Commentary

A Partisan Paradigm Shift?

A New York Times/CBS News/MTV poll released at the end of June suggested that young Americans may be leaning “left” relative to the rest of the population. The 17- to 29-year-old group was especially inclined to support universal government health insurance, gay marriage and vote Democratic in 2008. Does this portend an overall leftward shift in America’s political future?

This sort of question is perennially confusing, because in politics, “left” and “right” just won’t stand still.

For example, before 1967, Jeb Bush, who served as a conservative Republican governor for eight years in Florida, would have been tempting legal action had he married his Latina wife Columba in their home state. Conservatives in 16 states, including Florida, kept bans on interracial marriage on the books until the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision ruled them illegal.

Today, no conservative would dare speak out against such unions. And while opposition to gay marriage is now a widespread conservative position, that opposition is eroding. In a generation or two, antagonism toward gay marriage may be no more a conservative position than opposition to interracial marriage is today. Over time, the term conservative has come to stand for an increasingly permissive set of views.

Similarly, while many liberals continue to push for government control of health care and for tax increases for the wealthy, mostly we have seen increasing, if grudging, acceptance of limited government, free markets and open trade.

No serious liberal politician today threatens to go back to the price controls, regulatory burden and 70 percent top marginal tax rates of the 1970s. Most liberal economic populists today are probably well to the “right” of Richard Nixon.

As my colleague Brink Lindsey argues in his new book, “The Age of Abundance,” the shifting parameters of left and right in American politics amount to a trend toward a relatively libertarian center.

This doesn’t mean that polarizing far-left and far-right politicians can’t run winning campaigns, it just means that positions on the ideological continuum are now closer to both social and economic nonintervention than they used to be.

Increasing economic abundance is the key. As University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart has shown, drawing on the massive World Values Survey, people in societies around the globe become increasingly focused on the meaningfulness of work and consumption, and less preoccupied with basic material security as wealth becomes ever more assured.

This tends to breed a sense of open exploration and tolerance that are corrosive to traditional social norms, but also a distrust of established authorities, including government. Widespread wealth creates both a sense of psychological safety and an expectation that we should get what we want, creating a demand for personalized gospels heavier on salvation than self-denial, and a willingness to buck convention when it chafes.

Not only do 44 percent of young adults think gay couples ought to be able to marry, compared with just 28 percent of all adults, but, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, one in five 18- to 25-year-old individuals say they have no religious affiliation, are agnostic or are atheist — twice that of the previous generation.

Can this same shift explain apparently increasing comfort with lower taxes and less-regulated markets? Maybe a little, but my best guess is that the experience and expectation of continuous economic growth creates such an aversion to stagnation that politicians who promote popular policies that slow growth are punished at the polls — even by economically liberal voters.

This might explain why taxes stay low, despite plenty of “soak-the-rich” rhetoric, and why politicians provide fewer restrictions on free trade and immigration than voters often say they want.

In a dynamic world where roiling change is the rule, yesterday’s ideological categories fit like a 3-year-old’s clothes fit on a 4-year-old child. Politicians here and there may continue to win office by tacking hard right or hard left.

But as the limits of left and right are redefined by our experience of growth and change, a more consistently “socially liberal, economically conservative” politics may creep up on us largely unbidden.

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and author of “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?”