The Left and the Right
Some have argued that the use of the unidimensional or “left-right” understanding of ideology is archaic and outdated, and that modern politics and ideology is too complex to be understood through such a shallow lens. While ideology in a modern context is indeed often more complex than a simple binary “left-right” classification, that very scale is still widely used to this day – therefore, it must continue to have some use. The vast majority of the American public, for example, usually know whether they prefer liberal or conservative ideas – and thus are able to comfortably navigate the electoral process by choosing who to vote for (Jost, 2006). Additionally, most Americans are readily able and willing to place themselves on a unidimensional left-right or liberal-conservative scale (Jost, 2006) – a way to simplify their place within the political spectrum. So, while politics is more complex than this binary understanding of ideology, clearly the application of political ideologies remains useful to the democratic masses as a way of understanding the political environment, and where they stand within it.
Authoritarianism in a Modern Context
Democracy thrives on political participation – a field which can be quite complex for the average person to understand – but ideology can and does mobilise them to pursue such participation, and can further simplify this process (Hartleb, 2017). The recent rise of authoritarian attitudes and populist parties in democratic societies (Hartleb, 2017) further demonstrates that ideology, in a broader sense, is still a relevant factor in politics. Ideology’s connection with individual character further helps to appreciate and explain the continued existence and use of ideology in providing a political identity to the public, as identity and how one approaches issues can have a great impact on how one participates politically. America’s election of Donald Trump, for example, can certainly be attributed to the increased authoritarian attitudes found in democracies – which have themes of aggression (perceived to be authority sanctioned), submission to authority, and conventionalism (Altemeyer, 2004). In fact, it has even been argued that it was the authoritarian voters who rallied for, sanctioned, and even guaranteed Donald Trump’s populist rise to American Presidency (MacWilliams, 2016); especially considering how issues important to authoritarian personalities, such as terrorism and race, fuelled Trump’s campaign (MacWilliams, 2016). This is a valid observation, as it has also been proposed that authoritarian personalities have increasingly identified with the Republican party (which Trump is a member of) due to their conservative shift on certain policies such as abortion, which many authoritarians consider important (Wronski, 2014). This demonstrates that ideology is still present in modern democracies, but also that it remains a definitive tool used by the masses to create political identities, and thus as a guide to approaching elections and the navigation of politics more generally – and that it actively plays a role in choosing and influencing government.
The Incoherence of Ideology
It has also been argued that ideology is not relevant in modern democracies because the vast majority of the democratic public does not have coherent or loyal ideologies, and are rather defined by their unique positions on many individual issues, and an overall “non-attitudes” approach to politics (Converse, 2004). However; while most people have complicated and inconsistent ideologies, in actuality, this does not mean that ideology itself is irrelevant in this modern age. Ideology is at its most basic, a way of viewing the world, especially the political world, around us (Feldman, 2013). The masses don’t need coherent personal ideologies because they simply identify with the ones which most closely match their personal beliefs and attitudes. Identifying with a particular political ideology simplifies the way they approach politics and political issues, as it allows an overarching view of the world which allows an individual to then simply choose political representatives which match their ideology on only the most important of issues (Feldman, 2013). In fact, both sides of the political scale use their ideology to approach the same issues from completely different perspectives due to their ideological alignment (Conover & Feldman, 2004). So while the left and right hold common ideas and consider the same or similar issues important (Caprara & Vecchione, 2015), it is important to note that this ideological placement along the political spectrum holds meaningful differences in both a political and psychological dimension (Jost, 2006) – further evidence that ideology is important to understanding politics and the people within it, and that it is a useful tool in simplifying and guiding the public through the complex, issue-riddled maze that is politics.
Personality and Political Identity
The link between politics and personality is also a factor which demonstrates the presence and even importance of ideology in modern democratic societies. Personality (and perhaps even the biology that impacts personality) essentially effects how people respond to issues and what they consider important. It has been theorised that there are two psychological and personality factors which can influence and predict ideology; that is, openness to experience, which is strongly correlated to the political left, and conscientiousness, correlated to the political right (Feldman, 2013) – further illustrating that ideology is a valid way of interpreting how certain people deal with particular issues, and thus how they will view and behave in the political environment. Further supporting this, studies have shown that ideology – even when understood through the superficially null and void left-right scale – provides a useful way to successfully predict political preferences, and thus, how one navigates the political landscape and votes in elections (Caprara & Vecchione, 2018). The fact that ideology plays a role in the perceptions and behaviours of politicians and political elites (Kritzer, 1978) – and thus that ideology is not just a tool confined to the politically ignorant masses – further compounds and validates the persistence of ideology in mature democracies, and its importance as a guide in understanding and navigating politics.
In conclusion, ideology as a way of both understanding and navigating politics remains a tool of the masses and even elites to simplify a complex and nuanced institution. Despite claims that the unidimensional understanding of ideology is archaic, it remains a valid tool that the public readily use to define themselves and others within the field of politics – and though most of the public do in fact have inconsistent personal ideologies, they still use broader ideology to simplify the political and electoral processes. Personality and one’s general nature can directly influence an individual’s attitude toward certain issues, and thus their ideology and understanding of politics in general. Thus, ideology remains relevant to modern democracies through its links to personality and its continued use by people as a way to navigate and simplify the complex fields of politics and government.