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.
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.”
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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.
Pew says independents are thinking like Democrats, and that fewer and fewer want much to do with the Republican Party. In 1994 independents gave the GOP a 68 percent approval rating; now only 40 percent do. And the percentage of people who call themselves Republicans has dropped from 29 percent in 2005 to 25 percent today. But these people are not signing up as Democrats. The proportion of those who call themselves Democrats has held steady, in the lower 30s.
Here’s a riddle: What’s an “independent”? More and more, it’s an American who holds positions we associate with Democrats but who refuses to call himself by the name. Why? Part of the reason is that people say to themselves, “If only there was a party that thought like me–that was for harnessing the power of government to help the needy and protect the middle class; for reining in business excess; for fighting overseas threats through soft power instead of reckless force.” But they don’t find today’s Democrats answering to the description. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published in early June proved it on Iraq: It heralded the emergence of what might be called “antiwar independents,” who’d like nothing more than to find a party determined to end the war but don’t see enough difference between Congressional Republicans and Democrats for the latter to earn their loyalty. Fueled, the Post suspects, by the failure of Congress to change course in Iraq, independents gave Congressional Democrats a 49 percent approval rating in April but only 37 percent in June.
The pattern–Democrats losing because they don’t look enough like Democrats–is nothing new: During the 2002 election Democrats did such a poor job of selling themselves as better protectors of middle-class interests that Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found only 34 percent of voters saw a difference between Democrats and Republicans on prescription drug benefits to seniors. That year, when the party was handed a once-in-a-generation shot to prove itself as a protector against runaway greed (the corporate accounting scandals), DNC chair Terry McAuliffe called the swindling firm Global Crossing a “great company.”
I suspect there’s another reason, however, one much more easily fixed. There is a famous Washington story, perhaps apocryphal, about jovial, “all politics is local” Tip O’Neill. After his first run for local office, O’Neill was gabbing with a neighbor, perhaps someone he grew up with, with whose family his was entirely interlaced in that Boston, Irish Catholic way. He asked if she had voted for him. She answered, “No.” Shocked, Tip demanded to know why. “Because you never asked,” she replied.
Democrats make a similar mistake these days: They rarely ask the public to vote for them as Democrats. The trend was obvious by the 2006 season, for those who cared to see: The same Pew numbers that now show a 50-35 Democratic/Democratic-leaners advantage over Republicans had the advantage at 47-38 in 2006. Candidates would have earned a premium just slapping the label “Democrat” on their TV ads, but most didn’t do it. That fall writers and readers of the website MyDD.com ran an ad watch. Some Democratic commercials failed to mention any of the issues. Bush’s war was a disaster; Bush’s government was a crony-infested sinkhole; under Bush, the middle class was having a hard time–these would have been immense burdens for GOP candidates. Other ads, though, were even more frustrating: They mentioned those issues–but never used the label “Democrat.”
It could have been a virtuous circle, a matchless teachable moment: Voter identification with the positions articulated could have translated into a party identification that independents hadn’t been inclined to feel before–a crucial party-building function. But that’s just not how the Democratic consultancy class thinks. Their habits were set when they were blindsided by the Reagan presidency and the rise of popular conservatism (“It helped convince me that the national Democratic Party drag was such that good candidates were carrying an albatross around their necks with the words Democratic Party written on it when they went into elections,” Will Marshall of the Democratic Leadership Council once said). Democratic leaders, scarred by the 1980s and frozen in the strategies of the 1990s, have repeatedly squandered the opportunities presented by the increasingly liberal sympathies of voters.
Of course, slapping a graphic reading “Democrat for Congress” on ads or reforming the vague shame some powerful Washington Dems feel toward their party–or even turning Democratic Congress members overnight into tough advocates for bringing the troops home from Iraq–may not be enough to bring election day tallies in line with the party’s fifteen-point advantage in lean and identification. It’s a problem with many moving parts. The stubborn oxen on TV and in the establishment media who tell the American people how to think are part of the problem too.
The commentariat tells itself a little fairy tale. As a new report from the Campaign for America’s Future (my employer, though I’m solely responsible for the ideas in this essay) and Media Matters for America points out (The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth), when the GOP took over Congress in 1994, the New York Times front page claimed, “The country has unmistakably moved to the right.” It hadn’t; for an excellent study showing this wasn’t so, see Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone’s Three’s a Crowd, which shows how Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America was tailored as an appeal to Perot voters, then retroactively spun as a mandate for conservatism. Ten years later, when Bush beat Kerry by three points, Katie Couric asked on Today, “Does this election indicate that this country has become much more socially conservative?” It was a rhetorical question, for the establishment had set the conclusion in stone long before. Three weeks before the 2006 election Candy Crowley of CNN said Democrats were “on the losing side of the values debate, the defense debate and, oh yes, the guns debate.” After election day, Bob Schieffer of CBS said, “The Democrats’ victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts.” (Tell that to my favorite Democratic House pickup, Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who won a New Hampshire seat after getting kicked out of a 2005 presidential appearance for wearing a T-shirt reading Turn Your Back on Bush.) John Harris of the Washington Post, now of The Politico, said, “This is basically not a liberal country.” Concludes the Media Matters/Campaign for America’s Future report, “Democratic victories are understood as a product of the Democrats moving to the right, while Republican victories are the product of a conservative electorate.”
The media have always been this stubborn, even when the conclusions they reached were 180 degrees reversed. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater, pundits said conservatism was dead as a force in American politics, and continued in that arrogant vein for years, ignoring plentiful evidence of the conservative upsurge. They were no less empirically impaired after they were shocked into making the pivot, and they won’t turn again until they’re forced, kicking and screaming, when the evidence finally becomes overwhelming and undeniable.
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.
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.