In Western democracies, left and right are among the most common terms to describe everything that is political. The heuristic power of these categories is so great that they have been able to remain in style since the French Revolution, adapting to the different issues and rhetorical styles that have characterized politics in many places and times. In fact, left and right are so adaptable, that not only do they act as good summaries for issues, values or worldviews, but also as “team flags” for political groups. This is no news for scholars of political behavior, especially for those focused on American politics – where ideology can be both symbolic and operational and it overlaps with partisanship (which in turn can be both expressive and instrumental). However, this “double nature” of ideological labels has two implications that have been overlooked so far. First, as the issues that are included in the left and right containers varies across contexts, the meaning of the labels (policy issue aggregators or political group identifiers) may vary too. Second, while issues can offer nuanced positions, group identities are by definition categorical. And when social categories enter the equation, parties and candidates cease to be treated equal, like shops on a Downsian street, and start being evaluated differently depending on whether they are in-group or out-group.
In our article published on Political Behavior we put together these two insights, looking at how the contextual variation in meaning of left and right labels relates to the way citizens perceive the ideological positions of political parties. First, we propose a method to assess the relative importance of political group memberships, vis-à-vis issue preferences and social structure, for citizens’ left-right self placements. Second, we test whether in places where group memberships are more prominent, people’s perceptions of parties are affected by a cognitive bias typical of categorical perception. This implies accentuating the perceived similarity between the self and ideological in-group parties, and the difference between the self and ideological out-group parties. We test our expectations on a sample of 24 European countries using data from the European Election Study of 2009 and the Chapel Hill Expert Survey of 2010. We find that, the greater is the relative importance of partisan group membership for left-right positions, (1) the better able citizens are to place parties in the correct left-right category, and (2) the further away from themselves they perceive ideological out-group parties, compared with experts’ assessments. We find no conclusive evidence for accentuated within-group similarity.
Our study suggests an important link between ideological and group polarization. Whereas left-right differences are usually interpreted as differences in policy content, we provide evidence that such differences may be accentuated in citizens’ perception due to a group-identitarian understanding of left and right labels. As a consequence, the observed degrees of left-right polarization in cross-country studies may as well reflect the amount of out-groupness between parties and citizens belonging to opposite ideological camps. We maintain that the mechanism governing this link is categorization, a basic cognitive device that people use in many situations arising in everyday life. While categories help individuals organize reality, they may help them organize the political reality as well. However, this may come at the expense of an accurate perception of political similarities and differences.