One of the ways that citizens and elites orient themselves to politics is in reference to a Left-Right vocabulary. Left and Right, respectively, refer to a specific set of progressive and conservative policy preferences and political goals. Thus, Left-Right becomes a framework for positioning oneself, political figures, and political parties into a common framework. Most citizens identify themselves in Left-Right terms and their distribution of these orientations vary across nations. These orientations arise both from long-term societal influences and from the short-term issues of the day. Most people also place political parties in Left-Right terms. This leads citizens to use Left-Right comparisons as an important factor in their voting choice, although this impact varies considerably across nations. Most parties attract voters that broadly share their Left-Right orientations.
Willy Jou and Russell J. Dalton
The study of ideology hinges upon several important characteristics. First, the term “ideology” may connote different things to voters. To some, it indicates a preference for “conservatism” over “liberalism”; others adopt a more nuanced perspective, identifying ideology as “libertarianism,” “environmentalism,” and “populism” (among others). Some view it is an identity. Ideological labels are entrenched in political and non-political identities. The term “conservative” may signal a social orientation only loosely related to conservatism’s philosophical tenets (e.g., limiting the size and scope of the federal government). “Liberalism” or “progressivism,” signal a different worldview that also perhaps loosely related to the philosophical characteristics of modern (American) liberalism (e.g., “expanding the social safety net”). Ideology is also a means of cognitive organization; it is used to make sense of oftentimes complex public policy. Individuals organize policy beliefs around organizing principles, such as a preference for reducing the size of the federal government. Considering this heterogeneity, it is important to use the term with precision, in order to better understand how voters rely upon ideology in their decision calculus. Second, ideology is a central characteristic in the general structure of political beliefs. It acts as a lens through which the political and social world is interpreted. Third, ideology is functional in nature. Ideological preferences often fulfill a voter’s unique psychological, motivational, and personality-oriented characteristics. Finally, ideology has unique consequences in contemporary politics, as evidenced by increased political polarization, partisan-ideological sorting, and ideologically divisive rhetoric.
Ruth Dassonneville and Semih Çakır
When deciding whether to turn out to vote and what party to support, citizens are constrained by the available options within their party system. A rich literature shows that characteristics of this choice set, which capture how “meaningful” the choice is, have pervasive effects on electoral behavior and public opinion. Party system polarization in particular, which captures how ideologically dispersed the parties are, has received much attention in earlier work. More ideologically polarized party systems are associated with higher turnout rates, while both proximity voting and mechanisms of accountability appear strengthened when parties are more ideologically distinct. However, party system polarization also strengthens party attachments and entails a risk of fostering mass polarization.
Matthew M. Singer and Gabriela Ramalho Tafoya
Voter choices in Latin America have structural roots that are similar to what is observed in other regions, but these structures are weaker and more fluid than in more established democracies. In particular, while cleavages emerge in the average Latin American country and voters’ choices vary across demographic traits, issues, ideologies, and partisanship, these cleavages are weaker than in Western Europe and the United States. These cleavages are particularly weak in countries where parties do not take ideologically distinct positions from each other and instead emphasize clientelism, which suggests that the overall weakness of these cleavages in the hemisphere reflects the weak commitment of political parties to programmatic competition. Elections in Latin America are strongly shaped by government performance, especially economic trends, but these forms of accountability are weakened in countries where the party system makes it hard to identify the degree to which any specific party is able to dominate the policy process or where identifying a credible alternative to the incumbent is difficult. Thus, while voters are trying to use elections to hold politicians accountable and to ensure that their policy preferences are represented, the weaknesses of Latin America’s party systems often make this difficult.