Many observers of American politics argue that since the mid 1980s, the increasing salience of so-called “social issues,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, has broken up coalitions of voters with common economic interests and has moved American politics to the right. They suggest moral issues have displaced class politics and that public opinion has grown more polarized as a result. Indeed, political elites package clearly defined positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal.
If all that’s true, are people who are identify as socially liberal, economically conservative, or vice versa out of touch with mainstream politics? Or is the general public just less polarized than political leaders and the media? Moreover, what has party-line ideological packaging meant for electoral outcomes?
In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa), and their positions remain steady over time. Thus, as Democratic and Republican Party positions have become more polarized, alternatives’ views have grown more distinct from them. Alternatives have no obvious home in either party.
Though it’s intuitive, the study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold. Alternatives’ positions are logical, reasoned, and consistent—but unrepresented by either of the dominant ideologies. It is interesting, then, that alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party.
Two major findings emerge: 1) Beneath the ideologically divided rhetoric that is so prominent in American culture lies a public that is politically astute but unaligned. 2) The salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.