When we think of American politics we typically either think of the institutions of government—the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches and sometimes the bureaucracy as distinct from the other three—or else we think of the two coalitional political parties that dominate the directly visible political landscape. After all, whenever we learn of elections— especially through information media as well as in both formal and informal political discourse— we are typically brought face-to-face with what has become known as the “two-party” system, despite the apparent presence of no less than fifty-five active political parties throughout the United States. (Gunzburger, Ron. “Directory of U.S. Political Parties” Politics1.com)
Furthermore, the coalition nature of the two principal political parties that historically maintain a presence in elective government, especially on the federal level, can themselves be understood as a joining together of distinct state parties. Each of these state parties have their own particular political agenda and their own ideas about the nature and purpose of government, and for the most part they only come together to adopt a national platform every four years, in the summer before the Presidential election. Nevertheless, because these state parties do join together at least twice a decade, and moreover because partisans may find allies across state lines through interactions within Congress, the idea of a “two-party” system persists, and is generally reinforced on Election Day throughout the country.
Although the partisan picture appears to the casual observer as the most significant political division within the United States vis a vis the electoral process, others will point not to the structure of organized political parties, but to ideological divisions. This phenomenon has become linked to political partisanship, especially by such political scholars as Sidney Milkis, who writes in The President and the Parties that as early as 1936, the President himself was convinced that the nation had divided into “liberal and conservative parties,” a division which Roosevelt encouraged. (Milkis 75) More recently in an article in the Atlantic monthly, David Brooks popularized the identification of an ideological—and perhaps a more broadly cultural—split in the American electorate as a division between “Red” and “Blue” America, taking cues from the electoral map shown during major television news coverage of the bitterly contested Presidential election of 2000 (Brooks, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” Atlantic, December 2001). In July 2004, Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor observed “the growing ideological purity of both parties: Conservative Democrats…have become all but extinct, as have liberal Republicans.” (“Republican America: How Georgia went ‘red’.” CSM 15 July 2004. )
What is especially unsettling about the terms of the current debate is that an apparent duality has emerged, regarding both political party affiliation and ideological orientation. Consequently, Americans are increasingly disaffected by American politics, as E.J. Dionne points out in Why Americans Hate Politics, with more than half the eligible electorate avoiding the polls in all but Presidential elections. Even the 2000 election, arguably the closest and most controversial election of the last century, saw only about half of American voters casting ballots (Sabato, Larry J. Get in the Booth! A Citizen's Guide to the 2004 Election. New York: Longman, 2005: 5). Much of this absence has been attributed in the past to a general political apathy among would-be American voters; a familiar refrain among citizens regarding past elections had been that it didn’t matter who occupied a particular office, or that the candidates running for office were indistinguishable from each other. In the last four years, however, one may well add another critique: that no major candidate’s platform conforms with the citizen’s political views. Thanks in part to the framing of the 2000 election in terms of a Red v. Blue America, and the “ideological purity” that each (former?) coalition party appears to have embraced, an increasing number of citizens are finding themselves virtually shut out of organized political discourse, on the grounds that one must either be a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative. Of course, some have had to “settle” for an uneasy middle ground, calling themselves “centrists” or “moderates” despite strongly held political beliefs which do not readily fit into a binary party system or a linear ideological continuum.
Both of these views—two-party politics and a bipolar ideological spectrum--- are inherently myopic. Indeed, a casual survey of AM Radio or politically-themed Weblogs offer evidence that ideological orientation now enjoys a central position in American political discourse not seen since perhaps the 1850s or even the Founding Era. However, the message remains consistent: pundits and commentators identify someone as liberal or conservative, depending on two distinct factors: 1) whether the observer identifies himself as a liberal or a conservative, and 2) whether or not he agrees with the political actor he is commenting about. That political observers thus describe ideology of course leads to confusion among many Americans, myself included, as to the basic character of any given ideological stance. This confusion is exacerbated by the tendency among political candidates to “improve their public standing” (Bishin, Benjamin G. "Ideological Accuracy: Do NOMINATE Scores Accurately Reflect Legislators' Preferences?" Coral Gables, FL: UMiami Dept. of Political Science, 26 Sept. 2001: 2) so that they may secure an electoral victory. However, a candidate may perceive a majority of his potential constituents more or less sympathetic to a particular ideological stance, and in response will either tailor his rhetoric to fit the perceived orientation of a majority of the voting public, or else seek to mobilize more voters sympathetic to his cause than any of his opponents. Still, without a comprehensive picture of the full ideological landscape, even the candidates most responsive to constituent concerns will miss the mark with would-be voters who are neither ideological liberals nor ideological conservatives already. Merely scrutinizing candidates clearly offers an insufficient view of the political landscape, and a broader tool than those currently used to examine candidates and officeholders is required.
Furthermore, while the ideological orientation of political candidates is under frequent scrutiny using a variety of measures, relatively little appears to be available with respect to other political actors who are not necessarily running for elective office. Rather, the electorate appears to have adopted a kind of “honor system” whereby they trust that the political actors they hear intimately know their own ideological positions and are honest about those positions with the general public. Consequently, the ideological character of non-candidates remains unclear, and rancorous accusations abound regarding officials, institutions, media outlets, newspapers, and even individuals in casual political conversation regarding ideological bias. Just because a commentator or a television or radio personality or station claims to be “balanced” or “unbiased” does not necessarily make it so. A wide variety of factors contributes to the formation of political opinion, including community leaders, educators, and information media; because ideologues are aware of the influence they may be in a position to exert, especially when their true bias remains obscure, the ideological slants of political actors who are not running for office must be discerned as well. Ideological extremists may seek to deceive more moderate ideological adherents by redefining the character of a particular ideological position such that it is more favorable to their own, while other ideologues may seek to label their opponents’ viewpoints as extreme, even if they are not. Such definitions of ideological positions are troublesome for active political engagement, as they are ill-defined, capricious, and arbitrary. It becomes evident, therefore, that a pressing need exists for a generalized, reliable and practical tool to detect ideological bias, and to establish firmly whether or not a political actor is a liberal, a conservative, or else an adherent to some other set of political opinions and beliefs not consistent with the linear liberal/conservative spectrum. This tool must be accomplished in a systematic and reliable manner, so that we may become aware as citizens and audiences of the messages to which we expose ourselves.