Two columns ago, I passed on a series of political observations from the heartland. Today, a snapshot of American values and viewpoints a decade and a half into the "new" millennium.
For my left-leaning readers, you have much to be pleased about as America enters the seventh year of the Obama presidency.
First and foremost, the populace has grown acclimated to an intrusive federal presence. The Obama era's "new federalism" has been a driver in this regard, wherein Congress increasingly invites aggressive federal regulators to "fill in the blanks" left by omnibus legislative vehicles. Accordingly, federal bureaucrats cranked out 2,185 regulations last year, 77 of the "major" variety. Obamacare alone has accounted for more than 20,000 pages of new regulations since inception. FYI: In 2014, American taxpayers worked from January 1 to April 21st just to pay the tax bill for government at all levels.
Closely tied to this cultural acceptance of really big government is a disinterest in the growth of the federal deficit, now exceeding $17.6 trillion. Indeed, clear majorities in blue state America constantly request additional spending and increased government activism while, periodically, the heartland registers a demand for fiscal discipline. For the most part, however, relatively few Americans view the size and expense of government as a major obstacle to American progress, with one caveat: Americans still expect government to work. But a major recession and tepid recovery have rattled the middle class. And recent experiences with Obamacare's dysfunctional website, the VA's secret wait lists, a porous southern border, an ascendant ISIS and an unprepared CDC have given Americans further pause about government preparedness and efficiency, at least in the short run.
Culturally, a profound leftward shift on marijuana, gay marriage, immigration and access to birth control is most apparent among young people. Here, the Democrats' "war on women" campaign has prompted numerous GOP candidates to support over-the-counter birth control (a sensible position, in my view). Alas, Republicans are still charged with the gender offense if free birth control is not added to the program (not so sure this one has similarly caught on). Regardless, it's clear that America is more secular and progressive in the new millennium. That the foregoing successes have reduced the political effectiveness of the "Religious Right" is without question. Indeed, the vitriol that was previously reserved for religious conservatives is now redirected toward fiscal conservatives — the tea party.
But all is not rosy for America's liberals. A few prominent items on the Democrats' wish list have lost momentum — even regressed due to unforeseen circumstances.
The continued decline of private sector unionism is one such trend. Unions now account for only 11.3 percent of the U.S. labor force. A smaller, post-industrial era manufacturing sector is the primary culprit. Added to this diminution in union power is an increased willingness by blue collar Democrats to vote Republican. (For local context, check out Sauerbrey-Bentley-Ehrlich voting totals in Dundalk over the last 25 years.) Conversely, public sector union membership continues to grow. These unions are all about courting Democrats in an endless campaign to expand the public sector. Yet even here, courts have begun to chip away at once sacrosanct pension benefits as municipalities seek to escape crushing retirement and health care obligations.
In the shocking category, the issue of public education — once wholly owned by Democrats and their teachers' union allies — has shown significant cracks. Increasingly, Democratic office holders are speaking up for "school choice" in our most dysfunctional communities. The most (politically) dangerous of these episodes occurs when legislative black caucuses team up with Republicans to produce more educational options for predominantly African-American parents fed up with under-performing schools. Such momentum even extends to hyper-liberal California where an innovative "parent-trigger law" allows 50 percent of parents at under-performing schools to force staffing changes and even conversion to a public charter. Talk about power to the people!
Gun control has also lost steam. Not so long ago, gun control advocates sought to use the specter of mass shootings at schools and shopping malls as fodder for a renewed push for expanded federal controls. An anti-gun president and attorney general were fully on board. Yet, the advent of the Obama administration brought gun sales to dizzying heights. Fear of domestic terror incidents such as the recent workplace beheading in Oklahoma and ax attack in New York City will only further strengthen gun sales around the country.
On foreign policy, a post-9/11 pro-war frenzy was replaced by a bipartisan isolationist approach during the Obama years. But a series of videotaped beheadings and new threats to the homeland find Americans still wary of boots on the ground in an unstable Middle East but equally wary of presidential indecisiveness in the face of a murderous ISIS onslaught in Iraq and Syria.
Finally, as presented on this page a few weeks ago, the truly "purple" issue of criminal justice reform continues to generate support across the political spectrum. A significantly reduced political fear quotient is bringing the parties together on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, re-entry assistance, mandatory minimum sentencing reforms and executive activism on post-conviction relief (pardons and commutations).
The bottom line: American culture is increasingly secular and permissive, especially along the coasts. There exists majority acceptance of government activism, but Americans continue to recoil from government negligence — from leaky borders to leaky websites. And they don't like being lied to on matters that count (keeping your doctor and the JV army known as ISIS).
Cross currents, indeed.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.