The End of the End of Ideology

In the aftermath of World War II, many social scientists claimed that individual citizens’ political attitudes lacked the consistency to be considered ideological and that there was little difference is the psychological processing of liberals and conservatives. According to these thinkers, the era of entrenched political ideology had ended. New York University’s John Jost, however, declared that “The End of the End of Ideology” is here, in his invited address at the APS 19th Annual Convention in Washington, DC.

“Until quite recently, there has been fairly widespread skepticism, which started with political science and sociology and spread to psychology, concerning the notion that people hold social and political attitudes which should be considered properly ideological,” said Jost.

Jost, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, presented evidence that ordinary citizens’ political attitudes can be characterized by stability, consistency, and constraint; abstract ideological constructs involve motivational potency and behavioral significance; and that there are important psychological differences, in addition to philosophical differences, underlying liberalism and conservatism.

Jost explained that people are becoming increasingly loyal to their parties, engaging in more party-line voting, and demonstrating an increasing party segregation that encourages a selective processing of political information. Furthermore, a large number of people are listening to talk radio, political websites are becoming increasingly popular, and political blogs attract 100,000 visitors per day.

Modern conservatives and liberals have been shown to demonstrate significant political differences. Conservatives are characterized by a resistance to change and tend to value traditional cultural and religious principles. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to promote social and economic equality and endorse welfare, social security, affirmative action, and egalitarian attitudes toward oppressed groups in our society.

Jost provided evidence that psychological differences between conservatives and liberals do exist. Conservatives tend to appreciate the status quo because it preserves traditions and eliminates fears of the unknown. Condoning previous inequalities, people are able to exist in a stable social order in which challenges to hierarchical authority figures are easily suppressed. The appeal of conservatism is especially high when people need to reduce uncertainty because of relatively high threat levels.

“I think that we may be starting to witness in psychology a return of some of the questions that were deferred almost a half-century ago by the end-of-ideologists,” said Jost. “We are witnessing an emerging psychological paradigm that is distinguishable from and, hopefully complementary to, a political science approach to ideology, which has solely stressed coherence, stability, and political sophistication, rather than other human needs and motives.”

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