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Michael Hais and Morley Winograd

Michael Hais and Morley Winograd

Posted February 20, 2009 | 11:50 AM (EST)

New Attitudes for a New Era


President Barack Obama's signature on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the clearest signal yet that America has entered a new civic era, very different from the idealist era of the past four decades. As has been the case with all previous realignments or makeovers in our history, this new era will be marked by a far different conception of the role of government and of the way in which public policy is made and judged.

The latest survey results from the Millennial Strategy Program of communication research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, demonstrate that the American public fully embraces this new era even as many in the country's political establishment continue to behave as though the 2008 election never happened.

Conservatives in the media, and virtually everyone on the Republican side of the congressional aisle, amazingly still seem to believe that the country remains "center-right" and is willing to accept an answer to its economic distress that is based on a continuation of the financial and fiscal policies of the past four decades. Many of their counterparts in the liberal media and blogosphere, and some congressional Democrats, are upset that President Obama even deigns to talk to Republicans and are unrealistically disappointed that that the entire Democratic legislative wish list of recent decades has not been fully enacted within the first month of the new Administration. But what both sides fail to fully comprehend is the degree to which public attitudes have shifted. From the perspective of public opinion, America is now a very different country than it was in the 1980s, 1990s, and even what it was before the financial meltdown of last September.

Here are some highlights from the latest results from Magid's February 2009 survey that clearly document this change and describe the new contours of the public opinion bedrock on which governmental policy will be debated, enacted, and gauged in the coming decades.

  • Governmental activism has replaced a laissez faire approach to societal and economic concerns. By a greater than 2:1 majority, Americans now say they prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy rather than one that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible. (58% vs. 26%). Overwhelming support for an activist approach crosses all demographic and political lines; only Republicans, conservatives, and 2008 McCain voters have any lingering doubts about the matter. In the 1980s and 1990s many, if not most, Americans believed, along with Ronald Reagan, that government was the problem, and not the solution to problems. In 2009, the American people have turned Mr. Reagan's aphorism on its head even as Republicans in Congress and the media continue to preach that very old time religion.
  • Economic equality is a major goal and standard by which to gauge government policy. A majority of the American public now believes that the best policy is to ensure that everyone has at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if that increases government spending, instead of an approach that lets each person get along economically on their own, even if that means some have more than others (53% vs. 30%). Support for policies that promote economic equality is widespread demographically and politically. Only Republicans and conservatives are opposed. By contrast, in Pew surveys taken in the mid-1990s, only about four in ten Americans endorsed a governmental guarantee of a basic standard of living.
  • Americans favor a foreign policy based on multilateralism. By almost 2:1, Americans agree that the best way to protect our national security is through building strong alliances with other nations rather than by relying primarily on our own military strength (56% vs. 29%). Once again, Republicans and conservatives stand in opposition to all other major demographic and political groups on this matter. And, once again, the American public has clearly moved in a new direction in recent years. Since early 2002, support for relying on military strength for the country's security has fallen by about 15 percentage points while the preference for depending on alliances with other countries has also increased by about the same amount.
  • Pragmatism has replaced ideological purity as the preferred standard for gauging public policy. Half of Americans (49%) say that the best way to judge the correctness of government policies is how well they work. Only a third (31%) believe that the standard should be whether the policies seem to be morally right or wrong. As in other areas, it is only Republicans and conservatives who are out of step with the rest of the public. Clearly, most of the American people, if not many of those inside the Beltway, are ready to say farewell to the ideological gridlock that has characterized U.S. politics for the past 40 years.

These results reflect an almost total shift in the bedrock beliefs of the American people about the purpose of government and the standards for evaluating public policy. Under the heavy influence of the Millennial Generation's (those born between 1982 and 2003) preference for liberal interventionism in economic matters, activist multilateralism in foreign affairs, and tolerant non-meddling on social issues, the United States has moved squarely into a new civic era.

President Barack Obama intuitively and clearly understands the magnitude of this major change in public opinion. The American people have adopted new attitudes for a new era. It's now time for the Washington political elites to do the same.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.