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Guess What? Fewer Americans Call Themselves Economic Conservatives

New Gallup polls shows that economic conservatism is down, social liberalism is up.

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2013 has not exactly been an inspiring year on the economic front so far: Between the news of banks too big to prosecute, consumer protection stalled, financial reform thwarted, corporate taxes dodged, privatization pushed, and Social Security attacked, it has been hard to find something to smile about. But then, suddenly, out comes a little ray of sunshine from behind the clouds.

A new Gallup survey shows significant changes in the way we Americans see ourselves. The big news? We don’t like to call ourselves economic conservatives as much as we used to; in fact, that number is at a five-year low. On top of that, more of us say we're social liberals.

What’s going on? How did something good happen when everything feels so bad?

After the shattering experience of WWI, Freud wrote about the pervasive discontent and unease with society, and he examined how humans tend to react to these feelings. In facing misery, would we throw in the towel? Would we become more aggressive? Or could we embrace the opportunity to improve our reality and transform our thinking? Freud, it must be said, was not overly optimistic about the answers to these questions.

Today, there’s a widespread feeling of skepticism about the form of capitalism we’re saddled with, which works well for a few and causes the rest of us various kinds of misery. Many Americans are beyond sick and tired of bankers, financiers and political hucksters. We see that crony capitalism is destroying our communities, our democracy, our economic well-being, and the natural world.

But will anything ever change it? I have been writing about economic matters since the Great Recession hit, trying to foster different ways of thinking. Honestly, most days it seemed like what I was trying to say was falling on deaf ears – that smart regulation was vital, that jobs must be our primary focus, that austerity was a foolish and deadly policy, and that, at a fundamental level, we need an economy that will serve society rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, monopolies flourished, financial fraud ran rampant, deficit hawks commanded the scene in Washington, economic quacks were treated as oracles in the mainstream media, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.

Republicans won big-time in the 2010 midterm election, seizing control of the House and many state legislatures, including my home state of North Carolina, where they are bent on turning one of the most progressive states in the South into Mid-Atlantic Mississippi. Polls in 2010 showed that the number of Americans labeling themselves conservative, especially on the economy, jumped. Things looked pretty bleak.

Relinquishing old ways of thinking is a painful process, and more often not, a slow journey fraught with setbacks and reversals. It’s not easy to examine old assumptions about how we work, view money and allocate power. Older generations were also challenged to change the way they thought about the economy.  The Great Depression etched itself deeply into America’s collective memory: The idea that the government had to step in with jobs programs, education, housing, transportation, and research investments in order to save the economy from Wall Street-driven ruin impressed itself on our grandparents. That view held sway until Ronald Reagan came along and convinced everyone that government was the problem, not the solution, and recommended that the wild horses of capitalism be set free.

America became more “economically conservative.” The idea that economic conservatism equals prudence is an old association, dating all the way back to 18th-century thinker Edmund Burke, and it’s one that proponents of reckless free-market fundamentalism took full advantage of. They vigorously repeated the lie that markets can regulate themselves, that they are resistant to fraud, and that things would be fine if the government would just let the capitalists alone. They claimed, ad nauseum, that liberals were financially naive and irresponsible spendthrifts. They more or less got away with this package of deceit until the financial crash, which happened on the watch of a free-marketeer, and one who, by the way, had the worst record on job creation in modern history. That was a serious blow to their mythology.