Reality Check: The American Ideological Map

Timothy E. Dolan
11 min readNov 25, 2020

“There are two kinds of people in this world, those who think there are two kinds of people in this world and those who know better.”

Tom Robbins

Reframing American ideological orientations with empirical data is fraught with resistance with the false dichotomy, “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” “liberal/conservative” two-party binary choice still holding popular sway. The vast array of value systems and interests that shape public political attitudes are far more intricate than the American “two-party system” to express. Yet, to the extent most Americans think about their ideologies, it is through the binary choice of liberal/conservative, usually resulting in the reduction of the other side to caricature.

More sophisticated people will often adhere to the image of an ideological spectrum that is largely based on role of government in society ranging from “totalitarian” to “anarchist” shown below.

Figure 1. Ideological Spectrum Based Upon the Role of Government in Society


Totalitarian Authoritarian Liberal Centrist Conservative Libertarian Anarchist

This is a useful spectrum as far as it goes though it allows Americans the comfortable illusion of being in the middle between two extremes. It provides an image of a bell curve wherein Americans can see themselves in a silent majority and dwelling well away from the fringes. No one wants to be labelled an extremist even as the charge is routinely leveled against advocates for change be it for reform or rollbacks of previous reforms.

A far more useful image is to conceive ideology as a map rather than a spectrum in which the poles are not liberal/conservative or totalitarian/anarchist, but a more realistic relationship between ideologies as shown below:

The first thing to notice is that while the liberal and conservative compass points are obviously oriented differently they are not in opposition to each other. Moreover they share a common fidelity to democratic governing principles born of the Enlightenment and exemplified in the American Constitution. The distinction has generally been around liberal focus on issues of social justice leading to advocacy of a welfare state model, while conservatives have focused on institutional preservation and concern for economic viability in the classical capitalist sense, as well as a related emphasis on national security both domestically and internationally. The territory between faith in existing institutions of governance and that of no such confidence can be marked by the diagonal line illustrated below:

The second thing of critical importance in understanding the full range of ideological orientations lies in the polar opposites of liberal and conservative ideology respectively.

The opposite of liberal is reactionary as the progressive agendas of liberals are literally reacted to by those who consistently oppose government-led societal change. Reactionaries seek to not just maintain the status quo, but roll back established policies intended to realize greater social equity and justice. They are marked by a backwards gaze to a golden-age to which we must return. The reactionary orientation is generally identifiable by its embrace of ancient symbols such as with the Nazi swastika, Mussolini’s resurrection of Roman iconography and Franco’s use of a near medieval form of Roman Catholicism. Their rhetoric is marked by the phrases, “Go back” and “Return to”.

The opposite of conservative is radical in that radicals (the word literally means “root” as in square root) seek fundamental structural and process change over incrementalism. They view the institutional systems governing society (corporate, governmental, religious, etc.) as so fundamentally flawed and corrupted that entirely new structures and processes must be created to supplant them. This is the realm of the revolutionary in the mold of Zapata, Lenin and Mao.

Now that the ideological compass points are defined the territories can now be mapped.

The Pew Research Center for People, Politics and the Press have for many years conducted extensive surveys on American political attitudes yielding an ever fluctuating typology of voters and non-voters. The last such survey was done in October of 2017 with some 5,000 participants (a very large sample relative to almost all political polls, and is the basis for the territorial map summarized below:

Using this “political typology”, these orientations can be overlayed onto the compass points to provide an ideological map of the United States. As depicted in the graphic above, there are three elements to each orientation consisting of a base attitude, refined by those who are registered voters and then further refined by political engagement. The map below will consist of the elements of the first column of the chart above with relative intensity marked by the distance from the intersection of the X and Y axes using the relative percentages in the third column. The proportions are roughly sketched with the primary intention to indicate the relationships between each group and their orientation on the ideological compass.

The American Ideological Map circa 2017

There are a total of nine political orientations (perhaps better conceived as parties) including a “bystander” non-voter category. As with previous surveys done by the Pew Center for People, Politics and the Press, the political divisions among Americans transcend the simplistic 2-party, liberal/conservative model. The extensive and highly refined work by the Pew Center reveals four types of voters likely to vote with the Democratic Party and four likely to vote Republican. The intensity of each group’s commitment to their respective agendas is reflected in the relative length of each group from the center, XY axis. Thus, we see that Solid Liberals are the most energized group with Core Conservatives running second in strength of their commitment. The growing potency of each of these wings over the years and increasingly diametrical opposition to each other supports the view that American political culture has become more and more polarized. The de facto parties occupying the middle, once the key to national consensus, have waned though they still wield influence as constituents in what are governing coalitions commonly found in multi-party parliamentary systems.

So what are the distinctive characteristics of the American multi-party system? From the Pew Center’s survey data we get the following profiles starting with the “Country First Conservatives” and concluding with the “Solid Liberals”:

Country First Conservatives

Country First Conservatives, are a much smaller segment of the GOP base but have moved the party decidedly to the reactionary side despite being largely passive and hence under-the-radar in the 2016 election. They are older and less educated than other Republican-leaning groups. According to the Pew Center Report, “Country First Conservatives are unhappy with the nation’s course, highly critical of immigrants and deeply wary of U.S. global involvement.”

They are a solid part of Trump’s base and maintain loyalty to him with his promise to change things though the nature of the change seems vague with the highest consensus within this party being a strong anti-immigration view in order for the country to be “great again”.

Core Conservatives

According to the Pew Center Report:

“This financially comfortable, male-dominated group overwhelmingly supports smaller government, lower corporate tax rates and believes in the fairness of the nation’s economic system. And a large majority of Core Conservatives (68%) express a positive view of U.S. involvement in the global economy “because it provides the U.S. with new markets and opportunities for growth.””

This still dominant faction of traditional conservatives have supported the Trump presidency though with some ambivalence over the administration’s policies on protectionism in general and tariffs particular, as well as overall tone. This, however, has been mitigated by accepting that trading relationships were unfair and passing tax cuts, Supreme Court and other Federal Court appointments, were a net win for their interests.

Market Skeptic Republicans

The Pew Center describes this faction as:

“Alone among the groups in the GOP coalition, a majority of Market Skeptic Republicans support raising tax rates on corporations and large businesses. An overwhelming share (94%) say the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests, which places the view of Market Skeptic Republicans on this issue much closer to Solid Liberals (99% mostly unfair) than Core Conservatives (21%).”

Despite significant doubts about the fairness of the American economic system, Market Skeptic Republicans are still solidly in the Trump camp insofar as they see his agenda preserving socially conservative values. They thus support his judicial appointments and his “America First” agenda generally.

New Era Enterprisers

The final Republican leaning group, Enterprise Republicans, are described by the Pew Center in these terms:

“In contrast to Market Skeptic Republicans, New Era Enterprisers are fundamentally optimistic about the state of the nation and its future. They are more likely than any other typology group to say the next generation of Americans will have it better than people today. Younger and somewhat less overwhelmingly white than the other GOP-leaning groups, New Era Enterprisers are strongly pro-business and generally think that immigrants strengthen, rather than burden, the country.”

The optimism of New Era Enterprisers grows from a faith in entrepreneurism rooted in the power of human agency and freedom that are core values of the American creed. They hold the strongest negative views of Trump among Republican leaning groups. They are thus conflicted with their identification with what was a center-right orientation of the traditional Republican Party, and the xenophobic attitudes of the Country First Conservatives who are firmly behind the Trump presidency.

Devout and Diverse

The Pew Center describes this mostly Black and Latino mix of low participation voters along these lines:

“A second majority-minority group, Devout and Diverse, faces even tougher financial hardships than Disaffected Democrats. Devout and Diverse also are the most politically mixed typology group (about a quarter lean Republican), as well as the least politically engaged. . . . . they are critical of government regulation of business. They also are the most religiously observant Democratic-leaning group, and the only one in which a majority (64%) says it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.”

These are traditionally passive voters nested in various faith communities where the issues of abortion rights and LGBTQ rights dampens their support for Democrats while also being wary of Republicans as unresponsive to their economic situations. They are the least politically engaged of the Democratic leaning groups. Their ideologies run culturally conservative, but economically liberal.

Disaffected Democrats

The Pew Center describes Disaffected Democrats like this:

Disaffected Democrats have very positive feelings toward the Democratic Party and its leading figures. Their disaffection stems from their cynicism about politics, government and the way things are going in the country. This financially stressed, majority-minority group supports activist government and the social safety net, but most say government is “wasteful and inefficient.” A large majority of Disaffected Democrats say their side has been losing in politics, while fewer than half believe that voting gives them a say in how the government runs things.”

This group is volatile in the sense that their distrust of current government policy has made them both alienated and potentially ripe for mobilization. Early indications point to this group to have likely made a significant difference in the 2020 election though with state houses and losses of Democratic seats in the House, they may not have had an impact down ballot. This may have suggested a “vote them all out” mindset. This faction of the Democratic Party has long been financially stressed and policies aimed at addressing that stress such as Covid-related job loss, broad infrastructure investment and raising state and national minimum wages are their likely priorities.

Opportunity Democrats

The Pew Center for People, Politics and the Press describes this core component of the Democratic Party coalition as being distinctive on their perception of corporate America:

“For the most part, Opportunity Democrats agree with Solid Liberals on major issues. But Opportunity Democrats are less affluent, less politically engaged and less liberal — both in their attitudes on issues and in how they describe themselves politically. One area of difference between Opportunity Democrats and Solid Liberals is on corporate profits: 40% of Opportunity Democrats say most corporations make a “fair and reasonable amount of profit,” compared with 16% of Solid Liberals. And Opportunity Democrats stand out in their belief that most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard.”

Opportunity Democrats are thus aspirational and committed to the core value of the American Dream. They are not fully supportive of progressive initiatives such as “The Green New Deal” out of concern over economic impacts. They are sympathetic to social justice issues, and are in resolute opposition to Trump’s immigration and “law and order” policies that they see as highly divisive. They are solidly in favor of expanding health coverage to all Americans.

Solid Liberals

The Pew Center’s summary of this largest of all political sub-parties is as follows:

“Solid Liberals are the largest group in the Democratic coalition, and they make up close to half (48%) of politically engaged Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Largely white, financially comfortable and highly educated (most are college graduates and nearly a third have postgraduate degrees), Solid Liberals overwhelmingly express liberal attitudes on virtually every issue.”

This progressive subset of the Democratic coalition has grown in numbers and influence over the years and has served as an incubator for policy initiatives such as “The Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income (UBI) and police and justice reform. While Senator Bernie Sanders has long served as the titular head of this party faction, there is a rising generation of political leaders gaining prominence such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Andrew Yang and Stacey Abrams whom are likely to continue pushing the progressive agenda.

Quite a number of political commentators recognize that there are fault lines within the two major American parties, but almost always frame the divisions as between either the progressives and Democratic establishment, or Trump-aligned populist nationalists and the Republican establishment respectively. One can anticipate that progressives within the Democratic umbrella will continue to grow and consolidate gains given that the leaders within the establishment wing are quite old (President Biden is 78, House Speaker Pelosi 80, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer 81 and House Majority Whip James Clyburn 79) compared to their progressive counterparts. The Republican coalition is more fraught with the Country First wing coalescing hard around Trump, and pulling some Core Conservatives over to more reactionary stances sans their also aging establishment intellectual Reagan era ideologues like William Kristol, Peggy Noonan and George Will. There is thus a real prospect of significant numbers of citizens pulling away from the traditional American political mainstream with its shared faith in its institutions to more radical and reactionary views respectively.

What the Pew Center for People, Politics and the Press have accomplished with their now decades-long series of political attitude surveys is to show that there is a dynamic and shifting American electorate that any political campaign consultant knows needs to be reached in any national and even state race. The fiction of two monolithic parties from which one can predict the policy preferences of constituents is more unreliable than ever. For further information on the work of The Pew Center for People Press and Politics and their work on American political attitudes, follow this link:



Timothy E. Dolan

Long-term policy advocate and principal of Policy Foresight, a public policy consultancy.