According to a new Gallup Poll, the edge socially conservative Americans have enjoyed for the last 16 years has finally been worn away. 31% of Americans now describe themselves as social liberals, matching exactly those who consider themselves social conservatives. That parity has not happened since 1999, when Gallup first started asking the question on an annual basis.
This isn’t a sudden change; Gallup reports that social liberals have been gaining on their conservative counterparts in a steady trend year after year. The only exception was during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. It’s not just that Democrats are more likely to describe themselves as socially liberal; more Republicans than ever now put themselves in the socially moderate category.
As always, we should be careful about reading too much into this. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” mean different things to different people. It is just as likely that the definitions have changed as it is that people have actually begun to shift to the left. Even allowing for that, the polls themselves are far from perfect. We’re still conducting landline surveys in an era where many Americans have shifted towards exclusive cell phone use. Who knows what kind of effect that has on the sampling.
Even taking the poll as gospel, though, it would be a mistake for Republicans to shy away from socially conservative messages. Times have changed, sure, but that doesn’t mean the answer is surrender. Republicans still have plenty of supporters who want to see them hold true to the kind of community-building conservative values that make the nation strong. That doesn’t necessarily mean preaching from the podium, but it does mean standing on principle even when the tide is against you.
The media likes to play this game every time an election comes around, telling voters who is viable and who is not. They’ll dig into statistics and they’ll talk to carefully-chosen people on the street to make their case for a particular candidate. They’ll marginalize others by saying things like Oh he would make a great vice-presidential candidate or he’s just in the race to keep [insert media favorite] from straying too far into moderate territory. This has a big effect on the populace because no one wants to “throw their vote away” when they head to the polls.
But there’s something to be said for voting with your conscience instead of trying to pick a winner. When a longshot candidate secures a surprising amount of support, it changes things. Are there times when this hurts the main candidate? Certainly. And that’s something to take into consideration in the general election. But when it comes to the primaries, conservatives owe it to themselves and the political process to vote for the man or woman they believe best represents the party.
Remember, even if the country is growing more “socially liberal,” it doesn’t mean the electorate is following suit. Obama wants to mandate voting, but that isn’t going to happen for a long time, if ever. In the meantime, participation means as much to the outcome as anything else. So if you want to see the Republican Party reflect the kind of values you hold, make sure you go out there and make your voice heard. The right leader can change minds as well as policy. If this poll means anything, it shows that we need a leader like that more than ever.