Gallup has the story on a major statistical event in U.S. history: for the first time since data on the topic has been collected, the percentage of Americans identifying as socially liberal equals the percentage of Americans identifying as socially conservative. Both groups now stand at 31 percent.
On the one hand, while this is big news, it’s not exactly surprising. The percentage of actively religious Americans continues to decline, while gay marriage and marijuana legalization continue to score victories in state legislatures across the U.S. It is tempting to revert to Michael Lind’s hypothesis on the extinction of social conservatism and the triumph of various forms of blue-model liberalism.
But another statistic reported by Gallup should dampen the Left’s glee when it comes to American attitudes on social issues: twice as many Americans identify as economic conservatives as they do economic liberals. After six years of President Obama’s Blue Model agenda, 39 percent of Americans demand redder meat (versus 19 percent who describe themselves as economic liberals).
In a series of essays this past winter Walter Russell Mead identified three problems for the left.
First, heartfelt appeals by the liberal intelligentsia to the consciences of middle- and working-class Americans will fail to change their instincts toward economic individualism and individual responsibility.
Second, the liberal elites in journalism, academia, and the policy world inhabit a media cocoon that protects them from exposure to the economic and cultural realities of average Americans.
Finally, American demographic realities are not moving in the Left’s favor. As ethnic immigrant groups establish themselves, and as younger generations grow older, they tend to grow more conservative. No less a progressive thinker than John Judis has admitted this trend.
The Gallup results shed some light on the trends discussed in these three essays. Though America is indeed growing more secular and tolerant, the elite left is still too leftist for most Americans. What seems to be happening instead is that Americans are becoming more ‘live and let live’ libertarian. Social conservatives recoil in horror from the trend to permissiveness on issues ranging from gay marriage to pot; economic lefties shudder and gasp at the lack of enthusiasm for nanny state economic intervention.
Far from being something new, the creeping libertarianization of American life is one of the most deeply grounded aspects of American culture and life—easily traceable back into the 17th-century colonial era. World War II briefly altered that dynamic, creating a Greatest Generation that was less individualistic than, say, the Americans of the Jazz Age had been. But now we are back to the American norm: favoring individual rights of expression and action over law-based conformity and solidarity.
What has made that work, historically, has been the presence of two great counterweights, both well described by Alexis de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago. One has been the strong presence of Christian faith in the country, impressing all those otherwise atomized individuals in mind of their obligations to their fellow human beings, and leading them to form voluntary social organizations that make up at least partially for the weakness of the American state and the absence of class and group rights. The other has been the tyranny of opinion; Americans, noted de Tocqueville, are formally more free than other peoples, but in fact are ruled by the moral consensus of the majority, perhaps more than the Europeans of his day.
We’ve still got the conformity and the browbeating (just visit any college campus and see how dissenters from the Authorized Social Morality of the moment fare); the big question is whether American Christianity has a 21st-century revival ahead.