Beyond Good Old-Fashioned Ideology Theory, Part One19 min read

The concept of ideology is surely one of the sacred cow concepts of sociology (and the social sciences more generally) and is one of the special few that circulates widely outside the ivory tower. It is also a concept that is arguably the most indebted of all to the presumption that cognition is a matter of representation, nothing more or less. Ideology has, from its French Revolution beginnings to the present, been associated closely with ideas and more specifically with ideas that project meaning over the world in relativistic and contentious ways. Almost universally ideology is characterized by representation; historically it has also been characterized by what we can call (unsatisfactorily) distortion. For ideologies to be representations they must be capable of generating reflexively clear meaning about the world. For ideologies to be distortions those representations must generate meaning in some way that concerns the exercise of power. Since ideologies are distorting they must consist of representations that either support or contend with some current configuration of power, by prescribing its direction. This means that people do not believe ideologies because ideologies are true. Instead, some combination of social factors and self-interest leads people to believe them.

This will have to do as a (quick/dirty) summary of the most common set of referents generally associated with ideology. Let’s call it good old-fashioned ideology theory (GOFIT) for short. Even a brief perusal of the recent news would probably suggest that the world (or at least the US) is becoming increasingly “ideological” on GOFIT terms as ideology seems to be more and more important for more and more stuff that it had been irrelevant for as recently as a decade ago (e.g. restaurant attendance, college enrollment, cultural consumption). If these impressions are even partially correct, then an enormous weight is placed on ideology. It is a concept that we (sociologists included) need  in order to make sense of the fractious, tribalizing times in which we live. But it is fair question to ask whether GOFIT ideology is up to the challenge.

On the above terms, GOFIT ideology essentially consists of something like the “rule-based manipulation of symbols” type of meaning construction, unreconstructed from its heyday in the classical cognitive science of the 1950s and 60s. This should make us pause and take a second look at the concept. The goal of this post is to (not exhaustively) examine whether ideology can do without these commitments and whether the concept can be removed from GOFIT and placed on new cognitive ground. I argue that ideology can do without these commitments and that it already has been placed (or is being placed) on new cognitive ground, which makes it an important point of focus not only for substantive phenomena (all around us today) but because ideology is closely entangled with the wider theoretical stakes of relevance to this blog, and it has been since at least The German Ideology when Marx and Engels tried for a final push of idealism into the dustbin.

In this first post, I will compare two arguments that try to move beyond GOFIT. In a second post, I will sketch a different approach that tries to extend a non-GOFIT ideology even further.

Psychologists, it seems, have beaten everyone to the punch in providing key evidence attesting to the present-day significance of ideology. Here, we can point to the influential work of John Jost (2006; website) and the research program he develops against the mid-century “end of ideology” claims. Those arguments hard largely eliminated ideology as a key conceptual variable, in one sense because large disagreements over how to organize society seemed to end sometime in the 1950s, at least in the US (“even conservatives support the welfare state,” as Seymour Martin Lipset famously quipped). But in a more important sense, the “end of ideology” also meant a paradigm in political psychology built around the presumption that “having an ideology” was a mystery and that only a small minority of people actually had one. Jost resurrects ideology by developing a new question in political psychology, one that at this point probably seems grossly redundant, but which summarizes a vast body of research inside and outside the academy, all of which asks some more or less complicated version of it: “why [do] specific individuals (or groups or societies) gravitate toward liberal or conservative ideas[?]” (2006: 654).

Jost here distance himself from the political scientist Philip Converse and his claim (esp Converse 1964) that probably no more than ten percent of the population possesses anything resembling an ideology (e.g. “political belief system”). For Converse, this meant that for the vast majority of political actions, especially voting behavior by a mass public, ideology is basically irrelevant. Jost argues that, on the contrary, even if the highly rationalized, systematic commitments of true ideologues is found  only among a small minority, we cannot dismiss peoples’ attraction to conservative or liberal ideas. Relaxing a strong consistency claim, Jost finds placement on the conservatism-liberalism spectrum as highly predictive of voting trends, and not only because where people self-identify on the ideological scale closely overlaps with their party affiliation. Ideas matter too, especially if we measure them as “resistance to change and attitudes toward equality” (2006: 660), which are (presumably) the source of the major ideological differences between the left and the right.

As Jost continues, these “core ideological beliefs concerning attitudes toward equality and traditionalism possess relatively enduring dispositional and situational antecedents, and they exert at least some degree of influence or constraint over the individual’s other thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (2006: 660; my emphasis). Here Jost hits on a problem with influence inside and increasingly outside the academy today. Research on the “dispositional and situational antecedents” of attraction to liberal or conservative ideas has become something of a cottage industry, as evidenced in popular works by luminaries like George Lakoff (2002) and Jonathan Haidt (2012), and in Jost’s own work (see 2006: 665) that finds, among other things, unobtrusive-style evidence (“bedroom cues”) that strongly correlates with placement on the liberalism-conservatism spectrum (like whether one has postage stamps lying around the house instead of art supplies). Even Adorno’s (et al 1950) arguments have been buoyed by this conversation as prescient and timely (see Jost 2006: 654) after they had been summarily dismissed by mid-century psychologists. “Right-wing authoritarianism” as a personality measure helps define antecedent conditions that lead people to be attracted to ideas (or to Trump) with different ideological content. Adorno thrives as the research winds have changed.

The key presumption of this research is that ideologies are information-lite and  not complicated, at least not in a reflexive way, as Converse thought they must be (“complicated systems of relations between ideas”). But we might reasonably wonder whether, in their lack of complication, “ideological differences” in this literature do in fact count as differences of ideology and not something else. Jost himself does little to explain what it means to be “attracted” to liberal or conservative ideas (is this the same as believing them?), and what he calls “ideas” can only be distinguished from what he (confusingly) also calls “attitudes” if we presume that ideas involve some sort of deductive, rule-based manipulations (e.g. because I believe in equality, I will support politicians that promise to help the poor). On both fronts this makes his approach problematic. While Jost is successful at clearing many of the hurdles that stand in the way of making the concept of ideology relevant again, he retains some of the strongest presumptions of GOFIT.

If political psychology has largely been resurrected by making something significant of the widely held sense that “ideological differences” are of critical significance for politics today, there is at least one other alternative to GOFIT available which has similar motivations but which does not make nearly the same commitments. John Levi Martin has developed an approach to ideology on the basis of redefining it as non-representational. Ideology does not consist of a representation of the world, in this view, but serves rather (more pragmatically) as “citizens’ way of comprehending the nature of the alliances in which they find themselves” (2015: 21). While he shares with Jost the fruitfulness of engaging with GOFIT on the relationship between “social factors” and ideologies, in Martin’s case in particular, this comes with a considerable twist: ideologies are not given autonomy as a kind of rule-like content that allows for deductive logic. As Martin argues, what appear to be ideologies are not reducible to an equation like values + beliefs = opinions. Rather, they are the means through which individuals comprehend “the alliances” in which they find themselves (which is important). What we can call ideological differences, in other words, maps onto patterns of social relations and not to differences that might be ascribable to the content of ideas.

If we take his example of whether people say they support a policy that will provide assistance to out of work, poor and/or black people, “the classic [GOFIT] conception imagines a person beginning with the value of equality, adding the facts about discrimination (say) and producing support for the policy.” Jost would probably explain this as their attraction to some view of equality, whether fueled by a personality trait or some other dispositional antecedent (just as Lakoff and Haidt would, in different ways). In Martin’s alternative, the process is entirely different: “The rule is, simply put, ‘me and my friends are good’ and ‘those others are bad’ …  [The] actual calculus of opinion formation is sides + self-concept = opinion” (27). This is what Martin calls a political reasoning source of ideology formation. Whether one would support the above policy is dictated by what it signifies about one’s position in “webs of alliance and rivalry, friendship and enmity.” It is that positioning that makes it an ideological choice, not that it is driven by some sequence that begins (or ends) with a commitment to certain ideas.

Martin provides a bit fleshier example to illustrate how political reasoning of this sort is “totally relational” and therefore endogenous to alliance/rivalry coalitions:

I once saw a pickup truck in my home town that had two bumper stickers on the rear. One had a representation of the American flag, and words next to it: “One nation, one flag, one language.” The other side had the Confederate flag. This is the flag used by the short-lived Southern confederation of states during the Civil War, when they tried to break away from the Union in order to preserve their “peculiar institution,” that is, slavery of Africans and their descendants. They wanted there to be two countries, and two flags (25)

Such infelicitous placement of the two bumper stickers would be a contradiction from a GOFIT point of view in search of the content of the ideas and how this organizes a decision to place the two stickers from some kind of logical deduction. For GOFIT, such behavior quickly becomes incomprehensible (as does the person). In fact, Martin argues, the two flags demonstrate this person’s practical mastery of the political landscape in the USA circa 2015ish: “Displaying the Confederate flag in the United States does not imply anti-black racism. However, it does imply a lack of concern with being ‘called out’ as a racist—it implies fearlessly embracing aspects of American political culture without apology … it does demonstrate anti-anti-racism” (26). The other bumper sticker (one nation, one flag, one language) demonstrates the person’s response “to certain political initiatives to ease the barriers to American citizens, residents, and possibly others who read (or speak) Spanish but not English.”

Together, the two bumper stickers make sense. But to see how we first need to bracket whatever ideas they might seem to express and situate the stickers instead in sets of social relations in which they become meaningful for this person. When we do this, we see that this person demonstrates a combination of social oppositions that together situate him/her against the “liberal coalition.” The placement of the bumper stickers is a political action, not as the expression of some commitment to underlying ideas, but as this person’s theorization of their politics: “it is their attempt to come up with an abstract representation of the political alliance system in which they are in, and the nature of their opponents” (26).  

Pace Jost, then, Martin argues that patterns of ideological difference are not ultimately driven by absolute differences between conservative and liberal ideas, though this is not to say that ideas (or words) cannot themselves become points of ideological difference. So much is this true that political reasoning itself provides an ontology and can dictate the nature of reality in way that is impervious to criticisms of ideological “distortion” and their presumption of a GOFIT mind-to-world relation that is mediated by something like a belief system. The nature of the world itself can (and has) come to be an expression of oppositions and alliances with an ideological significance. Martin and Desmond (2010: 15), for instance, find that liberals and conservatives with high political information both significantly overestimate the extent of black poverty and are much more likely to be wrong about it than are moderates and liberals and conservatives with less political information. This is an effect of political reasoning, they claim, and anticipates a sort of post-truth scenario in which facts themselves also become a means to theorize one’s political position. For high information liberals and conservatives alike, “their knowledge is that-which-helps-us-know-what-we-want-to-fight-about” (Martin 2015: 28). In other words, they become more ideological as they become more ensconced in relations of alliance and rivalry, not as they internalize complicated belief systems.

Martin, then, reinterprets ideology as the way that people comprehend their situation in relations of alliance and opposition using whatever means might seem to adequately express the accumulation of friends and the distinction from enemies. Martin surpasses the GOFIT assumptions more successfully than Jost largely because his approach to ideology does not rely imputing a content to ideas that would make them “liberal” or “conservative.” In principle, any idea could be liberal or conservative in his framework (just as any bumper sticker could, or any fact about the world could, or any political candidate) depending on whether people use it to map alliances and oppositions and comprehend the boundaries of coalitions of friends/enemies.

This, I argue, makes Martin’s approach more adequate, and historically relevant in way that Jost’s approach cannot be, for understanding what seems to be the rapid proliferation of ideological differences today, or more impressionistically the increased presence of ideology today, presumably as people use more things to “theorize” their political position inside alliances/rivalries than had been used before, complicating those groupings (at least in the interim). Once again, this is much easier to understand if we do not attempt to situate individuals into fixed categories on the basis of antecedent dispositions that give them some fixed attraction to ideas with a certain content.

But this also suggests that Martin’s approach to ideology is non-GOFIT mainly because it is (or seems to be) non-cognitive. Martin succeeds because he takes ideology out of the mind and places it in social relations. Things (e.g. bumper stickers, art supplies, flags, welfare policies) become “ideological” when they symbolize relations of alliance and rivalry, as comprehended through them and (following Marx) never in their absence, though we might ask if there is any relevant difference between using things to comprehend these relations and using things to construct them. Jost leaves ideology in the mind (in ideas), so it remains for him at least partially GOFIT, though he emphasizes that ideology is supplemented by non-cognitive things like personality or situational factors (e.g. traumatic events, like 9/11, or private ones) that make ideas carry different degrees of attraction.

When something vaguely cognitive enters Martin’s framework, it usually comes under the heading of “political reasoning in practice,” which does appear to serve adequately as an alternative to a GOFIT conception of mind. In the next post, I attempt a definition of  “practical mastery” of ideologically-relevant relations as a cognitive trait and how this is absolutely required if we want to finally (once and for all) separate ideology from its GOFIT background.



Adorno, Theodor et al (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Studies in Prejudice, edited by Max Horkheimer and Samuel H. Flowerman. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Converse, Philip. (1964). “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Critical Review 18: 1-74.

Haidt, Jonathan. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Norton.

Jost, John. (2006). “The End of the End of Ideology.” American Psychologist 61: 651-670.

Lakoff, George. (2002). Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. UChicago Press.

Martin, John Levi. (2015). “What is Ideology?” Sociologica 77: 9-31.

Martin, John Levi and Matthew Desmond. (2010). “Political Position and Social Knowledge.” Sociological Forum 25: 1-26.