Social Groups as the Source of Political Belief Systems: Fresh Evidence on an Old Theory

Social Groups as the Source of Political Belief Systems: Fresh Evidence on an Old Theory

By Elizabeth Mitchell Elder, Princeton University and Neil A. O’Brian, University of Oregon

We present novel evidence that attitudes toward nonpartisan social groups structure political belief systems. First, we show that most Americans have a rich knowledge of the social groups that support and oppose group-related policies. This knowledge often exceeds people’s awareness of where Democrats and Republicans stand on these same issues. Then, we show that this knowledge promotes what Philip Converse called ideological coherence: Americans who know which groups support and oppose a policy are more likely to hold stable policy positions over time and to organize their attitudes into consistently liberal or conservative bundles. In the twentieth century, knowledge of social groups’ issue positions rivaled knowledge of parties’ positions in its ability to generate attitude stability and constraint. However, as party identification has strengthened in recent decades, knowledge of parties’ positions has become the most important source of structure in most Americans’ belief systems.