Gallup says conservatism surging

On Monday, Saad confirmed an insight Gallup suggested earlier this year, that conservatives continue to outnumber moderates and liberals. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans think of themselves as conservatives, while just 36 percent are moderates and 20 percent are liberals. Saad notes that “this marks a shift from 2005 to 2008, when moderates were tied with conservatives.” The latest liberal percentage reflects a decline, from 22 percent to 20, dropping liberalism back to numbers typical of the period from 2001 to 2005.

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But where the Gallup report gets juiciest is in its more important assertion that Americans are also shifting to the conservative perspective on some specific issues, notably government regulation, the influence of labor unions, gun laws, global warming, abortion and even “traditional values.” It feels like the 1980s all over again.

Can I hear that “morning in America” theme music in the background?

The findings on government regulation and labor are especially remarkable. This recession has made some Americans take the time to reflect on that economics course they took so many years ago, or they’ve looked harder at their own company’s situation. These thoughtful reflections have doubtless convinced many that businesses are often overburdened with red tape and buckling under union pressures. When this economic mess is over, let’s hope those lessons aren’t forgotten.

The resurgence in “traditional values” thinking may also surprise. Gallup says that “the propensity to want the government to ‘promote traditional values’ — as opposed to ‘not favor any particular set of values’ — rose from 48 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2009,” the highest in five years. Wow. I have been reading qualitative speculation that the recession has made people contemplate their value systems. Responding to this introspection, many have evidently turned inward to faith and family and community as a response. They are turning back to the old, traditional ways. Liberals should shudder at this orthodox turnabout.

Altogether, the Gallup report is excellent, but contains some things to quibble with.

For one, Gallup lumps immigration in with the issues on which America is supposedly moving to the right. The percentage of Americans telling Gallup they want a decrease in immigration rose from 39 percent in June/July 2008 to 50 percent in July 2009. There are two problems here. The first is that this is really just an economic response to the recession, not any genuine transformation of ideology. Second, when conservative businessmen hire and profit from illegal labor, and liberal environmental groups oppose immigration because of concerns about overpopulation, this just isn’t a cut-and-dried liberal-conservative issue anymore.

It would also have been useful to see more data on tax issues and size-of-government preferences. I suspect that opposition to tax hikes is rising in response to the recession and that the citizenry is bristling at the thought of a government takeover of healthcare. Yes, these may just be artifacts of one moment in time, but they also reflect longer-term and clearer influences on conservative ideology than issues like immigration, climate change or even gun control.

The one possible faux pas of the reporting involves its analysis of the intersection between ideology and partisanship. Gallup notes that independents are now “more conservative” without recognizing that many former conservative Republicans moved into the independent column to protest what they saw as an abandonment of conservative values. So the apparent “change” of independents’ views may be mostly a change in the composition of that slice of voters.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.