I studied Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was always a little unnerved to hear about studies that demonstrated substantial ideological contradictions within a single individual. The studies showed even the smartest and most learned people to be almost hypocritical at worst or gullible and ignorant at best. Changing small contexts, adopting slightly different perspectives, and wording questions in different ways or orders can seemingly produce very different answers and preferences from a single individual with little consistency between the answers. You can find instances where people who identify as conservative favor large scale state intervention in the lives and liberties of individuals. You can also find instances where people who identify as liberal prefer some form of cultural conservatism. People seem to have trouble being internally consistent with their stated values, and that was unnerving for a young college undergrad and grad student who was hoping to better understand how people reached their political and ideological beliefs.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how these internal contradictions and inconsistencies stretch back much further than our current political moment. He writes about Medieval knights struggling to reconcile Christianity with ideas of chivalry and he writes about the struggles of creating a system that incorporates both social equality and individual freedom today. On the latter he writes, “ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. … The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”
Equality and individual freedom form the backbone of many WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and while many citizens don’t think about the contradiction of the two values, they are not easily merged together. An authoritarian regime could force some sort of equality onto all people, but it would require a loss of individual freedoms. At the other extreme, society could radically favor individual liberties to the extent where there was no law enforcement because individual freedoms were maximized. This of course would be extremely unequal as some people would literally die while others kept living due to personal choices that threatened the lives of some. These two examples are the extreme poles that few would argue in favor of, but it is worth noting that we are arguing for some sort of balance between two contradictory ideas.
Humans live with more internal inconsistencies than we realize, and we can even flourish within such inconsistencies. Democracies which struggle between liberty and equality have created middle classes, have pushed technological advances, and have generally been attractive places to live. But they are difficult and sometimes unwieldly as people fail to reach cohesive decisions on how much liberty and how much equality a society should strive toward. Much of our lives is spent trying to reconcile inconsistent and even contradictory beliefs within our own lives and within our larger societies. It is a distressing reality, but one that humans seem perfectly able to flourish within.