Identification, Political

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Identification, Political


Of the psychological processes directly relevant to political behavior, perhaps none is more pervasive than a person’s identification with a group, regardless of whether the group is ostensibly political or not. Examples are an individual’s identification with a nation, an ideological movement, a political party, a social class, a racial or ethnic group, a farm, labor, or veterans’ association, a religious faith, and so on. In its most general sense, then, political identification means a person’s sense of belonging to a group, if that identification influences his political behavior.

An early suggestion of the process, which did not, however, use the term “identification,” was Marx’s observation that the operation of the capitalist system would develop “class consciousness” among workers when they were situated where they could communicate with one another about their common deprivation, as in cities (Bendix & Lipset 1953). Wallas ([1908] 1962, p. 103) recognized, but did not define, party identification when he observed that a political party is “something which can be loved and trusted and which can be recognized at successive elections….”

The term “identification,” in its modern, group sense, was first elaborated by Freud (1921). It had long been observed that people in crowds tend to be irrational, impatient, uninhibited, and credulous, but Freud felt that the part played by group leaders as the object of emotional ties for the members of a group had been underestimated, and he sought to account for the origin of these emotions in the individual personality.

To Freud identification was “the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person” (1921, p. 105). A boy identifies with his father as an “ego ideal”—someone he would like to be, rather than something or someone he would like to have (a sexual object). Identification may be ambivalent, as when the boy is jealous of the father’s place in the mother’s affections. After infancy the propensity to identify is carried over into new situations and “may arise with any new perception of a common quality shared with some other person who is not an object of the sexual instinct” (p. 108), hence its relevance to group behavior. Identification is partial, at times limited to a single characteristic of the ideal, and thus applicable to multiple identifications in a pluralist society. It is variable in force. Freud analyzed, as examples, the army, where the soldier takes the commander as his ideal but identifies with other soldiers, and the church, where Christ is the ideal. “Many equals, who can identify themselves with one another, and a single person superior to them all—that is the situation that we find realized in groups which are capable of subsisting” (p. 121).

Freud thus explained the need and ability of individuals to affiliate and the strength of the emotional ties involved—as essential for the genesis of man as a social animal. The infantile origins of the process of identification account for its operation below the conscious level, for its strength as a motivating factor, and for its sometimes irrational or regressive manifestations.

The ambivalent character of the Freudian concept of identification poses problems for scientific analysis: when will the positive action occur? when the negative reaction? which will predominate numerically? The usual tactic is to ignore negative identification, leaving it in the residual category of unexplained variance. In nonstatistical, after-the-fact accounts, it is recognized as “projection”—the tendency of an in-group to attribute to others their own “wicked” desires. For example, Davies (1963, pp. 39-45) thus accounts for the belief of Populist farmers that the cities were centers of greed and depravity.

Regressive identification is typified by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, the Bolshevik theory of “capitalist encirclement,” the sixteenth-century French religious wars, and nativist movements in the United States. These occur in periods of tension and anxiety (Neumann 1954). Some are Caesaristic, but a single, dramatic leader is not required; for example, the Ku Klux Klan leadership has been diffuse, disorganized, and incompetent. There is also a nonaffective, “libido-free” identification, less regressive and more transferable, as when modern bureaucratic groups are joined for the sake of material interests, and loyalty to them subsequently develops. Thus, the term is stripped of its Freudian overtones.

Class identification. Class identification presents a potent empirical test of the explanatory power of identification. This is because one may compile external, “objective” indices of a person’s class (such as occupation, income, education, or the judgment of the interviewer), which are independent of the person’s own “class identification.” The latter is ascertained by asking him what class he belongs to. Identification was found to be relevant to voting behavior in a 1940 election study (Lazars-feld et al. 1944), and its effect was found to be independent of actual socioeconomic status. Centers (1949) found identification had less effect than status on voting in the 1944 presidential election in the United States, and this was confirmed for later American elections by Eulau (1962). British studies (which do not often use the term “identification”) show that class identification has an effect roughly equal to that of objective class, which itself has more impact on voting in Great Britain than on voting in the United States (Alford 1963; Milne & MacKenzie 1954, p. 43; Bonham 1954, p. 180).

National comparisons are difficult. There is variation in the degree to which identification and objective class coincide. The point on the status continuum that divides “middle class” from “working class” must be arbitrarily determined. Understandably, persons on the borderline may identify with either class, and identification exerts a strong effect on them (Degras et al. 1956).

Seeking to trace the effect of identification through intervening variables, such as the elector’s perception of voting patterns in his own and the opposing party or his clear recognition of politically relevant class interests, has shown that identifiers are not sharply conscious of class differences in England and the United States. (Eulau 1962, chapter 5; Degras et al. 1956, pp. 114-122), but that class interests are readily perceived in a partisan frame of reference. Correlations between identification and corresponding political and social attitudes are low (Centers 1949, p. 202). Eulau found that those whose identification departed from their objective class diverged most from their status groups in their political attitudes and perceptions, somewhat less in their beliefs about the political process (such as whether one should participate), and least of all in their reported behavior—reading about, voting in, or working in the election. Apparently identification influences ideas, but the class in which one was actually socialized is likelier to influence behavior. Thus, he concluded that identification constitutes only “role potential” (Eulau 1962, p. 85).

As a process, class identification is usually completed by adolescence. It is more closely related to parental status than are political attitudes and vote preference, which may be absorbed from peers (Hyman 1959, p. 65; Berelson et al. 1954, p. 135). Residence in metropolitan areas and other circumstances that diminish contact between classes heighten class polarization. Middle-class persons are more likely than are workers to be aware of class-relevant issues and to vote in accordance with their perceptions (Michigan, University of … 1960, chapter 13); and they are more likely than are workers to identify with both nation and class (Buchanan & Cantril 1953). The effect of class identification varies considerably from election to election.

Party identification. Party identification is a concept developed in the United States, where there are no membership cards, few party rosters, varying legal definitions of party membership from state to state, and widespread ticket splitting (Key 1942, p. 390). The operational definition of a Republican is, therefore, “one who says he ‘thinks of,’ ‘considers,’ or ‘regards’ himself as a Republican.”

Such questions had been asked by polls since 1937, but the term “party identification” was not widely used until after the 1948 election, when Truman’s victory demonstrated the strength of partisanship. The delay in recognizing the importance of party identification was probably due to the excessive rationalism of popular political thought in the United States, where voters have been taught that their choices should be based upon deliberate assessment of issues and candidates. Identification was explicitly conceptualized as an independent variable motivating voting behavior and was analyzed along with candidate choice and issue orientation after the 1952 election (Campbell et al. 1954).

The genesis of party identification is in socialization within the family. American children begin to identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats at age seven or eight, before they know what a political party is. They adopt their party as they do their family name and religion (Easton & Hess 1962). In contrast, French children do not hear their parents talk politics, and their identifications are infrequent, weak, and unstable (Converse & Dupeux 1962). American children adopt their parents’ party identification more completely than they assimilate their parents’ opinions or even vote preference. An individual socialized into a party does not need to work out a set of attitudes to provide him with cues for political action; he may refer directly to his party’s stand (Hyman 1959, p. 74). Most voters continue to vote in line with their original identification, and few change identifications during their lifetime. Strength of party identification increases with age (Michigan, University of …1960). Party identification appears to influence behavior directly, although it may also influence attitudes toward government policy and perceptions of candidates. Thus, its effect is difficult to isolate.

The proportion of the American population identified with each major party has been remarkably stable for a quarter of a century. A variety of sampling methods and question wordings used from 1937 to 1952 found that the proportion of Democratic identifiers was from 36 to 50 per cent; the proportion of Republican identifiers, from 28 to 40 per cent (tabulations in Public Opinion Quarterly, passim). From 1952 through 1960, the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, using the same question and a tighter sampling scheme, found Democrats ranged from 43 to 47 per cent, Republicans from 26 to 32 per cent. Independents vary from 20 to 25 per cent, but most of them incline toward one party or the other. The data suggest that gross change in the balance of identification has been negligible since 1937. Contrasted with this partisan stability, election margins have varied substantially, and the popularity of party leaders, especially of incumbent presidents, has dipped and soared wildly. This is further confirmation that identification with a leader is not a necessary condition for the operation of the identifying process.

What produces governmental change, of course, is the shifting of marginal voters, including independents and weak identifiers. About 95 per cent of Republican identifiers, according to a Gallup poll, voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 1952, 1956, and 1960; and about 85 per cent of Democratic identifiers voted for the Democratic candidate in 1956, 1960, and 1964. Eisenhower won in 1952, when there was a shift of Democratic identifiers to him (23 per cent), and a similar shift on the part of Republicans (20 per cent) brought Johnson a landslide victory in 1964.

Although party identification is normally quite stable, it has been found, from the recollection of respondents (Michigan, University of …1960, pp. 152-167), and confirmed by analysis of voting data (Key 1942, p. 535), that a large number of erstwhile Republican identifiers became Democrats early in the depression. Other realignments apparently occurred in the economic and political crises of 1860 and 1896. Between such critical periods there is a small drift out of the ranks of each party into the independent category and occasionally across to the opposition. There is also an intergenerational drift, caused sometimes by social mobility (Hyman 1959, p. 109), sometimes by politically irrelevant family quarrels (McClosky & Dahlgren 1959), sometimes by marriage between individuals who identify with opposing parties.

Although identification is a reality in most Western nations (Rokkan 1955), its significance varies with the political culture and structure. Comparatively few persons in France claim identification, and these identifications are vague and rather unstable. French parties provide a wide range of subtle cues for decision, but the variety apparently confuses the public (Converse & Dupeux 1962). Norwegian parties draw from distinct occupational, class, and religious groups, and these other identifications reinforce the political one, in contrast to the United States, where identification with the party itself provides a basis for choice relatively independent of other group associations (Campbell & Valen 1961).

The two schools of voting research in the United States differ in their appraisal of partisan identification. Campbell and others at Michigan give it a central position, while the Columbia group (Berelson, Lazarsfeld) virtually ignore it, although they deal extensively with class identification. Some voting studies still use the phrase “party preference,” which may apply either to identification or actual vote.

Religious identification. Religion affects political behavior by definition where there is a link between church and state or a church-affiliated party, e.g., in Italy, where the sacraments were denied Catholics who voted Left (Almond & Verba 1963, p. 137). But religious identification has an impact on voting in cases where there is no nominal relation between church and party, no difference in the faith of the candidates, and in fact, no religious issues involved in the campaign. Since 1936 American Catholics have tended to vote Democratic, and this effect is independent of either socioeconomic status or ethnic identification (Lipset 1964). Of course, the presence of a Catholic on the ticket increases the tendency, as in 1960, when many Catholic Republicans voted for, and Protestant Democrats against, Kennedy. Issues of ethical, moral, or doctrinal concern to certain faiths, such as social welfare, war, prohibition, gambling, and contraception, heighten the effect of religious identification on political behavior.

Research problems. Investigation through the survey method has been complicated by different operational definitions for each kind of identification. First, there is nominal membership, as when one is born into an ethnic group, baptized into a faith, or, later, chooses an occupation or joins a union. The respondent’s answers to questions about these characteristics are accepted as factual data. With class, a second question is asked, to determine “subjective” identification, a distinction that is impossible or pointless in the case of party. Studies of class, religious, and ethnic identification go further, to ascertain whether the respondent perceives a relation between his group affiliation and the election—a measure of “salience.” This latter technique demands a conscious verbal association as evidence of the link between identification and behavior, a demand not often clearly satisfied. With party identification, correlation with vote is taken as evidence of perhaps unconscious influence; i.e., the identification is conscious, but the connection with vote is not recognized. The evidence that party identification precedes political consciousness in the socialization of the child makes the supposition of an unconscious influence theoretically reasonable. Survey technique cannot yet cope with the level-of-consciousness problem.

William Buchanan

[See alsoGenerations; Identity, Psychosocial; Political Behavior; Socialization.]


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