Has the liberal moment come and gone?

A new Gallup poll shows a sharp increase in the number of people who say they want the government to promote “traditional values.”

Gallup's question was simple: “Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?” In the new poll, taken in the first days of September, 53 percent of respondents say they want the government to promote traditional values, while 42 percent say they do not want the government to favor any particular set of values. Five percent do not have an opinion.

The results are a significant change from recent years. For most of the last two decades, a majority of people have been in favor of the government promoting traditional values. But that number began to decline in 2005, and the number of people who believe the government should not favor any particular set of values began to rise. Last September, when Gallup asked the same question, the public was split down the middle on the issue, 48 percent to 48 percent. Now, opinion has rather abruptly gone back to the old position, and there's an 11-point gap between the two, in favor of traditional values.

By the way, the Gallup pollsters did not define “traditional values” when asking the question. “Thus, respondents answer in light of their understanding of the term,” Gallup writes. But Gallup adds that “the results by party and ideology…suggest that respondents understand traditional values to be those generally favored by the Republican party.”

The recent change in favor of traditional values has been most pronounced among independents, among whom Gallup says there has been a “dramatic turnaround.” Last year, independents were overwhelmingly in favor, by 55 percent to 37 percent, of the government not favoring any set of values. In the new survey, those numbers are almost reversed, with 54 percent saying the government should promote traditional values and 40 percent saying it should not. Gallup did not find similarly striking changes among Democrats and Republicans, although Democrats have also moved a little bit in the direction of wanting the government to promote traditional values.

But it is the turnaround among independents — Gallup also found similar numbers among people who called themselves moderates — that put a screeching halt to the shift that had been taking place in the last few years. “Americans' views of the proper government role in promoting traditional values had moved in a more liberal direction since 2005, to the point that last year, as many said the government should not promote traditional values as said it should,” Gallup writes. “If that trend had continued, 2009 would have marked the first time Gallup found more Americans preferring that the government refrain from actively promoting traditional values. Instead, Americans' attitudes reverted to a more conservative point of view on the matter. Now, Americans favor the government's promoting traditional values by an 11-point margin, similar to the double-digit margins favoring that view through much of the prior two decades.”

There's no way to know precisely what this means. But here's one theory. In the last few years, public opinion on the role of government was driven by the intense unpopularity of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Unhappy with Bush and the GOP, voters recoiled from the image of Republicans as the party of traditional values — even though they basically held to those traditional values in their own lives. Now, however, with a government completely controlled by Democrats, that is, by the anti-traditional values party — in last year's poll, Democrats were 60-37 against the government promoting traditional values — the public has abruptly returned to its basic pro-traditional values position.

But that period of revulsion at Bush and Republicans from 2005 to 2008 left a legacy: a Democrat in the White House and large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, at least until 2010. That is why you see Democrats racing to enact their agenda, even as they see the political conditions around them changing. They have the majorities, based on the public's very temporary mood of 2005-2008, and they are determined to put their preferred policies in place no matter what the public thinks now.

The Gallup numbers also suggest that Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate have fundamentally misread their own victories. Did voters elect Democrats because they desperately wanted national health care? Sprawling and expensive environmental regulation? Federal deficits triple the size of just a few years ago? No. The voters elected Democrats because they were sick of Bush and Republicans. Now Bush and the GOP are gone and out of power. Democrats are doing what they thought the voters wanted. And it turns out the voters didn’t want that at all.
 

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