The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are more conservative than they have been in decades

James Stimson knows as much about public opinion as anyone in America. He has been tracking the nation’s policy preferences for more than 20 years using a “policy mood” index derived from responses to a wide variety of opinion surveys involving hundreds of specific policy questions on topics ranging from taxes and spending to environmental regulation to gun control.

The latest update of Stimson’s policy mood series suggests that the American public in 2012 was more conservative than at any point since 1952. (Actually, since mood in each year is estimated with some error, it seems safer to say that the current level of conservatism roughly equals the previous highs recorded in 1980 and 1952.) While the slight increase in conservatism from 2011 to 2012 is too small to be significant, it continues a marked trend that began as soon as Barack Obama moved into the White House.

Stimson ’s book, Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings, provides a detailed description and discussion of his approach. (Stimson tracks liberal policy mood, but I have reversed his index in order to highlight the striking current level of conservatism.) Measuring public opinion by tracking common trends in a wide variety of specific policy questions is a marked improvement over the more usual approach of simply asking people to identify themselves as conservatives or liberals. Many people don’t think in such abstract ideological terms, and even those who do sometimes use the conventional labels in unconventional ways.

Political pundits often suppose that presidential election outcomes reflect the current and future ideological mood of the country. For example, Obama’s election in 2008 was hailed as the advent of “The New Liberal Order” and cited as evidence that “liberal views have re-emerged with a vengeance.” His reelection in 2012 was even more improbably described as “the most decisive mandate for an assertive, progressive governing model in well over a generation.” In reality, Stimson’s data show, the public was already more conservative than usual in 2008, and a good deal more conservative by 2012.

The ups and downs in Stimson’s measure over the past 60 years suggest that partisan turnover in presidential elections is more often a cause of opinion change than a consequence of opinion change. The marked conservative shift under Democrat Barack Obama is by no means unusual; the country also moved sharply to the right under Bill Clinton (before the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994) and Jimmy Carter. Conversely, public opinion moved sharply to the left under Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, from the standpoint of public opinion, the “Reagan era” had already passed its high water mark by the time its namesake was inaugurated.

As Christopher Wlezien (gated) nicely put it, the public tends to act as a “thermostat,” shifting to the left when the political climate in Washington shifts to the right and to the right when policy shifts to the left. In the past four years, the thermostat has been trending significantly rightward.