Following Converse’s advice that ideology is the product of a “creative synthesis,” conducted by a narrow group of intellectuals, this paper reports on attempts to study ideology at its point of creation. I develop a measure of ideology expressed among pundits, based on coded opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers from 1830 to 1990. I use this measure to test the impact of ideas on party coalitions. I argue that ideologies, as created by intellectuals, strongly influence the coalitions that party leaders advance. In three cases – the realignment on slavery before the Civil War, the Civil Rights realignment in the mid-20th century, and the party change on abortion more recently – there is evidence that intellectuals reorganize the issues before parties realign around them. This evidence suggests that the patterns of “what goes with what” that intellectuals design have an impact on the nature of political cleavages.
This is why I find it silly when people dismiss the possibility left-libertarian politics by pointing out that liberal and libertarian groups typically find themselves on opposite sides of contemporary political battles. Politicians, activists, and septegenarian billionaires are lagging indicators of ideological trends. The right-leaning politics of the Koch brothers are the result of intellectual arguments that happened in libertarian circles in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary libertarian politics is right-leaning because a previous generation of libertarian intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek, Rand) chose to focus primarily on “right-wing” issues like taxes and deregulation. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. If the present generation of libertarian intellectuals chose to focus on “left-wing” issues—war, civil liberties, immigration, urbanism, patent reform, gay rights, etc—then the next generation of libertarian donors, activists, and politicians would likely see the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, as natural allies.