What’s With All the Ideology?

An Australian reader named Michael Edmonds writes with an interesting question. He did worry a bit that he’d be considered anti-American for posing it, but hey — nothing good in life is without risk …

I live in Australia and I’m a regular reader of your site. I’m frequently surprised by the ideological battles that occur in the comments on your site (and others) on topics such as tax, healthcare, homosexuality, the financial bailout, European countries (socialists), religion, Palin, Obama, etc. On almost any topic, there are extreme opposing viewpoints. Why does the U.S. have so many ideological extremists?

My impression may be explained by one of the following:

1) The U.S. may be no different from other Western democracies, but I don’t notice it in Australia or other places.

2) It may be that the people who comment on websites are not representative of the population, so my view is wrong due to sampling error.

3) The centrist views are drowned out by the clamor of the extremists.

4) The ideological extremists may make a bigger impression on me and I forget about the centrists, leading me to think that there are more extremists than there actually are.

I tend to discount option one because we have many of the same debates in Australia, but I rarely witness the same fervor in debates. I suspect option two is also an inadequate explanation because it is easy to observe ideological extremism in other media. At this point, I can’t discount option three, and option four is a possible (although I think incorrect) explanation.

This leaves me with my impression that the U.S. produces far more ideological extremists than other Western democracies. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be the case or why I may be mistaken?

I think there’s validity to Nos. two and four, but if I had to give one answer, I’d say that it boils down to incentives.

If you are the kind of person who wants his or her voice to be heard (as most of us are), there’s little incentive to playing things down the middle, for then your voice won’t be heard. Voicing an ideological extreme, therefore — whether or not it’s truly how you feel — is an exercise of narcissism, for you’ll stand out in a crowd. And considering how costly other forms of narcissism can be, spouting a super-ideological viewpoint in fact comes pretty cheap.

I also think that Michael is witnessing a spike in ideological chatter due to a long and heated presidential election. In this country especially, elections often come to resemble a slightly elevated form of Color War, wherein everyone’s a partisan, and the thrusts and parries are so predetermined as to be nearly comical. It is especially irksome to hear “average voters” in media interviews who parrot, nearly word-for-word, the political parties’ talking points.

If I am even a little bit right on this last point, then Michael (and all the rest of us) can expect to see the ideological fever fade a bit in the coming days — unless, of course, the election result is contested, and drags on for a few more months …


I think political discourse in the U.S. has become more vitriolic since abortion became a national issue. People who evangelize against abortion often are so convinced they are right that they will not listen to competing views without questioning the morality of the person who would prefer, for instance, to allow abortion in the cases where rape or incest are involved.

Some of these people take the moral high ground with a vengeance, which has included the murders of people involved in providing abortions.

People who are opposed to war or the death penalty don't seem to be as inflexible as people who oppose abortion.

I can't support a blanket ban on abortion, and I want better access to contraceptives and prenatal health care, but some people won't let me get those words out of my mouth.

I wonder if one of these days the silent majority in the middle will become the vocal majority, but I don't know if that will happen soon.

People in the U.S. seem to want something to believe in because they want certainty, or they are in other groups, who don't want to believe in what the believers follow. For every evangelical Christian, for instance, there's probably at least one person who doesn't bother to go to church. Some people believe their guns will keep them safe. Other people probably believe the world would come to an end if the Red Sox moved to Arkansas.

Maybe Australians put their faith and opinions into other issues -- whose rugby team is best, for instance. The need for a tribe still might be there, but the tribal lines might not be drawn along political lines.


Jeffrey Trapnell

If you had two opposites shouting from the poles into the middle, wouldn't you get some people who lean one way or the other.

What does the Hoteling Principle say? In terms of standing out in the primary and then running as close as you dare toward the middle to collect votes from within the largest voting basis.

There is an incentive to stand out from the mainstream; greater media coverage. The media would like to sell more papers/airtime and by reporting the extremes it causes people to pay attention and listen. Thus to be heard you have to stand on the periphery of the mainstream and make extremist like statements to get the crowd to turn their head and hear you.

Because of the volume of noise that comes out each day and the ability to be drowned out quickly, it doesn't matter if you are wrong be/c the wrong message gets drowned out. The right message makes sense to people and becomes part of their mantra. I think Al Sharpton has made a living doing this.


Debbie R.

We are not the only country to have experienced heated and sharp ideological debates. Certainly places like Germany, Spain and Italy have experienced periods of extreme ideology in the last century, as well as Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslovia, and many South American countries. And what about Rwanda and Kenya?

From what I understand, Australia is a very prosperous country - rich in natural resources. Prosperous people tend to be complacent people. Things tend to get more heated when people are anxious about their own situations.

I think this is the main factor contributing to the intensity of opinions. Plus the fact that America has been a country where a philosophy of "every man for himself" has prevailed for the last several decades, and this pits those who have succeeded against those who haven't. Since the less successful are told that you have only yourself to blame for your problems, they will of course become more defensive. When you are increasingly told that you must accept personal responsibility for everything that happens to you, the need to point fingers when something goes wrong becomes stronger and stronger.



What metrics might give insight to cultural differences? Some areas to investigate perhaps include:

Military spending/invasions:

For instance, we know that the USA government spends a remarkable amount on armed forced to enforce their will on the world. The government has repeatedly felt justified in invading countries on seemingly weak justification, and then are supported by a population that votes them back in after doing so (sorry, that was a little extreme).

Religious Conviction:

We perceive religion as contributing to a huge amount of extremism around the world, and we know that the USA has a bizarrely high percentage of religious followers (a remnant from the early settling patterns?). Most first world countries have much lower percentages of religious following.

Propaganda machines:

I think DJH (post 26) had some great insights on the way that propaganda machines may have helped fuel this polarization (government, media, and church). I'd love to see advertising, electoral, and church spending as percentages compared to nations like Britain. Knowing that humans seek out views similar to their own, being exposed to so much more content would potentially reinforce views more deeply.


There seems to be a real acceptance of absolutes in the US – right or wrong, 'good' or 'evil', in a way that I don't currently see in other nations (other than Israel). I wonder what Rome's culture had evolved to towards the end? Is it possible that success fuels this sureness in one's views in a way that we could measure?



As an Australian, I think the main difference is that Americans tend to be more ideological rather than more extreme. For Nuclear Mom, we are no different in what we expect the government to do, in fact we expect and get more in terms of health care and social security. But we don't invoke the wrath of God, we just whine. We also don't take as strong a moral stance on our politicians. They can have affairs and all as long as they deliver the goods. As we are not ideological, our discussions often become personal between extremists - especially in the Western Australian newspapers. Try the readers' comments in perthnow.com.au if you would like an example of Australian discussion.


Adding on to commenter #23's population argument.

There's the "economies of scale" that ideologues like Rush Limbaugh enjoy in the US because of its massive prosperous population. Since extremism on the airwaves is profitable, more people are exposed to such rhetoric - and start thinking like Rush.

With just 20 million people in Australia - perhaps there is no money in being an extreme propagandist.


I think the Bill of Rights is a possible factor. It expresses highly contested principles in absolute terms, and feeds the radicalism on all sides of the political spectrum.

For example, abortion and gun debates in your country are both framed by absolute constitutional precedents/statements. Where there exist non-negotiable legal rights, there's little room for, well, negotiation.

Besides which, Americans have a reputation for being radical, loud, and boisterous besides -- perhaps a cultural hangover from the revolution. Australia's "founding" was far more conservative.


Oh, and the point has to be made --

*Australia effectively has a two-party system*

There are few significant differences between the conservative parties, and they've merged in one state.

Perhaps isolationism is another factor.



Your post was so long I defocused my eyes and scrolled past it.

#28: "And Texas is still smaller than California."

That is false to fact.

Johan Sterk

I agree with echoclerk #62 that American cultural narcism is a stunning phenomenon to witness from abroad. (It has quite a lot of similarities with the way the French view themselves). One must see, however, that (luckily) the American nation has no ethnic basis and may only define itself by ideology and territory. That's why some Americans think that the second coming of Christ will take place in Utah or Alaska and that's why they seem to have to pretend that modernity was invented by the founding fathers in Philadelphia. America is a set of ideas with a territory. Therefore, it is attractive to see itself in such a culturally narcissistic way. Similarly, in Europe modernity has dressed itself with the garments of absolutism and bureaucracy. If only we would see that enlightenment and modernity has not yet been fully realized, knows no geographic boundaries, and was there long before us and will be there long after us.


Paul K

I think this is more a matter of medium. How many people engage in such heated discussions in person? I think more of this is the anonymity of the web mixed with the easy access to anyone.

I think 4 is more of a factor than he is allowing for. The extreme positions grab far more attention than the more nuanced ones.

Note that most cable news people also pick panels of such extreme ideologues because it makes for far more interesting watching/listening than the well crafted and reasoned thoughts of centrists.



"One of the strangest things about the USA is that for the self appointed ‘Champion of Democracy’ they can’t even run a decent fair election at home (2004, Anti-ACORN propaganda, voter fraud, computer failure…) or more generally even provide enough voting boths for the population to avoid 6 hour queues!"

As usual, context is important. The lowest echelon of ACORN employees did submit an number of false and silly voter registrations, so complaints are justified. (Republican allegations of widespread fraud were not.)

Incidents of voter fraud, computer failures, and queues in this election were really extremely small considering the size and geographic dispersal of the electorate, the record turnout, etc. In my immediate geographic area, typical queues were 5-15 minutes, with no untoward incidents. In my state as a whole, the only serious problems were one 35-minute accidental delay and one 28-minute delay at different locations, due to one person's mistake and one electric power disruption.



I recommend reading The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop. It explains why over the past few decades we've moved from many Americans being more "in the middle" to being more "extremist" or far to the right/left.

John Neff

I wonder if the centrists don't comment very often because they are subject to attack from both extremes (if you are not my friend you are my enemy).

Alex B

You forget that we once had a civil war.


Australia has a self-consciously "mate" society which proclaims a general "matey-ness" for all, and which harks to the prisoner beginnings when it was the people versus the pommy jailers.

You hear ideology in places like Britain where the old class system carries over in attitudes and hatreds. America has many divisions and those couple to strong religious identity to form moral judgments.


In America we use labels so we can be intellectually lazy.

Labels are easy. We identify ourselves with easy labels rather than having to rationally and logically explain our beliefs. We're too busy watching TV or otherwise wasting our time to be bothered with having to actually know something. We'd rather use easy labels to point out why the other side is wrong.

See #24. Val- I might have been interested to hear what you have to say until you became a stereotype.

Adam Younker

This "competitive extremism" is part of the America envisioned by the Founders. Madison's Federalist Paper #10 (available here: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm).

The basic premise envisioned by Madison was not a specific duality, i.e. two extreme viewpoints duking it out, but he envisioned competing factions. These factions would have their own viewpoint (he envisioned many, not few) and would argue for it. Thus, the net result would be some moderate stance, a middle road, if you will, that is the nature of compromise.

It's a fundamental concept of American DNA. I'm not surprised that it hasn't taken root elsewhere, but it's at the core of what American's feel makes their democracy special. It's sad to see the voices devolve to two extremes, instead of many, which would, statistically speaking, make a much better sampling of the ideas needing to be represented. This sort of factional war for resources and political clout is supposed to force every party towards moderation and compromise, all while respecting the needs and desires of individual factions, giving adequate weight to their needs and interests. It's the same notion at the heart of Federalism, the truly "American" contribution the source code of Democracy.




2 and 4, are essentially, parts of "self selection."

Here's the real question- who starts it? My suggestion, is that when one polar (A) recognizes an opposite polar view (B), the first polar view (A) feels compelled to respond.

Thomas Brownback

"Voicing an ideological extreme, therefore — whether or not it’s truly how you feel — is an exercise of narcissism, for you’ll stand out in a crowd."

I'm not sure about this one, wouldn't it imply a continual attempt to push back the shock boundaries? Doesn't it get harder to stand out in an extreme crowd, leading the positions to grow ever more extreme and comical?

And in a completely unrelated addendum, I would like to officially announce my support for the permanent destruction of the moon.