Gallup has released some new polling data which suggests that America is become more and more "conservative." Political scientists and others have long discussed how the electorate is polarized and that voters are "sorting out" by party affiliation and ideology. The results of this are plain: the noxious tone of our political discourse; the naked appeals to eliminationism by the Right; and a sense that the other side isn't just wrong, no, instead they are evil.
Using Gallup's information, The Atlantic's Richard Florida generated some great graphs which showed that the march of Conservatism across America is correlated with a number of variables including religiosity, poverty, education, and the income level of a given state. All in all the data is compelling. But it is not surprising. Moreover, there are also a few qualifiers to Gallup's findings that America is becoming a more "conservative" that need to be highlighted.
1. Primarily, it has long been noted that Americans are not very ideological--here meaning a coherent schema of political values and beliefs that is internally consistent. While the American electorate is certainly passionate (the ear damaging shrill tones of the White populist Tea Party being people's evidence number one), they do not necessarily hold beliefs that are stable across issue positions.
2. The survey asks respondents if they self-identify as "Conservatives." Again, this is open to slippage as many people for a variety of reasons may label themselves as such. But, these same individuals may vote for the Democrats or identify on issue positions as being more Left/Progressive. And on specific issues (a set of data points that give a better sense of the real lay of the political land) the positions and personalities of the New Right Tea Party GOP are increasingly unpopular.
3. While the media is fascinated by the frame of "Red State versus Blue State", the real action is occurring on the county and regional level where the central cities are becoming more blue and the suburbs and rural parts of many states are becoming more red. Hence the notion of a "purple America." Quite simply, Americans are living in communities where their values are reinforced. Thus the irony that in an increasingly globalized world, with instantaneous information available at one's fingertips, a good number of people are seeking similarity and confirmation, as opposed to a richness of diversity in ideas, values, and beliefs.
However, the Atlantic's analysis is spot on and frighteningly prescient in the following observation.
Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America's least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism's hold on America's states...This is the formula for a reactionary politics that does not serve the collective good. Here, the tail wags the dog and the most frightened, least resourced, and most backward voices rise out of the polity. Elites who have long been disconnected from the masses manipulate this anxiety into a politics that serves to gut the social safety net and chase down the chosen bugaboos of the Right--the "evil" unions, "liberals," "intellectuals," teachers, Muslims, immigrants, racial minorities, gays and lesbians, "overpaid" public employees, and/or anyone who is not a "real American."
Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama administration, and the Democratic Party moving forward.
But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.
In the end game, the authoritarianism infused White reactionary Tea Party AstroTurf politics of the New Right are the road to inverted totalitarianism--an order that rises out of a failure of democratic politics, a collapsed and exhausted economy, a triumphant corporatism, and the false promises of popular Conservatism.
Conservatives and the Right-wing echo chamber will be crowing about their success in light of Gallup's findings. They will scream that Conservatism is on the march and that Gallup's polling data is a vindication of their ideas. Those who live in the reality based world can easily foil those claims. But, the cries of victory will appeal to the true devotees nonetheless. Sadly, the foot soldiers of Conservatism do not understand that they are winning a Pyrrhic victory, one which indicates a deep and systemic rot in this country, as opposed to a triumph of ideas and values that can lead us through the decline of empire and towards a brave new future.