Rightward Leanings and Nonstandard Party-Position Perceptions

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-187WpNSL0DaXAU/input 900297PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919900297Political Research QuarterlyUrbatsch
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 166 –181
Rightward Leanings and Nonstandard
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Party-Position Perceptions
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919900297
R. Urbatsch1
Some individuals defy the consensus as to parties’ relative ideological positions, asserting that a party is more left-
leaning than its rivals even when most observers have the opposite view. Such discrepancies undercut spatial models
of politics. Rightward leaners’ tendency to use different, more self-anchored, bases for assessing ideology may make
them especially likely to dissent in this way, as might their attention to distinct issues. Results from the Comparative
Study of Electoral Systems confirm that those on the political right are likelier to reverse typical left-right orderings,
even on right-leaning or major parties. Evidence from the Dutch Parliamentary Election Study further shows that
right-leaners’ nonstandard ordering extends to parties’ specific issue-positions—particularly, notably, on issues of
higher salience to the left. Standard models of politics may accordingly apply less well to those who identify as being
on the political right.
left-right ideology, perception, party positions
Divergent psychological attributes, motivated reasoning,
political right are likelier to form views of actors’ politi-
and institutional design all mean ideology affects how
cal positions that do not follow the mainstream or aca-
people perceive the world (Aldrich et al. 2018; Hibbing,
demic consensus.
Smith, and Alford 2014; Yair and Sulitzeanu-Kenan
Results below confirm this hypothesis using a new
2015). One such difference in perceptions might concern
measure of ideological perceptions based on individuals
ideology itself: different observers may, based on their
reversing the relative ordering of pairs of parties that
political preferences, disagree about what ideas or actors
experts and majorities perceive. Evidence from
are on the left or on the right. Such discrepancies matter,
Comparative Study of Electoral Systems surveys shows
as perceiving parties’ or candidates’ positions and deter-
that those on the political right are likelier to produce this
mining which of those positions is more similar to—that
sort of nonstandard ordering of parties. Additional evi-
is, closer in ideological space to—one’s own is a central
dence from Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies shows
step in many models of democracy (Downs 1957; Spoon
these reversals of most observers’ perceived ordering of
and Klüver 2017). Potential voters who reject widespread
parties’ positions arising not only in measures of abstract
beliefs about where parties stand in ideological space will
ideological placement, but also when asked to identify
accordingly not behave as expected. This is especially
parties’ relative positions on many specific policy issues.
troubling should those beliefs rearrange party order, since
These findings suggest that traditional models of politics
switching parties’ relative left-right position changes the
may be less effective when attempting to explain the
relative proximity of parties and, consequently, the rela-
beliefs and behavior of those who say they are on the
tive ideological appeal that each has.
political right.
That portions of the mass public might not understand
ideological space as elites do—let alone as academic ana-
Perceptions of Ideological Space
lysts do—is a longstanding (Butler and Stokes 1969;
Converse and Pierce 1986), and recently resurgent
Countless models of electoral politics build from the idea
(Achen and Bartels 2016; Dahlberg and Harteveld 2016),
that voters prefer candidates closer to themselves on a
idea in political science. This research contributes to
understanding what portions of the public are most likely
1Iowa State University, Ames, USA
to have nonstandard views of ideology, hypothesizing
that factors that lead individuals to more right-leaning
Corresponding Author:
R. Urbatsch, Department of Political Science, Iowa State University,
perspectives also tend to lead to beliefs about ideology
503 Ross Hall, Ames, IA 50011 USA.
that diverge from the mainstream. That is, those on the
Email: rurbat@iastate.edu

(typically unidimensional) ideological scale. Ideology
answers vary wildly, often substantially missing any
serves a similarly crucial role in other political outcomes,
objectively correct response. Asking them to evaluate
too: studies emphasize it in everything from judicial rul-
which of two objects is heavier or which of two grays is
ings to party-system development (e.g., Gooch 2015;
darker, however, dramatically increases accuracy and
Ibenskas 2016). But spatial models of ideology, and
interrater agreement (Stevens 1975). This propensity has
related concepts such as “correct voting” (Dassonneville
practical implications throughout the social sciences. In
et al. 2019; Martini and Schutt 2019; Pierce and Lau
economics, for example, it describes judgments of price:
2019), typically presume general agreement about ideo-
consumers have little sense of items’ objective value,
logical placements. Deep troves of data on shared votes
instead judging prices’ appropriateness by comparing dif-
or manifesto content can inductively define common
ferent goods’ cost (Simonson and Tversky 1992).
ideological space, of course, but the requisite information
Nevertheless, for many perceptual problems, individu-
is much more available for elites—legislators, judges,
als are inconsistent in their reports, being distracted or led
party organizations—than for the mass public, for whose
astray by irrelevant factors (Hellström 2003; Kang et al.
choices analysts must usually assume an agreed-upon
2011). When assessing qualities like party ideologies that
ideological spectrum.
have no innate cognitive basis but must be derived from
Voters or survey-takers often lack the information and
substantive knowledge—knowledge that may be missing
time required to precisely evaluate every potentially rel-
or incorrect (Kuklinski et al. 1998)—the potential for dis-
evant choice (candidate, party, or referendum side) in
agreement escalates. Accordingly, some potential voters
ideological space. Fortunately, in standard accounts of
may reverse the standard ordering of candidates and par-
politics, such an elaborate calculus is necessary for voting
ties along left-right ideological space, thereby undermin-
or opinion expression, which merely requires determin-
ing traditional accounts of spatial party competition.
ing which choices are closest—most similar—to one’s
What might lead a person to have such nonstandard per-
own (Davis, Hinich, and Ordeshook 1970). Affinity for
ceptions of left and right? Lacking knowledge about poli-
political actors relates monotonically to their distance
tics—but feeling obliged to provide opinions when
from one’s own ideological position, and the ordinal
asked—could produce such an outcome. Yet most people
ranking of distance to actors matters more than the pre-
manage, despite limited political knowledge, to agree with
cise distances involved for most voting systems.1
consensus judgments of parties’ left-right policy positions:
The model, naturally, can be more complicated: indi-
this is precisely what makes party labels such a useful heu-
viduals may disagree on the importance of different
ristic (Kam 2005). In fact, even though the less-informed
dimensions, so that two people who share an ideal point
may especially tend to overestimate the prevalence of their
may not prefer the same option (Feldman and Johnston
own ideology (Krueger 1998), the converse does not hold:
2014). In addition, nonideological factors such as candi-
increasing political knowledge does not necessarily dimin-
date charisma may also influence public decision-making
ish a given individual’s tendency for false projection of
(Kitschelt 2000). Yet the basic model can accommodate
political beliefs (Gvirsman 2015). Even some people who
many potential disagreements. If people generally see
have absorbed political information, then, might perceive
ideologically neutral or centrist entities as hostile to their
ideology in varying ways.
own position (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper 1985), for
instance, they may perceive politicians and parties with
Ideology and Nonstandard
whom they differ as ideologically further away from
themselves than is warranted: leftists would view a cen-
trist actor as right-leaning even while rightists view that
A particularly notable potential influence on nonstandard
actor as left-leaning. This sort of disagreement affects the
perceptions is ideology itself, which ubiquitously shapes
placement of actors on an ideological scale, but as long as
political outcomes while also deriving from specific char-
it implicates only the absolute placement and not the rela-
acteristics (Ames and Smith 2010). Those with right-
tive positioning of actors vis-à-vis one another, conven-
leaning beliefs may cognitively integrate information
tional spatial logic works.
differently: rightward attitudes may derive from affinity
More serious difficulties arise when...

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