How are ideologies created and how do they develop? Noel points to ideological elites and public intellectuals as responsible for the development of ideologies. Through deliberation and debate with each other, they help define, clarify, and explain what their ideological allies should believe and why. However, what precisely happens as they engage in this process remains a mystery. In this dissertation, I propose a resolution to this mystery by suggesting that the development of ideologies is one of a persistent drive to improve coherence.
Coherence is a cognitive property; it is the degree to which elements in belief systems make sense together (Thagard 2000). Through coherence, we make sense of competing explanations of the world. In saying that ideologies develop as their coherence improves, I place ideology at the center of how individuals interact with the political world. Contrary to the claims of those who suggest ideological language serves as little more than marketing or rationalization for power coalitions of elite interests(e.g., Aldrich1995, Converse1964, K.BawnZaller2012, Zaller1992), I argue that ideology is central to how we as people perceive and interact with politics. Ideological beliefs cannot be easily abandoned or revised without changes to the underlying belief systems of their adopters. These beliefs are sincerely held, and their presence helps people navigate the why's and how's of politics.
Using data from conservative political magazines published between 1995 and 2000, I provide evidence that conservative thought on immigration developed through a process of coherence improvement. Conservatives adopted a threat narrative that portrayed immigrants as dangerous to themselves and American culture and as undeserving burdens to the welfare state. These feelings, combined with preexisting positions against welfare spending and policies designed to promote racial diversity, lead conservatives, and consequently the Republican Party, to adopt increasingly restrictive positions on immigration. These restrictionist positions and the arguments that underlie them became more coherent over time, overcoming objections from libertarians and business conservatives who had more positive views about the benefits of immigration.
The findings in this dissertation are a step forward for the study of ideology. First, this dissertation provides a test of the theory that ideological constraint arises out of the elite discourse. While Noel (2014) proposes this idea he never tests it directly. Instead, he limits himself to providing evidence that constraint arises in the media before it arises in Congress. While such evidence is consistent with the ideology-as-constraint, it also leaves open other possibilities, including that parties try out arguments in the media before importing them to Congress. This dissertation tests the primary mechanism: creative synthesis. I show that deliberation and discussion lead to ideological constraint by pushing public intellectuals to improve the coherence of their beliefs. Second, in examining ideology as sincerely-held belief systems, I challenge theorists like Aldrich (1995), who view ideology as a tool to market and manipulate a political coalition. Contrary to these theorists, I argue that ideologies reflect the worldviews of elites and, as such, they constrain elites' actions. Evidence of such constraint has implications for our understanding of politics. If belief systems constrain elites, their ability to deviate from previously stated positions should be less than expected under other theories(Bawn et al., 2012). Ideological change, I argue, should reflect not just a shift in strategic considerations (a way to get more votes, for example), but a change in underlying beliefs. If a change in ideology requires belief revision, this means that coherent ideologies are sticky and likely to persist even after they become a political liability.