America's big shift right
Why the country's conservative drift, on a wide range of issues, has accelerated.
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When it comes to foreign affairs, a country that went into a crouch for two decades after Vietnam is now involved – however reluctantly under the current president – in three wars. Many Americans have also hardened their stance on illegal immigration, accountability in schools has become a prevailing ethic, and nuclear power and offshore oil drilling have come back, to a limited degree.Skip to next paragraph
Compared with today's Republican presidential candidates, Barry Goldwater, the founder of the modern conservative movement – whose views were considered so extreme in 1964 that he was defeated in a landslide – would seem almost temperate. His blend of strict constitutionalism, muscular national security, and small-government economic policy – low taxation and light regulation – has become standard boilerplate on the stump today. And his more moderate social stances – he believed the government shouldn't interfere with a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, for instance – would set him to the left of many. This is one reason he told Bob Dole in 1996: "We're the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?"
In that sense, it may not be Hatch who has changed but the voters he's trying to cater to – and the definition of what it means these days to be liberal or conservative.
"Everybody talks about the fact that Nixon and Ford were the last liberal presidents – and to a great degree, it's true," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Or as liberal comedian Bill Maher put it in an interview with CNN, "Really, what we have is a debate between the center-right – the Democratic Party – and the far, far, far right – the Republican Party."
Beneath all this lie fundamental questions: How much has the country really tilted to the right? What's behind the shift? Is this the last gasp of a realignment that has been going since the 1970s, or are we seeing the emergence of a new brand of conservatism that may persist for years?
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Actually, when asked to describe their ideological leanings, the basic pattern of responses from voters hasn't changed dramatically in 40 years. Self-identified conservatives have always outnumbered self-identified liberals, and for the most part, both groups have tended to trail behind self-identified moderates.
Still, over time – and particularly in recent years – there has been a small but significant shift in favor of conservatism. When CBS News asked voters to categorize themselves in February 1976, 28 percent called themselves conservative, 23 percent called themselves liberal, and 39 percent called themselves moderate. By June 2010, those numbers had shifted to 35 percent conservative, 18 percent liberal, and 42 percent moderate.
In some recent polls, conservatives have actually begun to outpace moderates. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative in 2010, compared with 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal.
Perhaps most striking, last February Gallup released state-by-state results that showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering self-identified liberals in every state in the nation – including Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.