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Will the Progressive Majority Emerge? | The Nation

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Will the Progressive Majority Emerge?

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For as long as I can remember, there's been a generally accepted story about the recent history of Democratic Party fortunes, a neat little morality tale that goes something like this: The New Deal majority fell apart when the party was taken over by forces outside the mainstream of American life. Getting blindsided by Reaganism was the party's just deserts. And if Democrats wanted the country back, they would just have to learn to become mainstream again.

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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For as long as I can remember, liberals have been complaining about awkward, self-conscious attempts to recover this "mainstream" sensibility and how they have paradoxically weakened the party. They forced Democratic politicians to become obsessed with polls. That, in turn, boxed Democrats into an identity the public--the mainstream--found the most off-putting of all: Democrats became timid. They couldn't pursue a bold public agenda because they were too hemmed in by polls. Very recently, among progressives, a new dictum has emerged: Hug close to the polls, worship the polls, be the polls.

Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007, a massive twenty-year roundup of public opinion from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, tells the story. Is it the responsibility of government to care for those who can't take care of themselves? In 1994, the year conservative Republicans captured Congress, 57 percent of those polled thought so. Now, says Pew, it's 69 percent. (Even 58 percent of Republicans agree. Would that some of them were in Congress.) The proportion of Americans who believe government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep is 69 percent, too--the highest since 1991. Even 69 percent of self-identified Republicans--and 75 percent of small-business owners!--favor raising the minimum wage by more than $2.

The Pew study was not just asking about do-good, something-for-nothing abstractions. It asked about trade-offs. A majority, 54 percent, think "government should help the needy even if it means greater debt" (it was only 41 percent in 1994). Two-thirds want the government to guarantee health insurance for all citizens. Even among those who otherwise say they would prefer a smaller government, it's 57 percent--the same as the percentage of Americans making more than $75,000 a year who believe "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person."

It's not just Pew. In the authoritative National Election Studies (NES) survey, more than twice as many Americans want "government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending" as want fewer services "in order to reduce spending." According to Gallup, a majority say they generally side with labor in disputes and only 34 percent with companies; 53 percent think unions help the economy and only 36 percent think they hurt. A 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53 percent of Americans thought the Bush tax cuts were "not worth it because they have increased the deficit and caused cuts in government programs." CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that only 25 percent want to see Roe v. Wade overturned; NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard found the public rejecting government-funded abstinence-only sex education in favor of "more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives" by 67 percent to 30 percent. Public Agenda/Foreign Affairs discovered that 67 percent of Americans favor "diplomatic and economic efforts over military efforts in fighting terrorism."

Want hot-button issues? The public is in love with rehabilitation over incarceration for youth offenders. Zogby/National council on Crime and Delinquency found that 89 percent think it reduces crime and 80 percent that it saves money over the long run. "Amnesty"? Sixty-two percent told CBS/New York Times surveyors that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to "keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status." And the gap between the clichés about what Americans believe about gun control and what they actually believe is startling: NBC News/Wall Street Journal found 58 percent favoring "tougher gun control laws," and Annenberg found that only 10 percent want laws controlling firearms to be less strict, a finding reproduced by the NES survey in 2004 and Gallup in 2006.

You suspected it all along. Now it just might be true: Most Americans think like you. Nearly two-thirds think corporate profits are too high (30 percent, Pew notes, "completely agree with this statement...the highest percentage expressing complete agreement with this statement in 20 years"). Almost three-quarters think "it's really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer," eight points more than thought so in 2002.

If only there was an American political party that unwaveringly reflected these views, as a matter of bone-deep identity. You might think it would do pretty well. Which leads to the aspect of the Pew study that got the most ink: "Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats," as the subtitle put it. When you compare Americans who either identify themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democrats with Republicans and Republican leaners, our side wins by fifteen points, 50 percent to 35, the most by far in twenty years. As recently as 2002 it was a tie, 43 to 43.

Plunge below the surface, however, and this stirring tale becomes disconcerting. Yes, again and again, the views of independents track the views of Democrats--more so, in fact, with every passing year. Pew says it's "striking" that 57 percent of independents think government should aid more needy people even at the price of higher debt. In 1994 it was only 39 percent. When asked their opinion of statements like "Business corporations make too much profit," independents answer the same way as Democrats: about 70 percent agree. On questions like "Are you satisfied with the way things are going for you financially?" the chart is amazing: Republicans, independents and Democrats clustered together at 65 and 64 percent in 1994. But Republicans have increasingly answered that question in the affirmative--81 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the lines for independents and Democrats headed down, down, down, nearly in lockstep, to 54 percent today.

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