I have argued that the idea that politics in America takes place on a left-right spectrum is false. I have tried to point out that voters act not according to ideology, that is, "a system of ideas", but rather view the world through their identity and interests and therefore come up with a hodge-podge of policy preferences. Voters look to leaders with whom they identify, who they imagine have similar interests, for expertise in matters they are not overly familiar with. For voters, intellectual consistency simply does not play a role. Moreover, recent studies which purport to show that "conservatism" is genetically coded into certain personality types all suffer from a fatal flaw: they take people's self-identifcation as "conservative" at face value, even though polls show that the word has almost no consistent meaning.
Social scientists agree with me:
In the United States:
Political messages often promote the view that right-wing economic preferences naturally fit with right-wing cultural preferences under a broad “conservative” banner. These messages define what constitutes an ideologically consistent package of preferences, and make people more likely to adopt a consistent ideological bundle. They make you say, “If I am culturally conservative, I should also be economically conservative.”
But in different countries, people get different messages:
Over all, having a conservative personality made people lean to the left economically — with an important exception. Among people who were both highly attentive to politics and from countries in which left-right ideological conflict was prominent, like the United States, having a conservative personality was associated with holding right-wing economic views.
What does all of this mean for ideological conflict in the United States? For one thing, we must be cautious about accepting claims that a broad ideological conflict, pitting culturally traditional and free-market conservatives against culturally progressive and redistributive liberals, is a natural consequence of personality differences. There’s nothing natural about it: Such a conflict has more to do with the political messages that Americans receive about the nature of politicians’ ideological conflict.
If there is nothing set about the combinations of political views we adopt, then there is nothing to say those combinations of attitudes can’t change. Indeed, decades of research in political science have shown that the dominant packages of political attitudes often do change, as a result of messages from political elites. While such insight will not soften our hostile partisan climate, it might be helpful to keep in mind as we experience the highest levels of political polarization that the nation has seen in decades.