Political scientists—and other passionate observers of politics—often worry about the ability of the average citizen to make reasonable political decisions in a constantly changing, complex, and manipulative political world. One relief from this worry has been the existence of political values—or basic beliefs about how the political world should work (e.g., equality, moral traditionalism). Scholars have long suggested that these political values can guide decisions, helping people reason through complicated political decisions and shielding the ordinary voter from manipulative outside influence (e.g., political elites, friends, family, the media).
Believing that political values are fundamental political guides, though, rests on the assumption that they are stable and consistent across contexts. For political values to guide us, they must be the same when you are with your friends at a pro-choice rally as they are when you are with your conservative co-workers. In my Political Behavior article, though, I question the assumption that political values are stable guideposts to politics. Instead, I argue that people express political values not because they actually hold those values, but because they are products of their own social contexts.
I make my point using two tests. First, I experimentally manipulated social cues to see if people’s endorsements of political values are guided by social motivations. Second, I used survey data to see if having a like-minded social network makes people more likely to endorse certain political values.
Both of these tests suggested the same conclusion: political values are a function of our social context, rather than consistent, stable internal guides to politics. That is, my findings suggest that people decide their “values” based on their beliefs about what we’re supposed to value. Democrats say they value equality because that’s what Democrats are supposed to value, and Republicans say they value moral traditionalism because that’s what Republicans are supposed to value. Values, my research suggests, move and sway based on social winds. People may say they value equality when they’re with their friends at a pro-choice rally, but shy away from the value when they’re with their conservative coworkers.
In essence, my research suggests that political values like equality and moral traditionalism may be no more stable or robust than basic political attitudes toward issues such as taxes and abortion. Political values—just like political attitudes—are shaped by the environment around them. Given my results, we cannot rely on political values to be the beacon guiding people through the complex political world. If we’re searching for reprieve from the worry that people are easily shaped by social cues, we must look elsewhere.