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America's big shift right

Why the country's conservative drift, on a wide range of issues, has accelerated.

(Page 3 of 7)

Of course, these are subjective labels – they almost certainly mean different things to different voters in different places and at different times. But if anything, as more and more voters are calling themselves conservative, the definition of what that means – and the implications it holds for policy – also seems to be shifting right.

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In 1976, when Hatch was first elected to the Senate, the government had been steadily expanding for four decades, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and continuing with the enactment of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society – launching Medicare and Medicaid as well as other social programs. Some of them were further expanded under Presidents Nixon and Ford. By the mid-1970s, concern was growing that things were getting out of hand: In a Gallup poll that year, when asked to rank "government spending" as a concern on a scale of 1 (least important) to 5 (most important), 57 percent gave it a 5.

The nation was also struggling with the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, as well as battling double-digit inflation, high interest rates, and an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent.

"The people and the voters … are skeptical and sour," wrote Michael Barone in the 1976 edition of the "Almanac of American Politics." "They doubt government can accomplish much, and they don't believe in politicians."

The national malaise gave momentum to a rising breed of conservative politicians like Hatch – who, at the time, was a young Salt Lake City attorney with no political experience. Hatch argued that reducing the size of government, rolling back regulations, and lowering taxes, along with a renewed focus on morality and building up the military, would reenergize the nation.

That same year, Mr. Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford in what wound up being a surprisingly close Republican primary contest. (Reagan also played a critical role in Hatch's senatorial campaign, endorsing him as a fellow conservative.) Four years later, Reagan would oust Jimmy Carter from the Oval Office, launching a conservative wave that – despite some electoral ups and downs – has shaped the national debate to a considerable extent ever since.

Today, some of the same forces that launched the modern conservative movement are coming into play once again – from concerns about federal spending, to distrust of government, to fears about America's decline in the world. But there are some notable differences, too, that have shifted the nation's political center on certain issues even further to the right.

Instead of coming on the heels of a great liberal expansion of government, today's shift comes after three decades of the unraveling of elements of the social safety net. The move right is starting from a more conservative standpoint. Taxes were dramatically lowered by Reagan, and have remained relatively low ever since (today's top marginal tax rate is 35 percent; in 1976 it was 70 percent). A Democratic president – Bill Clinton – ended "welfare as we know it," and enacted business-friendly trade policies that quickened the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas. Organized labor has dramatically declined in power.


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