Philip E. Converse, ‘The nature of belief systems in mass publics”, in David Apter (ed.) Ideology and Discontent (1964).

Main Argument:

The mass public cannot be relied upon to form cogent belief systems nor do they rely accurately on elite cues.  His focus is on the “differences in the nature of belief systems held, on the one hand, by elite political actors and, on the other, by the masses…” [206]. He concludes that “large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time” [245].  In other words, most people do not have strong belief systems; that is, they do not think ideologically. A minority of people have fixed preferences and answer survey questions consistently, but most simply give random answers. Most people do not interpret politics through an ideological lens.


Key Definitions:

Belief System: configuration of ideas and attitudes in which the elements are bounded together by some form of constraint or functional interdependence [207].

Constraint: the success we would have in predicting, given initial knowledge that an individual holds a specified attitude, that he holds certain further ideas and attitudes [207].


Method: Panel survey to achieve time stability testing



== Notes ==



Key Ideas:

– Converse defines belief systems as a configuration of ideas and attitudes in which elements are bound together by constraints or functional interdependence

– He argues this is a psychological, not logical, phenomenon

– Belief systems are comparable on the centrality of their elements and the range of said elements

– Constraints are idea-elements within belief systems vary according to the role they play in the belief system as a whole

– One of these factors is that of centrality, or the weight placed on a particular idea-element

– Belief systems also vary in accordance to the range they cover


There are different sources of constraints on belief systems, including:

– Logical constraints

– Psychological constraints

– Social constraints

– Logical constraints are more typical to elites than to the masses and typically do not transfer down to the masses from the elites, as it is commonly assumed


There are three levels of information:

– The first being that people connect two ideas without understanding the causal link between the two

– For example, the idea that “communists are atheists” might be widely held, but most people do not comprehend the link between the two ideas

– The second level of information is understanding the “contextual knowledge” or understanding the ‘why’s’ of the statement (e.g. why communists are atheists)

– The first level of information will be more prevalent (diffused) as it is less complex

– The further one moves down the scale (of political sophistication) the “contextual grasp of standard political beliefs fades out rapidly” [213]


The five “levels of conceptualization”:

Level 1: “ideologues”: respondents who “relied on abstract and far-reaching conceptual dimensions” against which politicians and policies were judged [216]

These respondents comprise the smallest percentage of the population

Level 2: “near- ideologues”: respondents who “mentioned such a dimension peripherally” but either didn’t depend on it or didn’t use it in a manner that showed they understood it

Level 3: “ideology by proxy” or “group interest”: respondents who didn’t rely on any over-arching dimensions and evaluated candidates on their expected favorable (or unfavorable) treatment of specific social groups

These people rely and do not make up their own minds about issues but rely on elite communication

Level 4: Respondents whose main mode of evaluation consists of either “nature of the time” judgments or single, narrow policy dictated support or rejection of a candidate or party. (e.g. issue specific voters)  Level 5: People who showed “no shred of policy significance whatsoever”


– He finds that most of the population resides at the third level

– Through his analysis of the categorization of respondents into these five levels he makes the following statements: education levels increase recognition and understanding as does age (arguing that political sophistication accumulates with age)

– Only 17% of the population has an “understanding of the distinction” between liberal and conservative “that captures much of its breadth;” that 37% of the population are “entirely vague” to those meanings; and that 46% “demonstrate considerable uncertainty and guesswork in assigning meaning to the terms” [223]


Mass Belief Systems:

– Education is one of the most important factors underlying this cognitive sophistication

– Political mobilization also helpful

– He argues that the reason there is mass support for things such as freedom and democracy but limited support for specific policy issues among the masses is attributable to the fact that “the individual lacks the contextual grasp to understand that the specific case and the general principle belong in the same belief system” [230]

– Furthermore less sophisticated respondents cannot be counted on to follow the lead of the more informed in their “ultimate partisanship” [233]

– There are, however, some issues in which the masses can be counted on to make better connections between policy and beliefs – those which contain “groups as attitudinal objects” [235]

– For example, issues regarding racial groups and government funding

– This is due to the fact that these links are easier to understand and because these issues tend to be more central to the belief systems of the masses


Stability Over Time:

– Converse refutes the criticism that perhaps it is not the case that the masses have incoherent belief systems but are, rather, just idiosyncratic in their beliefs

– Converse argues there is no individual stability of beliefs in a given population

– There is a ‘hard core’ of opinion on a given issue, which is crystallised and stable over time

– For the rest of the population, opinion response sequences are statistically random over time

– Upper strata more consistent over time in voting right, although left are numerically superior asymmetrical elite strategy emerges as increasingly stress group loyalty and cohesion as move right to left

– Lower stratum not only lack coherence on policy stances, but there stances are not consistent over time

– He argues that were their beliefs merely idiosyncratic, they would be stable over time – which they are not

– The only item that produces stability over time is party identification, showing that “the party and the affect toward it are more central within the belief systems of the mass public than are the policy ends that they parties are designed to pursue” [241]

– Furthermore, he finds that the more ideological an issue is, the less stable it is (among masses) over time



Converse concludes by looking at historical events such as the rise of the abolition movement, the McCarthy era and the rise of the Nazi Party through the lens of his analysis. In each case he points to the fact that, although elites and politicians claimed popular support for their policies, there may have been little awareness among the mass public of the ramifications and support of the specifics of their policies.

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