Liberals and progressives have a lot on their plate right now. The House just passed a cap-and-trade bill for greenhouse gases, which now moves on to the Senate. The Senate is debating a health care bill and whether or not it should include a public option. Al Franken just became the 60th Democrat in the Senate making Democratic bills, in theory, filibuster-proof. And Pres. Obama has begun drawing down troops in Iraq, much to the pleasure of Iraqis.
With firm majorities in both the Senate and House, a popular president, and strong public support for its policies on everything from the environment to health care to immigration, Democrats appear to be heading for something of a modern golden age of liberalism. The question I'm asking myself, though, is if this will have an effect on Mormon politics.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when Republicans were dominating national politics, Democrats took several steps toward the center. They abandoned gun-control as a major issue, they moved toward fiscal responsibility, they became more hawkish in foreign policy, and the like. As they made this move Republicans also shifted towards the right on foreign policy, morality politics, and tax policy. Because of this, and the morality politics in particular, Mormon conservatives were able to re-entrench and solidify the base.
But Republicans seemed to have gone too far to the right and then, as all politicians are liable to do, became drunk with power, embroiled in scandals, and rank with hypocrisy. They also were in power when the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression punched the nation in the stomach. The natural result was big Democratic gains in both elected leaders and public support of policy. The big showdown in Republican circles now is whether to reinvest in pure conservatism or to moderate and become a big-tent party. The latter worked for Democrats until public opinion swung to the left in the past five years, the former appears to be winning out for now, as the dominant conservative voices are Limbaugh, Gingrich, Hannity, Beck, and Cheney.
Will all of this shake Mormon voters loose from the firm grasp of ultra-conservatism and allow them to morph into a more moderate and diverse demographic? I think the current political climate is almost guaranteed to have such an effect. Polls show that young people and minorities are identifying overwhelmingly with Democrats, and that is also exactly where the growth of the church is coming from.
So while this may be the beginning of a fairly lengthy run of liberal domination like the Republicans enjoyed recently, it might also be a time of significant shifts in Mormon political demographics. Time will tell.