Leftward Ho!

Is the country moving to the left in general, leaving behind the Reagan revolution as a failed experiment in conservative principles? It’s not hard to feel that way some days, particularly when you look at the issues which draw the most virtual ink in political circles. Gay marriage is the law of the land, Obamacare is nearly permanently enshrined as a next step toward socialized medicine, marijuana shops are popping up on main street in Everytown, USA and a self-proclaimed socialist is now seen as a viable candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nominee. So I suppose we should all just pack up our things and get ready to head off to the reeducation camps, eh?

Writing at Politico, National Review’s Lincoln Agnew doesn’t think it’s quite time go all Heaven’s Gate just yet. In fact, he makes the claim that the items I listed above are mere aberrations.. blips on the political radar which mask a still strong conservative streak in the general population.

But on many other issues, even as the country’s demographics are changing, our core beliefs are not. It’s instructive to compare today’s polls on a range of other issues with those from 1999-2000, the last time we were nearing the end of a two-term Democratic presidency. Look at issues through a conventional left-right prism, and you see a public that has either not changed its views or has even shifted in a more conservative direction.

The most spectacular rightward shift is on guns. An ABC/Washington Post poll from August 1999, a few months after the Columbine massacre, put those favoring stricter gun control 29 points ahead of those opposing it. The same poll in March 2013, a few months after the Newtown massacre, cut that margin to 7 points. In 1999, Pew asked whether it was more important to control guns or protect gun rights. The controllers won by 29 points. In 2014, the gun-rights side had a 6-point advantage.

More people approve than disapprove of labor unions, according to Gallup—but the gap has shrunk by more than half since 1999, and the percentage of Americans in unions has dropped. Gallup also shows that opinion on whether America is doing too much or too little to protect the environment has moved right over the past 15 years.

Besides guns and labor unions, Agnew points to “flat” numbers in the polls on things such as defense spending, Wall Street regulation and the generic question of whether the government does too much or does too little. (Keeping in mind that “flat” numbers only indicate a failure to move to the left, not a stampede to the right.) But a question as broad as this can be interpreted pretty much any way to care to view it if you’re allowed to cherry pick the polls at your leisure.

Take for example the abortion question. Agnew correctly notes that people are more likely today to describe themselves as pro-life than pro-choice and this does represent a shift from twenty years ago. But at the same time it’s still highly divisive and when you frame the question around things like exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, the crowd quickly runs in a rout back in the other direction.

Another big example for me is the question of entitlement reform. Conservatives have done an admirable job of waking up the nation to the looming disaster which awaits us when Social Security, Medicare and other programs outrun their available funding by wide margins. It’s become a topic of concern to a growing number of people and, in that regard, you could consider it a conservative shift. But at the same time, when you ask Republicans if they want to chat about any sort of cuts to the programs, the answer is no by a significant plurality at a minimum. People like the idea of being frugal but they don’t want to give up what they already have.

The same applies to pretty much every other social program you can name. It’s a great talking point, but when the rubber hits the road the general response is, hands off! Many ideas sound great, and everyone likes what they’re getting, but they’re generally not willing to pay for it. Same goes for national defense. It’s not a conservative or liberal idea idea to say we should have a robust military and maintain our ability to secure the nation. So how do you want to pay for that? That’s when the shuffling of feet and sideways glances begin.

I sometimes wonder if we aren’t spending a bit too much time trying to define which of these many issues are “conservative positions” versus “liberal positions.” There’s nothing liberal about wanting to disarm law abiding citizens – at least in the classic sense – but once we’ve dug in our heels I suppose everyone has to take a side. It’s not productive. So, no… I don’t think the country is shifting massively to the left, nor do I think there is still some hard march to the right going on. The country is changing as it always does. One generation develops a set of sensibilities and then those noisy kids from the next generation come along with their crazy hairstyles and music and mess up the whole system. Then they grow up and the next set of youngsters shows up and refuses to get off their lawns.

And so it continues… hopefully for a long time to come.