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.
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.