Americans: More Liberal Than They Think

This article at The Economist highlights something that I think many people have noticed over the past few years. While Americans are increasingly characterizing themselves as ‘Conservative’, and Republicans wins have dominated the past two elections, voters’ underlying attitudes about some basic issues are becoming more liberal.

Compared with ten years ago, Americans are less supportive of the death penalty, more in favor of legal marijuana, and more in favor of legalizing relationships among homosexuals. Some of the margins are small, but the change does seem significant. In spite of a general atmosphere of conservatism, many people’s basic beliefs are headed the other way.

I think that the conservative camp has done such a good job of making ‘liberal’ a dirty word in American politics that it has created a great deal of cognitive dissonance among the populace: people want to label themselves ‘conservative’ to align themselves with the dominant political flavor of the post-Clinton era, even as their beliefs put them more and more strongly in the other camp.

This muddling of philosophies among voters mirrors the same change that has occurred in the political parties. Republicans, with their advocacy of government-expanding programs to solve perceived social problems (see ‘No Child Left Behind’), and their hemming and hawing about opposing gay rights (what Constitutional amendment?) have obviously had to move left over the past ten years in order to maintain and expand their power in Washington. Even now, the White House and Congressional Republicans are wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to maintain massive government benefits and subsidies in the next budget. Republicans tried actually being tight-spending conservatives about ten years ago; they shut down Washington, and learned that few voters really like tight-spending conservatives.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have been engaged in a fruitless effort for the past two election cycles to out-Republican the Republicans, and doing a remarkably poor job of it. In their fear of alienating voters that they have already lost, they’ve abdicated their responsibility to advocate for progressive causes. The flawed Clinton health-care initiative seems to have been the last time that the Democrats even gave the appearance of trying to shore up the thin U.S. safety net for the poor. Since then, Democratic efforts seem to have been mostly focused on criticizing Republican initiatives and dithering over what course to set in the new electoral environment. In 2000, it meant that defections to the Green Party cost Gore a shot at the presidency. In 2004, it meant that the Democratic leadership failed to bring the new voters that it had promised into the party, and that despite the decline of the Greens, liberal voters didn’t return to the Democratic party in enough numbers to secure a win in another close election.

Any more, neither major party really stands for the values that it has traditionally advocated. Any wonder that American voters are a little confused as well?

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