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America's big shift right

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

(Page 6 of 7)



During the liberal heyday of the 1930s and '40s, income inequality actually narrowed, and then remained relatively stable throughout the '50s and '60s. It wasn't until the '70s that it began widening, launching what liberal economist Paul Krugman has famously called "the Great Divergence." In 1976, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 9 percent of the nation's total income; today, they are taking home 24 percent.

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Mr. Enns and Mr. Kelly don't know exactly why lower-income voters tend to grow more fiscally conservative in response to inequality, but they speculate that one factor may be the media. The widening gap since the 1970s has been largely due to massive gains among the wealthy – and media narratives during this time probably emphasized stories of bootstrap "individualism."

In contrast, the decrease in inequality during the decades prior to the '70s was driven by income gains among the poor and may have generated news stories emphasizing the government's role in education and job creation. "This could explain why declining inequality up to the 1970s pushed public opinion in a liberal direction," they write – and why rising inequality in recent decades has shifted voters further to the right.

On other issues, jarring events have helped move the country to the right. The nation's foreign policy has been more hawkish in the wake of 9/11, and even Mr. Obama, who came into office vowing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has found it difficult to do so on an aggressive timetable. The Guantánamo Bay detention facility remains open, and homeland security is still a widespread concern.

"Foreign policy doesn't change that much from one administration to another," notes Professor Brinkley. "It's hard to persuade either the electorate or the government that we're not going to be the protectors of the world anymore."

Of course, there are counterpressures pushing America in a more liberal direction, too. Generational changes are clearly pushing public opinion to the left when it comes to certain moral and cultural issues, most notably gay rights.

When Gallup asked voters in 1976 whether homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, 56 percent said they should, while 33 percent said they should not. But when asked if homosexuals should be allowed to teach in elementary schools, 65 percent said they should not, while only 27 percent said they should. Only 14 percent of voters believed homosexuals should be allowed to adopt children, while 77 percent said they should not.

Today, by contrast, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage – 53 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll, compared with 45 percent opposed. And 67 percent told Gallup they'd support a law allowing gays to serve openly in the US military.

Yet the direction of the country on other social-cultural issues remains less discernible. Many states have imposed more restrictions on abortion, for instance, suggesting a tilt to the right. But Roe v. Wade remains intact, and many polls show a majority of Americans support a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy if it's in the first few months.

Likewise, on gun control, polls suggest a rightward shift in views over the past decade – the Harris Poll found the proportion of Americans who favor stricter gun laws fell from 69 percent in 1998 to 45 percent in 2010. But that 45 percent still represents a plurality, compared with just 26 percent of Americans who want less strict gun laws.

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