America's Progressive Majority
June 13, 2007
Eric Lotke is research director for the Campaign for America's Future.
The façade of conservative political dominance is crumbling. The disintegration runs deeper than public disaffection with the Bush administration's catastrophic failures and is more fundamental than the political realignment of the 2006 election. The notion of America as a "conservative nation" was always more fiction than fact, but the nation's rejection of President Bush's brand of "you're-on-your-own" conservatism and wedge-issue divisiveness is so broad that today the façade is simply unsustainable.
An exhaustive review released today of decades of public opinion research by the Campaign for America's Future and Media Matters for America, using the most reputable, nonpartisan sources, leads to a simple conclusion: America is more progressive than people think—or, more precisely, than the conventional wisdom would lead them to believe. From the economy to social issues, terrorism to trade, Americans want politicians who recognize that we're all in it together.
Start with the economy. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows 84 percent support to increase the minimum wage. Gallup shows that more Americans sympathize with unions than with companies in labor disputes (52 to 34 percent). NBC News and the Wall Street Journal polls indicate that nearly twice as many people think the U.S. is more hurt than helped by the global economy (48 to 25 percent). Other polls open the door to increased labor and environmental standards as part of the solution.
For people caught on the wrong side of the economy, research by the University of Michigan National Election Studies reveals that 69 percent of Americans believe government should care for those who can't care for themselves. Twice as many people want "government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending" (43 percent) as want government to provide fewer services "in order to reduce spending" (20 percent). Majorities say we need a bigger government "because the country's problems are bigger" (59 percent) and a "strong government to handle complex problems" (67 percent).
These Americans are challenging a central plank of modern conservatism. They don't always want government to leave them alone. They want government to help hold us together.
On social issues too, Americans are more progressive than they are typically credited.
First, they are progressive in their priorities. The percentage of Americans who consider abortion the "most important" issue ranks in the single digits in poll after poll. When an election forces them to pay attention to it, Pew research shows a 56 percent majority oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, a proportion that has hardly changed in the past 20 years. Only 29 percent want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. And 67 percent, according to polls by Kaiser and Harvard, want sex education in schools to include information about contraception, not just abstinence. Yet conservatives continually push these subjects to the fore and stand on the wrong side of them. It's time for mainstream media to question whether movement conservatives, not coastal liberals, are out of the mainstream.
On new and emerging issues, progressive opinion is even stronger. Americans understand that energy policy, for example, has implications on topics that range from national security to new growth industries. Gallup polls in March 2007 reveal that twice as many Americans want to solve energy problems with more conservation instead of more production (64 percent compared to 26 percent). Polls by CBS and the New York Times in April 2007 show 64 percent are willing to pay higher fuel taxes if the money were used for research into renewable energy sources, and 75 percent would be willing to pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable sources like wind or energy. Only oil companies, conservative politicians and a minority of Americans (41 percent) want to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling.
On health care, Gallup's latest poll reveals that 69 percent of Americans think it's the government responsibility to make sure all Americans have health coverage. Only 28 percent disagreed. Polls by CBS/New York Times in February 2007 reveal that 76 percent of Americans would give up the Bush tax cuts to make sure all Americans have access to health care.
So why this disconnect between progressive public opinion and conservative political domination? The answers are manifold. Skillful use of wedge issues by conservative politicians. Advantages in fundraising. Political gerrymandering. An establishment media that rarely asks hard questions. A war on terror that trumps pedestrian domestic concerns.
The 2006 election showed people breaking out of this box. The brassy blogosphere is challenging traditional media. The Internet is reducing the traditional conservative advantage in fundraising, allowing millions of small donors to participate in a process previously reserved for the wealthy few. Netroots organizations are mobilizing groups who previously sat disgruntled on the sidelines.
Even terrorism is losing its bite. September 11 is less raw a wound. The war in Iraq is a disaster. 63 percent of Americans want to set deadlines for withdrawal. Four times as many Americans (48 percent to 12 percent) think the war in Iraq has made the threat of terrorism against the United States worse rather than better.
With terrorism turning against them, the conservatives have little left. Concerns about energy rise with the price of gas (doubled since 2000). Concerns about health care rise with the cost of premiums (up 87 percent since 2000). Concerns about jobs rise as more move overseas (3 million in manufacturing since 2000).
The country is heading in the wrong direction. Policy wonks with spreadsheets on living costs and income inequality can prove it; 73 percent of Americans feel it in their gut.
They also know which way they want to go. The question is whether their leaders will take them there.