After 9/11, the body politic tilts to conservatism
Terror war shifts views of the nation - especially the young
When Sacramento Bee publisher Janis Heaphy delivered a commencement address at California State University last month, she chose a topic that might be expected to resonate among a young, idealistic student audience: the importance of protecting civil liberties.
Instead, Ms. Heaphy was booed off the stage.
The students' reaction to what they perceived as criticism of the government may just reflect the nearness of the terrorist attacks. But it might also be a sign of what some analysts see as an emerging shift toward a more nationalistic, traditional, and in some ways conservative politics.
Just as Pearl Harbor and Vietnam ushered in new cultural and political eras, Sept. 11 is likely to shape the outlook of the nation - and particularly the generation now coming of age - for years to come.
These emerging views may not exactly correspond with current partisan ideologies. Desire that government "do more" to solve the nation's problems is way up, for example, an approach that doesn't square with conservative politics. But attitudes on a variety of other issues - from support for the military and the use of American force abroad, to approval of President Bush and his administration's actions on civil liberties - seem to indicate a rightward tilt, which could translate into electoral gains for Republicans, and perhaps the start of a new chapter in politics.
"All this can be summed up as a shift in favor of more conservative and traditional politics," says David King, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "The shift is not simply one along a policy dimension, but it's a generational shift."
The new mood has been most striking on college campuses, where conservatives note a falling off of certain liberal attitudes that have held sway there since the 1960s.
Consider this: At Ivy League schools, some of the longest lines at recruiting fairs are not for banks or consulting firms but for the FBI and CIA. A recent poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that 75 percent of college students trust the military to "do the right thing" all or most of the time, while 92 percent consider themselves patriotic.
"We're so used to thinking in terms of the '60s generation, that it's just stunning to see college students who like their country," says Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California. "It's sort of a reverse split from the '60s. In the '60s, the faculty was conservative and the students were liberal. Now, the students are more pro-American and the faculty is liberal."
Some of these shifts in attitude were taking place well before Sept. 11 - so the attacks have merely compounded the trend, analysts say. Support for certain government institutions, such as the military, has been rising for some time.
"It is remarkable in my lifetime to see the CIA go from revered in the '50s, to despised in the '60s, '70s and '80s, to rehabilitated in the '90s - and now we're going back toward domestic surveillance," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Likewise, he says, there's "absolutely" been a pro-military shift nationwide, "as the link between the military and personal safety became tighter" - though that support could diminish, he cautions, if the link becomes less clear.
In the short term, all this could create a political climate more friendly to Republicans. Significantly, a new Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report poll shows that while Democrats had a nine-point lead in party identification - meaning more people identified themselves as Democrats - last August, Republicans have made gains since Sept. 11. Now, voters are evenly split.
One reason for this shift may simply be that Mr. Bush has proved to be an extremely popular wartime president. During the boom years of the Clinton administration, analysts say, the public began to view the office of the president as almost irrelevant. But now, the events of Sept. 11 have "reestablished the president," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster. "And he happens to be a Republican."
Mr. Ciruli points out that Mr. Bush's approval ratings remain extremely high four months after the attacks - even as the public's concern about the threat of terrorism is diminishing. "Bush has gained a level of public support for a length of time that indicates it's more than just doing a good job - that people may have bonded here," he says.
Of course, he adds, this won't necessarily lead to Republican gains in Congress: Presidential coattails are notoriously short. But it could allow Bush to set the political mood for the country, in the manner of other popular presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt.
Still, some observers say that, whatever shift might be under way, it's likely to be short-lived. Even FDR saw his party lose seats in Congress as soon as the war ended.
"These kinds of events and challenges do have an impact, but it's interesting how we get back to fundamental domestic issues pretty quickly," says former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. He points out that already, the two parties in Washington are arguing over an economic-stimulus package.
Indeed, some analysts see the effects of Sept. 11 as transcending, rather than shaping, ideology. "Sept. 11 is likely to make an overall impression on all Americans, without changing the distribution of party or ideology," says political commentator Bill Schneider. "Ideology comes out of divisiveness, like the '60s or Clinton," he says. "The one thing about this entire conflict is, it is not divisive."
While Sept. 11 may not immediately change Americans' views on domestic issues like how to provide healthcare or help the economy, it has altered the nation's priorities - and may, in the long run, shape domestic politics in more subtle ways.
Professor King agrees that, whereas Vietnam and Watergate tended to have a polarizing effect on past generations, Sept. 11 is an event around which the entire country has essentially united. But this, too, can have a political impact: "Instead of polarizing or dividing a generation, this will give them a common vision or a common set of issues that we need to pay attention to," he says.