A recent poll by the Pew Research Center has unleashed a torrent of obituaries for the principles conservatives hold dear.
To Paul Krugman of The New York Times, the poll demonstrates that conservative values are "out of step with an increasingly liberal American public." Those who believe that "government is always the problem" now confront an American public that believes "sometimes government is the solution, after all, and they'd like more of it." The Washington Post's David Broder notes that "the [Pew] survey finds significant growth in support for liberal measures that would expand the role and cost of government."
Even some conservatives agree. "It's clear," economist Bruce Bartlett opined, "we have come to an end of a Republican conservative era."
Indeed, compared to previous Pew polls, this one contains findings that should alarm conservatives both on and off Capitol Hill. More Americans, for example, say they're willing to pay higher taxes to fund universal health coverage. Fewer favor a "strong military" or robust measures to capture terrorists. The UN's approval rating is rising. Religious values, such as daily prayer or belief in God, are declining. And so on.
But, before we tag the toe of the modern conservative movement, let's look closer at Pew's findings. Do they really augur a broad and permanent ideological realignment to the left, or are they merely a temporary blip that will eventually self-correct?
First, Pew conducted the poll between Dec. 12, 2006 and Jan, 9, 2007, at the height of the honeymoon media environment that ushered in the new Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. The contrast with the media's unforgiving treatment of the Republican majority 12 years earlier was stark -- and certainly influenced the poll results.
Then, The Washington Post Style section greeted the first House Republican Speaker in 40 years with a piece titled: "How the Gingrich Stole Christmas." Now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi enjoyed swooning Style pieces focusing on her wardrobe ("Muted Tones of Quiet Authority: A Look Suited to the Speaker") and credentials as a reformer ("Power Cleaning: As Democrats Take Over the House, Republicans' Perks May Go Out the Window"). At a minimum, pundits and political strategists in both parties should view Pew's results as the high-water mark for left-of-center policies.
Second, Pew's survey ultimately reflects, as Broder points out, "disenchantment with Republicans, not a burst of popularity for the Democrats." Most of this disenchantment comes from the wholesale abandonment of the Republican Party by Independents. In 1994, Republicans earned a stratospheric approval rating among Independents of 68% while Democrats polled a respectable 50% among this group. Twelve years later, Independents viewed Democrats no differently (giving them an approval rating of 51%), but their assessment of Republicans turned downright hostile, plummeting to 40%.
The Independents' hostility toward Republicans, however, did nothing to diminish their healthy skepticism toward government or support for our free enterprise system. Over 60% of Independents, for example, agree that "when something is run by government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful." A similar majority believes that "government regulation does more harm than good" and fully 70% of Independents say "the strength of [America] is mostly based on the success of American business." Finally, a plurality favors a smaller government that provides fewer services (48%) to a bigger one that offers more (40%).
On this last point, a post-election poll by McLaughlin & Associates suggests that Pew probably understated the Independents' preference for small government. Posing the same question, McLaughlin found that Independents who actually voted in the last election opted for a leaner Uncle Sam by the overwhelming margin of 68% to 20%.
Finally, Pew uncovered a split within the Democratic Party along class lines that could undermine much of the Democrats' coming policy agenda and offer a roadmap to down-in-the-dumps Republicans. Example: Democrats who describe themselves as working class or who say their household is "struggling" are much more likely to think highly of even the most demonized corporations than are Democrats who consider themselves professional or business class. Wal-Mart, the unions' poster child for an evil corporation, receives a relatively low 45% approval rating among elite Democrats. But 66% of working-class Democrats and 85% of Democrats from struggling households (those most likely to benefit from Wal-Mart's "everyday low prices") approve of the firm.
That so many Democrats are impervious to the AFL-CIO's jihad against Wal-Mart and so many Independents remain skeptical of Big Government suggests that Democrats may encounter problems when the new majority on Capitol Hill turns its attention to legislative initiatives such as global-warming legislation, tax increases, and new schemes to regulate the workplace.
Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Human Events