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Will the Progressive Majority Emerge? | The Nation

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Will the Progressive Majority Emerge?

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An important corollary of the media fairy tale is that the Democrats can't embody the will of the people. As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times explained in 2004, Kerry lost because of his party's "God gap." Once more, the data won't cooperate: A declining constituency--the devout--is treated as if it were booming. Pew shows that the number of people who "completely agree" that "prayer is an important part of my daily life" is down six points in the past four years. The number who "never doubt the existence of God" is down eight over the same period. The Barna Group likewise reports, "There has been a 92% increase in the number of unchurched Americans in the last thirteen years"--a population of 75 million, which is growing: According to the Pew report, "This change appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one." America, of course, is a religious country--but 19 percent born after 1976 are either atheists, agnostics or claim no religion, compared with 5 percent born before 1946. Yes, social conservatives are a loud component of our body politic. But the numbers peaked long ago. Pew measures social attitudes via six questions, such as whether schools should have the right to fire gay teachers and whether AIDS is God's punishment for sexual immorality. In 1989 about half of respondents answered at least four of those six questions conservatively. Now, a mere 30 percent do.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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Just who are these iniquitous citizens? People who identify themselves as secular or unidentified with a religious tradition represent about 5 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats. They are a downright heathenish 17 percent of independents. The Pew report has a chart of three descending trend lines of those who answer the social-values questions conservatively. The line for independents is less socially conservative than for Democrats. DLC types love to talk about "swing voters," a group often taken to largely overlap with "independents." Say party centrists, they just don't trust the Democrats--that "God gap." So Democratic candidates are supposed to wear their piety on their sleeve if they ever hope to creep over 51 percent in an election. The centrists are wrong. Independents are the most secular portion of the electorate.

Of course, the media business also has interests. Those interests happen to coincide with those in our party--the Democratic Leadership Council is the most notorious--who have been fighting since the 1980s to make the party more friendly to corporations. The two ostensibly nonconservative cable news channels look more and more like loss leaders for giant corporations eager to signal to other giant corporations that they won't do anything to harm them. There is little other rational explanation for why a network like CNN Headline News keeps on a spittle-flecked right-wing ranter like Glenn Beck (he got less than 60,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic one recent Tuesday); or in a gentler, more culturally mediated way, why cable news gravitates toward ostensibly nonconservative commentary that posits an ineluctable social conservatism of the electorate as the reason the GOP is the country's natural governing party.

We may not be able to get the media to understand that this is the most favorable climate for liberalism in a generation. But I do know a class of people we might have a better chance of influencing: Democratic politicians--especially Democratic presidential candidates. But what I'd like to say is a paradox, given what I've been arguing above: Don't pay too much attention to polls, no matter how favorable they may be to the kind of politics you'd like to see. Not just because it keeps you from leading but because it can keep you from winning.

More and more I find myself telling a story I consider the key to understanding modern American political history: that of Ronald Reagan's 1966 California gubernatorial campaign. His expensive, top-drawer consultants had hired a company formed by psychology PhDs who promised that Reagan's would be the first campaign run "as a problem in human behavior." Many liberal interpreters of Reagan's career have pointed to this to suggest that he was plastic, or a pawn, or a manipulator of voters. Not so. In fact, he was the opposite. One of the first things he did was tell all these fancy pollsters to shut up. In his early, exploratory campaigning, he'd been attacking the insolence of insurgent Berkeley students--who "should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all." His consultants told him to knock it off, pointing to their data: Berkeley didn't even show up as an issue. Reagan threw the polls back in their faces: "Look, I don't care if I'm in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of the state, the first question is: 'What are you going to do about Berkeley?' And each time the question itself would get applause."

Reagan followed his heart, of course, made Berkeley his signature issue and thumped Edmund Brown in one of the greatest upsets in modern political history (even though the establishment media hated his conservatism then more than they hate our liberalism now, and even though Republican elites were more unmistakably ashamed of the GOP "brand" than DLCers are of the Democratic one now). The technical lesson in this story is that longitudinal polls like Pew's are inherently incomplete. They derive their value from asking exactly the same questions over time, even though the banquet of issues people care about always changes. A politician who goes into battle believing polls can teach him "the issues" is fighting in a static world, which is not the world we live in.

But the more profound lesson is that the greatest politicians create their own issues, ones that no one knew existed. Was the mood in California favorable for Reagan's conservative message in 1966? Obviously, or else Reagan wouldn't have won; he wasn't a magician. But he was--yes--a great communicator, confident of his gifts. By listening and interacting with ordinary people, and sniffing out where his own sense of right and wrong dovetailed with what he heard, he divined a certain inchoate mood. It had to do both with a fear of breakdown of the social order and resentment of liberal elites. Finding those frequencies sounding via the trope of "Berkeley," he was able to turn that mood into a political appeal. In that regard, his pollsters could only hurt him. All they knew was that Berkeley wasn't an "issue."

That's the danger of even the best polling: its power to smother intuitive leaders in the cradle. The Pew poll and all the others can only point to the modern electorate's anxieties--anxieties that have something to do with a sense of breakdown in the economic order, and with resentment of conservative elites. But what story can Democratic politicians weave to repair them? None that they are telling yet. All I know is that to sound the right frequencies, we need candidates who know when to tell their pollsters to stuff it.

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