what researchers have (repeatedly) done is get a bunch of people together and have them fill out a long and comprehensive political questionnaire. They ask them to choose an ideological label, vague questions about principles (e.g., whether the government should do more or less), and ask them thousands of questions on specific policies in order to ascertain the ideological character of their policy preferences.
In the aggregate, Americans are always operationally liberal on average.
They prefer policies through which the government does and spends more to solve social
problems. And they are always symbolically conservative on average: they consistently prefer the
conservative label to the liberal one.
With respect, to explain the saw is not to defend it. My argument is not that Americans do act consistently with their conservative self-identification. My argument is that if Americans are “operationally liberal,” it’s because they’ve been painted into a corner.