Triggered by this question which bluntly states what is to be expected from left and right: I noticed that in fact opinions about different political topics seems to be very uniform in both Democratic and Republican parties.

While environmental and genetic background does shape one's own opinion and moves it in a specific direction, there are still many, many topics which are independent from each other.

For example, there are many different arguments for and against:

  1. abortion.
  2. There are also totally different arguments for and against gun control.
  3. There are also different arguments for and against environmental protection being more important than the economy.
  4. And finally the same is valid for or against the death sentence.

There is no reason that one cannot choose from one of the 8 possible pro/con opinions depending on what arguments one finds most convincing.

In the EU I am used to finding people that represent each of the 16 possible combinations of those 8 opinions about 4 issues; some combinations are very popular and others very rare, but I am not surprised if an unusual combination occurs.

In contrast it seems that in the political culture of the USA only 2 combinations are presented. I would even say that I get the impression that other combinations are deemed impossible/unthinkable.

Let's say I have the opinion, (this is not my own opinion, just an example), that I think that firms must be forced to protect the environment and I am for abortion, but I really like guns and find the death sentence absolutely right. Two more left-leaning positions and two right-leaning positions. (I do not argue if this is left or right, choose your own unusual topics.)

If I present this in a political discussion, what is the reaction?

Is it in fact no big deal at all, and the impression of a very uniform opinion is simply an extreme bias presented by US media?

Or would that be jaw-dropping? Causing disbelief? Looking at me like I would have grown three heads? Belief that I must be secretly one of them? Suspecting opportunism which tries to please both parties and pleases none?

What exactly is the reaction of the political culture in the US and/or the public if confronted with an unusual combination of opinions? Are there precedents which are well-known in the public?

  • 2
    Person's views on specific problems is usually a result of their views on more fundamental concepts, like personal freedom vs. social stability. That's why a certain opinion about gun control usually pairs with a certain opinion on abortion or taxes. In fact, this is how "the left" and "the right" patterns emerged. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 0:40
  • 3
    I would say it is more common to find people with a left-right combination that a simple stereotypical "republican" or "democrat." It is easy to find people who view self defense (including gun ownership) as a natural right, are pro-death penalty, and want to drill for oil ("right wing") -but- are also pro-choice atheists who believe that drug laws and minimum sentencing requirements should be be relaxed and incentives for renewable energy adoption be increased ("left wing").
    – acpilot
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 4:26
  • As a follow on, I believe the stereotypes exist because the hard line leftists and conservatives are just so backwards (or...interesting?). Both groups tend to be very vocal which, I think, creates a perception that they are more common than they really are.
    – acpilot
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 4:30
  • There are no 'exact' reactions. This is way too broad.
    – user1530
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 6:08
  • 5
    "seems to be very uniform" - one factor that your need to consider is that not all voices are equally loud. It's a well known factor that more moderate viewpoints are often expressed less noticeably, both on individual and at aggregate level.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 16:09

2 Answers 2


What exactly is the reaction of the political culture in the US and/or the public if confronted with an unusual combination of opinions? Are there precedents which are well-known in the public?

In my experience, lectures. E.g. you can't possibly believe that Donald Trump is more qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton!

The major problem in the United States is that there are always exactly two serious presidential candidates (Ross Perot showed signs of seriousness in 1992 but ultimately was an also-ran). So the nation has to make a choice between two combinations of opinions. Since 1912, the two candidates have been Democrats and Republicans (in 1912, former Republican Teddy Roosevelt came in second under the Progressive or Bull Moose party). Since 1848, no other party has won the presidency (with the arguable exception of Abraham Lincoln's Union party in 1864, but everyone understood that he was a Republican).

The end result is that the two parties determine the bundles of opinions and they do so mostly in competition with each other. The Democrats are the union workers party, so the Republicans are the small business party. The Republicans are pro-gun rights, so the Democrats are for gun control.

These coalitions shift over time though. Some examples:

  • In 1860, Democrats were the party of slavery. Modernly, most black or African-American (two different names, each problematic in their own way, but for the same distinction) vote for Democrats. This can be traced in part to Republican Herbert Hoover's pursuit of the white South in 1928. But also to Democrats' pursuit of the poor in general.
  • In 1976, Democrats were the pro-life party, against abortion and the death penalty. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran as pro-life, against abortion. Since then, Democrats have become the pro-choice party, favoring abortion rights. Democrats remain the anti-death penalty party with Republicans pro-death penalty.
  • Republicans like Susan B. Anthony were the suffragettes (for recognition of women's right to vote). Modernly women's rights advocates are generally Democrats.
  • Democrat John F. Kennedy favored a supply-side tax cut before his death (it passed after he died). That position is now identified with Republican Ronald Reagan. Reagan is also noteworthy for having claimed that the Democratic party left him, causing him to switch to being a Republican.
  • Democrats used to be a rural and urban party. Now rural voters are overwhelmingly Republican.
  • Republicans have traditionally been for free trade and against trade restraints like tariffs. Yet current president Donald Trump is noted for his support for protectionism. Is this the start of a shift? It's unclear if Trump is an outlier or the first of a trend, the way Reagan was with the pro-life position.

The truth is that individual voters in the US do have different bundles of views. However, the coalitions for president are often more stable and driven by primary politics. We can see different results in the legislature:

  • Senator Bob Casey, Jr. is nominally pro-life, favoring a constitutional amendment opposing abortion. However, on procedural grounds, he tends to vote pro-choice on Supreme Court justices and spending issues (he is against abortions but for the government paying for them as long as they are legal).
  • Senator Susan Collins is pro-choice but votes in favor of Republican judicial nominees, who are generally pro-life.
  • Senator Rand Paul has decidedly un-Republican views on things like drone strikes, military interventions, and the Patriot Act.
  • Senator Joe Manchin is a pro-gun rights Democrat as have been several other "red" state Democrats.

I would also count Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, and Claire McCaskill as examples of Democrats with heterodox views or at least voting patterns.

A lot of what happens is that people find themselves having to justify the positions of their presidential candidates. This results in a lot of people saying that they either disagree with that particular position but agree overall or with people defending positions that they don't really hold personally. It's not so horrible that such and such took this position on abortion. The arguments in favor are... Argue the pros of a position for long enough, and you tend to develop a certain amount of personal support.

The other issue is that some people may not have strong feelings one way or the other. But they get stuck in discussions defending their candidate's positions on things they find unimportant. But this too leads to them eventually taking the candidate's positions.

For example, since Reagan, the three pillars of the Republican party are the economic, moral, and international. So someone can care about economic issues like low taxes or minimal regulation. Or someone can care about moral issues like abortion or law enforcement. Or someone can care about a strong defense and negotiating from a position of power. Those pillars are not connected by anything but the party. However, the party has built itself around them.

The Republican party's position on religious freedom rises from its position on moral issues. The same people who are pro-life care deeply about religious freedom from what they consider to be anti-moral positions, e.g. same sex marriage.

Similarly, the Republican party's position on trade comes from two of the pillars: economic and international. The economic argument is that people should be free to make their own purchase decisions. The international argument is that we should be engaged internationally, and trade is our best foot forward.

Anyway, my point is that the US system is a result of the US system. The US has a first-past-the-post presidential election. Duverger's law says that this will tend to produce two dominant political parties, the winner and the loser. I.e. that members of losing parties will tend to make common cause with either the winner or with other losing parties until there are only two parties.

Reinforcing this is the primary system. In primaries, the hard core Democrats and Republicans are split from each other. And in many, only registered party members are allowed to vote. This can lead to two extreme candidates being selected, as the extreme candidates have the most support from the party base. So compromise candidates may not make it to the general election, even if they would receive more support.

Another reason is the increasing nationalization of the vote. Many Southern Democrats lost in 2010, 2012, and 2014 because everyone knew they were going to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. This is pretty advanced in the US.

  • 1
    It's a good answer, but I feel that it should either be deleted 80% of it (keeping the Duverger's law), or at the very least re-structure, so that the actual PoliSci answer is visible up-top and examples go later.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 16:13
  • 1
    So it seems it is really more a visibility problem of heterodox views than actual homogenity. I also see a problem that it is AFAIK still problematic to discuss religion or politics with strangers and distant acquaintances in the USA, so silence goes unnoticed. Are the Americans aware that they are presenting a much more homogenous political landscape to the outside than in reality and that it may even skew the internal perception how different opinions are? Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 19:25
  • With reguards to the Kennedy mention, it's important to point out that Kennedy was staunchly anti-communist and his innaugeral address did not mention any domestic issues facing the nation, only focusing on international issues (the Cold War specifically. I have heard many arguments that Kennedy would not have been a viable candidate in the modern Democratic Party.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 14:35

Are there precedents which are well-known in the public?

Brythan's answer covered the main (and most interesting) part of the question, the "why" (FPTP system and Duverger's law). But yes, there were well known precedents of non-conformistic viewpoints:

  1. First, there are people whose viewpoints are non-conformist due to heterogeneous nature of the country.

    While this is far less frequent than it was 30 years earlier (with the complete demise of "blue dog" Democrats and big decline of "rino" Republicans); even today we have examples of:

    • West Virginia Senator (and earlier, Governor), Joe Manchin.

      He's notoriously non-conformist to the views of national Democratic party. Wikipedia has a very brief and inadequate summary of his divergence:

      As a member of Congress, Manchin is known for his bipartisanship, voting or working with Republicans on issues such as abortion and gun ownership. He has opposed the energy policies of President Barack Obama, declined to vote on both the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and the DREAM ACT, voted for removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood in 2015 (but voted to preserve funding for the organization in 2017), and voted to confirm most of President Donald Trump's cabinet appointees. Manchin supported Trump's decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. In 2017, he voted against allowing states to divert money away from abortion providers. He has repeatedly voted against attempts to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

    • For all his otherwise progressiveness, Howard Dean was rather out of step with mainline Democrats on gun control, being from VT. Ditto, Bernie Saunders.

    • Joe Lieberman never took much interest in being in lock-step with DNC (and paid for it, and repaid them back).

    • On the "R" side, it's even "worse" (depending on your point of view), with several - mostly lefter-NorthEast state representing - Republicans like Collins who might sometimes be mistaken for Democrats in some of their views/votes.

  2. Secondly, we have people who are just aligned differently - either running on populist model that may be wholly orthogonal to two main parties, or, libertarianish leaning people who differ from Democrats on being fiscally conservative and pro-small-government and differ from mainline Republicans on being socially liberal and pro-pretty-much-anything (including pro-immigration in a lot of cases, but also more famousely pro-drug-legalization, etc...)

    • Theodore Roosevelt was a populist candidate (both in his Presidential term, where he took many rather progressive positions out of sync with his party; and especially as Bull Moose candidate).

    • Donald Trump ran as a populist candidate many of whose positions - at least, when running - were in divergence with mainline Republican ones. There was a reason most "official" conservatives opposed him, and it wasn't just his ahem unorthodox personal uniqueness, shall we say. There were incredibly deep ideological divides.

    • As mentioned in the summary, almost any libertarian (small l and large L) identified candidates, such as Ron Paul, or anyone running on Libertarian ticket. Of couse, thanks to FPTP, they had very little success, especially at the national level.

  • Thanks for the answer and the examples. Your note that the diversity has in fact diminished coincide with my observations (I also see a higher hostility to the political opponent and a much more partisan approach to handle disagreements). I asked some questions to Brythan, I would appreciate if you can add your opinion to this. And I really find that the information provided by Brythan is ok because as foreigner you need some background information how it works. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 19:31

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