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America's big shift right

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

(Page 5 of 7)

This sourness about government has led conservative activists to hold even Republican officials to more stringent tests – requiring them, for instance, to sign "no new tax" pledges. And increasingly, they are willing to challenge those politicians who fall short, pushing them further to the right.

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In Hatch's case, he has been making notable efforts to shore up his conservative credentials. In recent months, he has renewed his push for a balanced budget amendment and introduced a measure that would prevent minors from traveling across state lines to get an abortion without parental consent. During the debate over the debt ceiling, he made a speech on the floor of the Senate arguing that the rich are shouldering an outsized portion of the tax burden: "The poor need jobs, and they also need to share some of the responsibility."

He has reversed his stance on a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants who grew up in the United States to pursue citizenship – a measure he had previously cosponsored with Mr. Kennedy – and he has said publicly that his vote for the financial bailout was a mistake.

"It might be true that Hatch did moderate a little bit – partly because he was in a position of responsibility and leadership that required that he be willing to talk to the other side. But he's certainly dialed that back in recent months," says Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University. "In some ways, it's disappointing and sad that reaching across the aisle has become anathema to Republicans. It makes you wonder where it ends."

Mr. Russo, whose group, the Tea Party Express, has said it will not challenge Hatch, calls him a "stalwart conservative." "I think there's a 'slash and burn' mentality," he says about efforts on the right to unseat Hatch. "Some people have unreasonable views about how you get things done."

Yet it isn't just Republicans who are becoming more conservative about Washington's role. In its most recent biannual survey of political values and core attitudes, the Pew Research Center found that the most notable shift of late is that independent voters have taken "a turn to the right" on broader economic issues, including views of the social safety net and the government's effectiveness and scope. Pew found that the number of people who believe the government "should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt" has fallen to 48 percent overall, while among independents, it's down to 43 percent – a drop of 14 points since 2007.

"There's more concern about the debt, and distrust of government – and an unwillingness to use government to do things," says Andy Kohut, Pew's director. "We don't like the way we're bailing out banks, but we also don't like the way we're bailing out people who've taken out mortgages and can't afford them."

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Tough economic conditions may be another reason many people's attitudes are hardening about government. Studies, including one in 2010 by Peter Enns of Cornell University and Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee, found that when income inequality widens, both rich and poor Americans tend to grow more fiscally conservative.


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