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Converse: The nature of belief systems in mass publics

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Converse. 1964. The nature of belief systems in mass publics. In Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter.

In Brief

A great majority of people neither adhere to a full, complete set of beliefs which produces a clear ideology nor do they have a clear grasp of what ideology is. This is measured by a lack of coherence in responses to open-ended questions. Ideology of elites is not mirrored by the masses and voter revolt to a political party does not reflect ideological shifts.

Converse analyzes open-ended interview questions to measure conceptualization of ideology. He concludes that the liberal-conservative continuum is a high level abstraction not typically used by the man in the street because of response instability and lack of connections made between answers. There is no underlying belief structure for most people, just a bunch of random opinions. Even on highly controversial, well-publicized issues, large portions of the electorate do not have coherent opinions. In fact, many simply answer survey questions as though they are flipping a coin.

Though some political sophisticates do structure their opinions in a larger ideological framework, such structure is rare. This level of political sophistication (one's "level of conceptualization") is correlated positively with the respondent's level of education, degree of political involvement, and amount of political information.

Key points: Most people do not have strong belief systems; that is, they do not think ideologically. A minority of people have fixed preferences and answer survey questions consistently, but most simply give random answers. Most people do not interpret politics through an ideological lens.

Place in Literature

Seminal article which begins great debate about the rationality of voters which continues today, building on The American Voter (1960). Zaller (1992) seems to see himself as providing an update to Converse's theory. In Zaller's theory, we have competing considerations, and our response at any given time is a weighted average of those considerations that happen to be on our minds at the time).

On whether voters are sufficiently informed, see the summary of Lupia and McCubbins, The Democratic Dilemma for a review of where the literature has gone. On whether the "levels of conceptualization" are valid, see Smith's research, and on the use of a liberal-conservative dimension, see Conover and Feldman.


Analysis of voter survey data from early 1950's to 1960.

The Argument

What Converse Argues Against

Democratic theory assumes that voters in the "mass public" hold clear ideological values which allow them to make voting decisions based on the positions candidates hold. One of the most prevalent distinctions they are assumed to make is evaluating candidates' positions on the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum. Thus, when the electorate chooses politicians that vary from one end of the spectrum to the other, it is often assumed that the electorate is becoming more conservative or more liberal.

Five Types of Voter: Levels of Conceptualization

The result of Converse's surveys and analysis cast doubt on many of these assumptions by showing the apparent lack of understanding of ideology or even differentiation between the two political parties on the liberal-conservative continuum. Using open-ended interviews as well as survey data, Converse classifies voters into the following categories based on their understanding of basic ideological differentiation between ideas:

  1. Ideologues: These respondents relied on "a relatively abstract and far reaching conceptual dimension as a yardstick against which political objects and their shifting political significance over time were evaluated" (p.216).
  2. Near Ideologues: These respondents mentioned the liberal-conservative dimension peripherally, but did not appear to place much emphasis on it, or used it in a way that led the researchers to question their understanding of the issues.
  3. Group Interest: This group did not demonstrate an understanding of the ideological spectrum, but made choices based on which groups they saw the parties representing (e.g. Democrats supporting blacks, Republicans supporting big business or the rich). These people tended to not understand issues that did not clearly benefit the groups they referred to.
  4. Nature of the Times: The members of this group exhibited no understanding of the ideological differences between parties, but made their decisions on the "nature of the times." Thus, they did not like Republicans because of the Depression, or they didn't like the Democrats because of the Korean war.
  5. No issue content: This group included the respondents whose evaluation of the political scene had "no shred of policy significance whatever" (p. 217). These people included respondents who identified a party affiliation, but had no idea what the party stood for, as well as people who based their decisions on personal qualities of candidates.

Most people fall into the lower three levels of conceptualization.

Elites have Little Influence on Mass Ideology

Converse also found that the mass public does not seem to share beliefs in any predictable way with elites or that the voting patterns of the people at the lower end of the scale are following the patterns of the ideologues and near ideologues who have a firm grasp of the issues.

Response Instability: Random Changes in Responses

In addition, Converse's interviews with the same respondents over a two-year period often show little correlation with each other. In these cases, only 13 out of 20 managed to locate themselves on the same side of a given controversy in successive interviews. Converse's interpretationis that this change seemed almost exclusively random instead of as a response to changing beliefs.


Converse concludes by looking at historical events such as the rise of the abolition movement, the McCarthy era and the rise of the Nazi Party through the lens of his analysis. In each case he points to the fact that, although elites and politicians claimed popular support for their policies, there may have been little awareness among the mass public of the ramifications and support of the specifics of their policies.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Converse, Philip (author)American PoliticsPublic OpinionIdeologyInformationVoting

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