A political ideology is a coherent set of views on politics and the role of the government. Consistency over a wide range of issues is the hallmark of a political ideology. However, given the often contradictory variables that go into molding public opinion and political values (outlined in the previous sections), there is reason to question whether Americans think in ideological terms at all. The exceptions would be the activists in political parties or in groups that espouse specific causes.
In contrast to other countries, Americans have shown essentially no interest in political ideologies either on the extreme left (communism) or the extreme right (fascism). American politics functions largely in the middle of the political spectrum as a contest between liberals and conservatives.
Classic liberalism held to the doctrine of laissez-faire, which holds that the government should be small and keep out of most areas of American life (such as the economy, community life, and personal morality). What is called liberalism today is quite different. Liberals believe government has an important place both as a regulator in the public interest and to assist those with lower incomes. On the other hand, they still oppose government intervention in matters of personal autonomy. Only libertarians still espouse classical liberalism, but Americans holding this political ideology are scattered across various political parties, including the Republicans, the Democrats, and various third parties such as the Libertarian, Reform, and Green parties.
Conservatives feel there is too much government interference, particularly at the federal level, in the economy. This belief translates into calls for lower taxes, reduced spending on social programs, and deregulation. However, many conservatives welcome government support to further their moral agenda. Liberals and conservatives also take opposing positions on crime, with the former concerned with the underlying socioeconomic causes and the latter focusing on the deterrent effect of punishment.
Perhaps because most Americans see themselves as moderates, politicians find it difficult to stay within the ideological boundaries of liberalism or conservatism. Many stress their credentials as fiscal conservatives while taking liberal positions on social issues. Others take a populist line, embracing active governmental intervention in both economic and cultural spheres. Pat Buchanan, who has run for president under both Republican and Reform labels, usually offers populist appeals. Alabama Governor George Wallace, a presidential candidate in 1968 and 1972, also usually endorsed populist positions.