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America's big shift right

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

(Page 7 of 7)

Global warming, which wasn't even an issue in the 1970s, has become a broad concern today, although Americans seem to have become more skeptical of late: Harris found that the percentage of Americans who say they believe that an increase in carbon dioxide and other gases will lead to global warming fell from 71 percent in 2007 to 51 percent in 2009. And views on the death penalty have also moved leftward, no doubt in response to questions about wrongful convictions sparked by the rise of DNA evidence. Although most Americans still support the death penalty, Gallup found that support dropped from a high of 80 percent in 1994 to 64 percent in 2010.

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To many observers, one factor that will shape the nation's views on many of these issues in the future will be demographic changes, including the rise of the Hispanic population. By the year 2050, nearly 1 in 5 Americans will be foreign-born – a percentage that outpaces the previous peak reached at the beginning of the last century, when waves of European immigrants hit America's shores. Analysts say this may push the country back to the left in some, though not all, areas.

"The country is gradually evolving into a new reality based on population, demographics, and diversity," says Professor Sabato. "We're going to be a majority minority country, which has tremendous implications for politics."

Still, it seems very unlikely that America will return to a New Deal-type liberalism. If anything, what may be emerging may look more and more like a modified form of libertarianism – in which voters don't want government involved in business or moral issues.

There's some evidence that is already happening. In June, a poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found that 63 percent of Americans said the government was trying to do too much – up from 52 percent in 2008. At the same time, the survey showed that 50 percent thought the government should not favor any particular set of values – up from 41 percent in 2008.

For now, most conservative voters still tend to be conservative on social issues as well as on fiscal matters. But in this election cycle at least, those cultural divisions seem more muted, since economic issues are essentially crowding out everything else.

"If you look at tea party members, they're clearly socially conservative, but they're just not wearing that on their sleeve this election," says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "The emphasis is clearly on fiscal conservatism."

To some extent, it's as if the conservative movement has come full circle, back to the original ideology of Goldwater.

"Goldwater talked about government being too big, spending too much, regulating too much – and he was also like, 'who cares whether people are gay or straight?' " says former GOP Congressman Mickey Edwards, who entered the House of Representatives in 1976, the same year Hatch joined the Senate. "In the '70s and early '80s, there was great concern among Republicans about spending, but it was overshadowed by a lot of other things – war questions, social questions. And now it looks like finally the size of the deficit has people suddenly saying, 'OK, that's it.' It used to be the issue of economic conservatives, but now it has widespread resonance."


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