America the Conservative?

How to understand U.S. politics


If you want proof that America is a conservative country, Ronald Reagan provides it. Once seen as a reactionary nincompoop, he's probably the most respected president of the last 50 years. Highways and buildings bear his name. Republicans compete to see who can lavish the most praise on him.

It's not really surprising that Barack Obama has paid tribute to Reagan on the approach of his centennial. What's surprising is that Obama did it in the 2008 presidential campaign—during the Democratic primaries.

That devious tactic may help explain how this alleged socialist fooled Americans into electing him president. Fortunately, in conservative eyes, the nation repudiated Obama in November, giving the GOP control of the House of Representatives and putting a stop to the administration's more ambitious plans.

Now it's just a matter of waiting for the order of nature to reassert itself. That can be expected to happen in January 2013—since, as Dick Cheney asserts, Obama's liberal record dooms him to a single term.

It's certainly true that the national mood feels pretty conservative right now, with the tea party ascendant, health care reform in legal jeopardy, and the GOP controlling more state legislatures than at any time since 1928. But that mood may not be all it's cracked up to be.

In the first place, despite high unemployment and record deficits, Obama is not particularly unpopular. In the latest Gallup poll, 48 percent of Americans approve of his performance. At this point in his presidency, Reagan had an approval rating of 35 percent.

Consider how presidential elections have been going. Democrats have won three of the last five. In 2004, John Kerry, the Republicans' very image of the out-of-touch liberal elitist, got 48 percent of the vote. Al Gore, whom they detest even more, won the popular vote in 2000.

George W. Bush, the only Republican to win a presidential election in the last 20 years, left office with the worst approval rating (22 percent) of any outgoing president since Gallup began doing these surveys in the 1930s. Reagan's final approval rating, it's true, was 68 percent. But so was Bill Clinton's.

All this is a puzzle, since the number of people who call themselves conservatives is double the number of liberals. But Henry Olsen, director of the National Research Initiative at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that lopsided ratio misleads.

About one-third of Americans say they fall in the middle of the road. But "a very large portion of the people who tell pollsters they are 'moderates' are in fact loyal, partisan Democrats who view their own party as representing moderate views," writes Olsen in the journal National Affairs. "These voters are clearly not open to persuasion by the right or center-right, and they constitute a hidden 'liberal' component of the electorate that traditional poll questions tend to overlook."

Not only that, but when people say they are conservative, they don't mean they subscribe to the philosophical tenets of the intellectual right. This is particularly true of white, working-class voters, whom Olsen credits for the Republican House sweep.

As a rule, they don't like taxes or deficits, but they value public schools and Social Security. They resent welfare dependency but want a government safety net.

These are common sentiments. Even after the GOP surge in November, Americans are not itching to dismantle big government. Hoover Institution pollster Douglas Rivers reports that in 15 of 16 areas of federal spending, most people want spending to stay the same or increase. The only program they would cut is foreign aid—which is 1 percent of the budget.

The temptation of any political party is to interpret any impressive triumph as an enduring affirmation of its ideology. Democrats did it after their 2008 triumph, with the left-of-center magazine The New Republic running an article titled, "America the Liberal."

But Obama won more because of the lousy economy than his worldview—which, as it happens, was also true of Reagan in 1980. Since taking office, Obama has been forcefully reminded that America is much less liberal than his party imagined.

So humility is in order among Republicans. "They have not been restored to their natural ruling place by a grateful people," writes Olsen. "They have been turned to by an angry people who harbor as many doubts about conservatives as they do about liberals."

A conservative nation? Sort of. Until it's not.