Handbook of Social Choice and Voting

Handbook of Social Choice and Voting

Edited by Jac C. Heckelman and Nicholas R. Miller

This Handbook provides an overview of interdisciplinary research related to social choice and voting that is intended for a broad audience. Expert contributors from various fields present critical summaries of the existing literature, including intuitive explanations of technical terminology and well-known theorems, suggesting new directions for research.

Chapter 18: Measuring ideology in Congress

Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole

Subjects: economics and finance, political economy, public choice theory, politics and public policy, political economy, public choice


It is very common to encounter ideological terms – ‘left’ (or ‘liberal’), ‘right’ (or ‘conservative’), and ‘middle’ (or ‘moderate’) – in descriptions of political actors like parties, candidates or legislators. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an adequate explanation of political phenomena without employing this kind of spatial terminology (Benoit and Laver 2006). Accordingly, empirical and theoretical models in political science regularly depict political actors as possessing most-desired or ideal points in some abstract, geometric ideological space and choosing alternatives (for example, candidates or parties or policy alternatives) closest to them in this space. This is known as the ‘spatial model’, popularized by two classic works: An Economic Theory of Democracy by Anthony Downs (1957) and The Theory of Committees and Elections by Duncan Black (1958). Part III of this Handbook addresses the theoretical foundations of the spatial model in greater detail. It is not difficult to conceive of political actors – especially legislators – as having ideological positions, but how can we measure a latent (unobserved) quantity like ideology? Although we cannot observe ideology directly, we do observe choice behavior such as voting on a series of recorded, or roll call, votes that presumably reflect individuals’ latent ideological positions.

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