Core Values: American Ambivalence Towards Equality, Limited Government and Moral Traditionalism

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This dissertation examines the role of core values in American public opinion, utilizing the closed-ended questions used to measure values in the National Election Studies (NES) survey. In-depth interviews were conducted with a non-random sample of 31 individuals recruited in the Washington D.C. area and in Rockingham County Virginia. These respondents were first asked to answer the NES value questions and then to elaborate on their detailed thoughts generated by answering these questions on limited government, equality and moral traditionalism. The results of this cognitive interviewing on how individuals interpret these widely used measures of values should be useful to researchers wishing to gain a better understanding of the sources of instability and error in these NES measures. In addition, quantitative analyses of NES data for the years between 1992 and 2004 were used to provide further insights from the in-depth interviews.

The results of this research contribute to the broader political science literature on values. While the public is often uninformed about many issues of politics and policy, Feldman and other scholars have argued that values can serve to anchor public beliefs. By using values, the public is presumably able to take information shortcuts to substantive political decision making. Values are often conceptualized as stable and durable beliefs that can affect many specific attitudes. This study finds substantial public ambivalence towards limited government, equality and moral traditionalism. While some scholars, like Alvarez and Brehm, have argued that ambivalence is rare, this study finds that the public is torn about many of their core values.

Ambivalence towards core values is often caused by feelings about specific social groups and social contexts. Conflicts between values and the different dimensions of each value also were a source of conflict for many of these respondents. The organization of the public's values into value systems thus appears weak. In some cases partisanship provides some of the glue that links different values together.

These findings are important because they illustrate the complexity of the public's values. The public may hold a number of core values, but this study shows these beliefs to be intricate, nuanced and conflicted.