7 Questions with Verlan Lewis, author of “Ideas of Power: The Politics of American Party Ideology Development”

Verlan Lewis, assistant professor of political science at UCCS, researches, writes and teaches on the interactions of political institutions and ideas over the course of history. 

He recently authored “Ideas of Power: The Politics of American Party Ideology Development,” published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press.

Lewis answered seven questions on his new – and first – book, which illustrates how the concepts and practices of “liberalism” and “conservatism” have evolved over the course American history, just as the two major parties in American politics have changed their issue positions over the same period.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

My book helps explain why political parties often change what they stand for in American history. Since it is the nature and disposition of most human beings to exercise power over others when given the chance, whichever party controls government usually becomes the party of “big government” and the party that is out of power usually becomes the party of “small government.”

2. How did you get the idea for your project?  

I read a lot of journalists and political scientists who frequently claim that America’s two major parties are becoming increasingly ideologically polarized between “left” and “right.” As someone who studies both politics and history, I know that this claim is misleading in many ways. While it is true that Americans have become increasingly more afraid of, and intolerant of, partisans and ideologues from the “other side,” it is not true that “liberals” and Democrats today are calling for higher taxes than they did in the 1930s or that “conservatives” and Republicans today are calling for less spending than they did in the 1940s. The conflicts we see in American politics today between “left” and “right” are often really more about tribalism than about substance and principled disagreements.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

I first started writing about how the two major parties in American politics have changed their issue positions over the course of American history, but I encountered a lot of scholars who claimed that all of this apparent flux was undergirded by the two major parties being fundamentally committed to coherent and enduring ideologies like “liberalism” and “conservatism.” As a result, I added a second part of the book showing how “liberalism” and “conservatism” have evolved over the course American history just as much as the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

Showing people how “left” and “right” are simply social groups, rather than bedrock political philosophies, excites me because I think this holds the key to overcoming the toxic and unsustainable partisan vitriol and tribalism that we currently see operating in our politics.

The idea that “left” and “right” are coherent and universal ideologies is a myth. In reality, “liberal” and “conservative” simply refer to social groups. Many people think they are being principled “liberals” or “conservatives” in politics when in reality they are simply being loyal members of a tribe. Once people declare independence from tribal identities like “left” and “right,” they will act as more responsible citizens and reasonable voters. Once people realize that ideological tribalism is just as blind and self-serving as partisan tribalism, then they will stop trying to justify voting for corrupt and immoral politicians simply because they supposedly inhabit the same side of a false “left-right” political spectrum.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

Much of this book was written in the Miller Center’s Scripps Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The beautiful Scripps Library is one of the best-kept secrets at UVA.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?      

“I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.”
Abraham Lincoln, 6 April 1859.

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered? 

How can dispensing with the false “left-right” political spectrum help Americans overcome the dangerous divisions and hostilities that currently infect our politics?

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.