Some saw Barack Obama as a modern-day Franklin Roosevelt, ushering in a 21st century version of New Deal liberalism. Others saw a John F. Kennedy, heralding the dawn of a new progressive age of expanding rights.
America in the age of Obama is something in between, a new landscape for a new century. Liberal on social issues. Solidly in support of the liberal government programs delivered in those earlier times. Yet hamstrung by debt and highly skeptical about expansive government.
“On cultural issues, the direction the country is moving is more progressive,” said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. “But that’s less clear on economic issues.”
The trend to more liberal cultural views is part of a “compassionate impulse” Americans have long held, said author and historian Robert Dallek.
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Fueling that impulse is increasing access to information and more assimilation. As that has happened throughout American history, cultural barriers have tumbled. People found it more difficult to support slavery, bar women from voting or refuse people of color access to good schools and public accommodations. Today, as more people find that gays are their siblings, parents, bosses and schoolmates, discriminatory barriers are falling.
Each generation’s views are shaped by “the political climate and events that people in each generation experience as they reached adulthood and began to form their political identities,” said the Pew Research Center in a 2011 report.
Baby boomers came of age in a nation where big government was the norm, racial barriers were being eroded and long-held views on sexual practices were changing rapidly. By the time their children, born after 1980, became adults, such views were largely mainstream. Those children grew up in a world changing again, this time more accepting of gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
Last year, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state became the first to approve gay marriage in voter referenda. In Colorado and Washington, voters backed permitting recreational marijuana use.
“There is a move in the direction of cultural pluralism,” said William Leuchtenburg, historian at the University of North Carolina, with people more accepting of different cultures, different lifestyles and different attitudes .
That’s not to say that change comes smoothly. The willingness to change “goes in cycles,” Dallek said, as people stop to absorb a wave of change. Thus, the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment for women, the rise of the Moral Majority and evangelical Christians in politics, and the tide of culturally conservative blue-collar Democrats abandoning their party and helping elect President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Today, a sizable bloc continues to fight for restrictions on abortion rights. Americans remain largely split on gun control.
Economic attitudes have not evolved in quite the same way, though. Unlike the cultural evolution, the liberal embrace of government was borne of economic forces.
The greatest expansions of the federal government came during the anxiety of the 1930s, when people yearned for government to help them survive the Great Depression with programs such as Social Security, and during the affluence of the 1960s, when a country that had defeated fascism looked to its can-do government to eradicate poverty with new offerings such as Medicare.
While the cost of those programs remains an explosive debate point, people count on them and like them.
There’s no generation gap on some key economic issues, as each generation – baby boomers, their children and those in between – accepts government programs as the norm. Virtually equal numbers think Medicare and Social Security are good for the country, and that it’s government’s responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves.
Head Start still helps preschoolers, and its mandate has broadened. Food stamps have been renamed, and lawmakers have tried hard to cut the program, but help is still widely available. So is the extensive federal aid to education program created in 1965 and, perhaps most significantly, Medicare.
For years, conservatives railed against the government health care program intended for seniors as a classic example of how government was gradually going to control every aspect of one’s life.
“One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine,” Ronald Reagan said in 1961, in a talk the American Medical Association distributed in its campaign opposing government-supported health care.
“And if you don’t (stop Medicare) and I don’t do it,” said Reagan, then known as an actor and conservative activist, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Medicare survived his presidency and grew even under Republican administrations. The prescription drug benefit was added during George W. Bush’s administration, with considerable Republican support.
If people like those specific programs, that doesn’t mean they want more.
Americans see government as too big, too expensive and too unresponsive. They see the nation’s $16.8 trillion debt, they hear stories of overreaching into people’s lives, and they’ve had enough.
Strong majorities, of all generations, think “government controls too much of our daily lives,” Pew found. Seven in 10 last year thought Washington only should run things that cannot be done at the state level, and by a 56-35 percent margin, they preferred a smaller government rather than a bigger one.
Even outrages don’t seem to move attitudes. People remain reluctant to support more regulation of business despite evidence that lax oversight helped trigger the worst economic downturn in 70 years. And in a January survey, Pew found that 53 percent now see government as a threat to their personal rights, up from about one-third 10 years ago.
On one level, liberalism survives and even thrives. People may not brand themselves liberal, and are hardly eager to see more government. But they are happy to live in a country where diversity is accepted and encouraged, where the government status quo improves their lives and, they hope, is here to stay. After all, said Senate Historian Don Ritchie, “People wouldn’t define a lot of programs today as liberal.”