Identity, Ideology, and Cultural Institutions

On Monday, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft wrote about the importance of a long-term trend of growing racial, ethnic and religious diversity in the demise of the conservative movement.  Chris's main thesis are that identity and ideology are one and the same, in the sense that the cultural institutions which produce one's identity are the same as those which produce one's ideology, and that Democrats should stop thinking about political positioning in terms of classic left/center/right ideological terms.  The upshot: Democrats must eschew Republican tactics, messaging and policies in favor of embracing pluralism and diversity.

There's a lot to agree with in his post, although I do think he misses a few key points.  First and foremost, I believe he's only partially correct in claiming that the ideological self-identification is essentially meaningless.  While it is true that a clever ad campaign can move ideological self-identification numbers tremendously, it's also true that self-identification numbers have been remarkably stable in exit polls for many years: about 20% of voters self-identify as liberals, while about 33% of voters self-identify as conservatives.  It would appear that about half of the country self-identifies ideologically in a very stable way, meaning that ideology is not quite dead - it's just dead for about half of the electorate, and probably a pretty good share of the non-voting adult population.

Second and perhaps more importantly, while it's true that "all of the major institutions that produce someone's cultural identity ... are the same
institutions that produce someone's ideology", each institution pulls the identity and ideology levers in different ways.  For example, while it's almost certainly true that educational institutions play a role in ideological formation, do they really do much for identity creation?  Contra-wise, the role of family life in ideological formation is murky at best, while family life plays a central role in identity creation.

At the end of the day, I think while Chris is largely right, there is a clearer line between ideology and identity than he supposes.  Probably, what this means is that there are many people who vote an identity, a pretty sizable group that votes both an identity and an ideology, and a small number who vote against an identity/ideology.  That obviously has implications for electoral strategy, but I think it also has implications for what I'd call (for lack of a better term) our cultural strategy - our strategy for engaging and shaping cultural institutions in order to keep our base growing and strong.  In particular, this means that our cultural strategy should not only include efforts to strengthen and create cultural institutions which form the progressive ideology/identity, it also means that the strategy should draw clear lines between cultural movements and progressivism.

Tags: cultural strategy, identity, Ideology, progressive movement (all tags)



Numbers have shifted

Identification is no longer stable, as noted, among other places, in Charlie Cook's National Journal analysis of Gallup's post-2006 polling:

"... But for 2006, Democrats pulled away, leading Republicans by 3.9 points, with 34.3 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 30.4 percent as Republicans and 33.9 percent as independents.

... But the real jaw dropper is when independents are asked which party they lean toward. This is important because historically, independents who lean toward a party tend to vote almost as consistently for that party as those who identify themselves with the party. There are just some people who like to call themselves independents but, functionally speaking, are really partisans.

... But in 2006, this category exploded to a 10.2-point advantage for Democrats: 50.4 percent for Democrats, 40.2 percent for Republicans. The remaining 9.4 percent did not lean toward either party.

This 10.2-point advantage is the biggest lead either party has had since Gallup began tracking the leaners in 1991. ...

Still, it does seem better to get people organized around principles rather than repackaged tribalism. You can hold people to account for violating principles, but it's hard to get people to put principles over tribe.

by Natasha Chart 2007-11-25 01:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Numbers have shifted

these are partisan self-identification numbers (are you a democrat, republican, independent, etc.)  i'm referring to ideological self-identification numbers (are you a liberal, conservative, or moderate).  actually, the gap between liberals and conservatives expanded a bit in 2006 as compared to 2004 - by 1% or so.  it's interesting that the partisan numbers are jumping while the ideological ones aren't - i think that's the result of the long conservative smear against liberalism showing up, without much response from liberals or progressives.

by Shai Sachs 2007-11-25 02:19PM | 0 recs


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