American politics is dominated by the idea that political ideology falls on a single axis from liberal to conservative or left to right. The rhetoric used by both politicians and the electorate emphasize this dichotomous view and often times leaves little room for other conceptions of ideology. The single axis conception of ideology can impact politics by activating group identity, framing perceptions of candidates and providing information. Though the effects can be empirically identified the desirability of this situation is far more difficult to determine.
The terms liberal and conservative have different meanings and affect associated with them depending on the individual involved. Those that self-identify as liberal or conservative will have immediate reactions to both terms since the terms identify the in-group and out-group. Group identity is so ingrained into the human psyche that it activates without any effort or volition on the part of the individual. Group identity makes a person more or less susceptible to persuasion based on whether it comes from the in-group or out-group. Also it causes an instant affective response in which in-group members are perceived better than the out-group. In addition group identity activates group norms and their corresponding sanctions and rewards associated with the norms. All of this can take place in a split second without the individual consciously choosing to do this. The in-group bias, openness to in-group persuasion and activation of group norms all combine such that individuals are more easily influenced and motivating by information coming from an in-group source. This can be both a boon and a bane. Group identity can leave individuals open to manipulation by those who wish to utilize group affiliation for their own benefit. By crafting rhetoric and propaganda properly one can activate group identity and reduce the amount in-group members question the material. On the other hand group identity can frequently be a useful guide for group interests. Overall members of the same group share many interests in common and benefits to the group often benefit the individual members of the group as well. So it can be rational to follow group interest despite the fact that group identity can be used to manipulate individuals.
While in-group identification can open up an individual to manipulation, out-group identification can close an individual off from pertinent information. Just as in-group sources of information are more persuasive; out-group sources of information are perceived as less persuasive. In fact individuals may outright discard information due to the source without evaluating the quality of the information. That can leave members of the out-group unable and/or unwilling to consider the counter-arguments to policies, political candidates or legislation. Thus it could deprive some of the necessary means to make rational choices in their own self-interest. But it is also true that out-group actions may not benefit the in-group to the same degree. Also opposition to the out-group may be based in some manner on group-interest which often coincides with self-interest. So opposition to the out-group may well be in the rational interests of the individual.
Unfortunately considering how ingrained liberal and conservative conceptions of ideology are in the US it is unlikely to change. Though even if it could change it would be questionable about whether that is desirable. The fact is that regardless of how ideology is conceptualized there will always be group identities associated with ideology and there will always be a bias for the in-group as opposed to the out-group. Even if there were more numerous and diverse ideologies in American politics the situation would be very similar. Some people would identify with one ideology or another and those identities would influence their behavior. Maybe the impact would be reduced some if ideologies were far more numerous since the groups would be smaller thus limited the impact any given ideology could have on politics overall. But that is unlikely considering the number of identities the human psyche is capable of dealing with and switching between. In fact more numerous ideologies might just mean that there are more out-groups to oppose.
Next the single axis conception of ideology can impact the framing of political candidates. As mentioned previously individuals have a positive affective bias toward in-group members. So the group affiliation of a candidate activates that positive affect for the in-group but not the out-group. This can influence how individuals evaluate candidates, their actions and their policies. People overall are more apt to give in-group members the benefit of the doubt when actions appear contrary to stated goals, ideology or interests. When a candidate or politician acts in a manner contrary to in-group interests the in-group is more apt to rationalize the behavior by assuming there was a situational necessity or that the politician had more information than the public. Yet when an out-group politician acts in the same manner individuals are more apt to attribute that to personal characteristics such as being duplicitous or hypocritical. This colors the perception of every action a politician takes and effect the overall evaluation of the politician as well as the consequences of their actions.
This can be both good and bad. It can be good sometimes to give somebody the benefit of the doubt since it is hard for us to know the exact situation and all of the pertinent information. Thus sometimes seemingly contradictory actions can actually be consistent with an underlying principle. Also sometimes it is necessary to give a politician a chance because they may be acting in the best interest of you, your group or the nation as a whole even if it is hard to understand that. But it can also be bad to give a politician the benefit of the doubt. Supporting a politician who is acting contrary to your self-interests or group-interests only serves to harm yourself and group. Politicians are well known for saying one thing while doing the other, so it can be quite rational to question their every action. Unfortunately when nearly all of the questioning comes from the out-group it is dismissed by the in-group and vice versa. It is only when both sides are questioning a politician that people really listen. But that is infrequent and only in extreme cases.
Finally the liberal / conservative ideological dimension can provide individuals with a great deal of information without very much effort or energy. In general liberals support certain policies and group interests while conservatives support different policies and group interest. The label liberal or conservative can convey a great deal of information about a politician’s likely behavior while in office. In fact much of the time; especially in the past decade; legislation is passed along party lines. Many politicians vote with their party 90% or more of the time. So simply attending to the party and ideological self-identification of a politician can give you about as much information as attending to his/her rhetoric and platform. Furthermore when voting the electorate can’t pick and choose policies and positions on specific issues instead they must select a single candidate. You have to take the whole package, so if you in general agree with conservatives (or liberals) then it would make sense to select one for office. There is no option for those that want some elements of conservatives and some elements of liberals in a candidate, they are stuck picking one or the other. So the electorate must select candidates based on which values and issues are most important to them personally.
Unfortunately liberal and conservative labels can close one off to information contrary to their ideology. Recent research by the Social Science Research Network (cited bellow) shows that ideology can actually inhibit an individual’s ability to process and evaluate data. In the study participants were given data and asked to determine the most effective condition. For half the participants the data was on a skin-rash treatment and the other half it was on the effect of gun control laws. Then those two groups were split such that half receive information indicating the ‘treatment’ group was effective or ineffective. The data in all conditions was identical and presented exactly the same, the only differences were the labels. All participants regardless of ideology did equally well evaluating the effectiveness of the skin-rash treatment. Yet when evaluating gun control the participants performed differentially depending on their ideology. When a liberal was presented with data indicating gun control was ineffective they misinterpreted the results more often and when a conservative was presented with data indicating gun control was effective they misinterpreted the results more often. It showed that individuals may not effectively evaluate evidence when it contradicts their ideology.
Thus ideology can provide information to the electorate. But at the same time it can close individuals off from information that contradicts their ideology. The information ideology provides can greatly help individuals by reducing the amount of time and energy needed to make choices. It can provide information about the likely behavior of politicians. It can help identify the groups likely to benefit from that politician’s policies and actions. On the other side, ideology can close the public off to information and prevent rational decision making. It can inhibit people from properly evaluating evidence and making choices that benefit themselves and the country.
In conclusion the single dimension ideological continuum present in America has many benefits and negatives. Ideology can activate group identity, frame perceptions of political figures and provide information. Each of these areas has its own benefits and drawbacks. Unfortunately it is unlikely to change. Regardless of the conception of ideology utilized in the US there will always be some conception of ideology. Since group identity is core to all of the impacts of ideological conceptions many of the same advantages and disadvantages will persist even if the conception of ideology were to change. Ideology and the group identity it brings with it is here to stay and will always be a part of any political landscape.