Another Country

September 17, 2008


VOTERS not only express a desire for change in the coming election, they themselves have changed, and their shifting values are likely to alter the course of future policy debates.

For more than 25 years, three core questions have animated our political discourse:

What should be the role of government?

Should moral absolutism or moral relativism guide our actions?

Should our foreign policy primarily pursue unilateral interest through military power or a multilateral approach grounded in diplomacy?

Almost every major policy controversy in the past quarter-century involved at least one of these fundamental values; more often than not, conservatives prevailed by convincing Americans that their positions were in sync with voters’ ideals.

But it could be different in 2009 and beyond. Public commitments have shifted, most profoundly on the role of government, but also on morality and unilateralism — transforming the trajectory future policy disputes will follow.

In the mid-1990s, polling that my firm conducted showed that more than 60 percent of voters were more concerned that “the federal government will try to do too much, not do it well and raise taxes.” This year, 60 percent chose the survey’s other option, expressing greater worry that “the federal government will not do enough to help ordinary people deal with the problems they face.” Americans who used to be wary of government involvement are now calling for it.

We have documented a similar, if less drastic, shift in public views of morality. Just three years ago, a majority of those we surveyed said that “there are absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone in almost every situation.” Today, however, respondents by a narrow margin say they believe that “everyone has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong in particular situations.”

Surveys by the Pew Research Center reveal a concomitant change in foreign policy values. Well before 9/11, in the mid-1980s, Americans supported the concept of peace through military strength by a 14-point margin. By 2007, despite the intervening attack on the United States, that margin fell to just two points.

In short, the values on which American politics has turned for the last quarter-century have shifted. While politicians from both parties ask us to embrace change, Americans already have.

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.