Is ‘conservatism’ in ascendance?

IS ‘CONSERVATISM’ IN ASCENDANCE?…. Gallup has a new poll pointing to an uptick in the number of Americans who describe themselves as “conservative.”

Thus far in 2009, 40% of Americans interviewed in national Gallup Poll surveys describe their political views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal. This represents a slight increase for conservatism in the U.S. since 2008, returning it to a level last seen in 2004. The 21% calling themselves liberal is in line with findings throughout this decade, but is up from the 1990s.

Looking over the yearly totals, the lines are pretty stable, though the number of self-identified conservatives has gone up a bit over the last 17 years, from 36% to 40%. Liberal numbers, while trailing by considerable margins, have also crept upwards, from 17% to 21%. And while moderates were out in front for most of the past couple of decades, Gallup shows their numbers slipping from 43% to 35% since 1992.

The results are clearly heartening to the right, as evidenced by the predictable refrain from Peter Wehner: the poll “demonstrates … that America remains a center-right nation.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it. But the right shouldn’t get too excited about the advantage reported today.

The results have been pretty steady for a couple of decades now. Conservatives now outnumber moderates and liberals, but we’re still dealing with modest fluctuations. For that matter, as Ed Kilgore explains, the traditional model of throwing everyone into one of these three categories doesn’t reflect a diverse ideological landscape.

There’s also the practical effect to consider. Self-described liberals have trailed badly for a very long time, but it hasn’t translated into Republican victories at the ballot box. Democrats, for example, still easily outnumber Republicans, despite the ideological breakdown.

What’s more, it’s one thing for Americans to describe themselves as “conservative” in a general sense, but it’s more important to consider these same Americans’ attitudes on more specific matters. Right now, for example, the number of conservatives is nearly double the number of liberals. But that doesn’t change the fact that most Americans support universal health care, disagree with Republican foreign policy, believe global warming is real and in need of a response, don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, etc.

And perhaps of most interest to those watching for demographic trends, among Americans under the age of 30, moderates are ahead with 39%, followed by liberals with 31% , and conservatives with 30%. (Conservatives lead overall thanks to a three-to-one advantage among Americans aged 65 and older.)