.

The Role of Policy Preferences in Mass Belief Systems

How much do they matter, and what matters when they don’t?


What is ideological self-identification? Classic theories of political ideology may not produce an adequate answer for this modern construct that, while akin the familiar concept of “belief systems,” is certainly not identical. This thesis fills a gap between our classic understanding of Americans’ policy-based, “operationalized” ideology (Converse, 1964; Ellis and Stimson, 2012) and “symbolic” ideology driven by feelings toward and identification with social groups (Sniderman et. al., 1993; Ellis and Stimson, 2012; Mason, 2018). By using both policy preferences and social attitudes to predict self-identified ideology among respondents to the 1992-2012 American National Election Study surveys, I suggest that ideological identification is both issue and identity-based, with the latter holding more — but not all — of the weight in the system. Using a survey experiment of my own design I find that ideological identification has a small, but significant, impact on our policy preferences. These findings suggest a reevaluation of the role that policy preferences and social attitudes play in determine where voters place themselves along (or among) the political spectrum(s).

Read online.

Slides from defense.