US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

“America is conservative in fundamental principles…
But the principles conserved are liberal
and some, indeed, are radical.”
 ~ Gunnar Myrdal

“Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals”
~ Mark Twain

 – – –

There are many polls that show most Americans self-identify with the label of ‘conservative’. I’ll first show you the self-identification data before I share other data which undermines the simplistic interpretation of America being a conservative nation.

But it should be pointed out here at the start that ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are relative terms that exist on a spectrum. So-called ‘conservatives’ from earlier last century (such as Eisenhower) were in many fundamental ways more progressively ‘liberal’ than many so-called liberal politicians today (such as Obama), a topic that gets analyzed in another post of mine (Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s). And what gets called ‘conservative’ nowadays is more radical than it is traditional. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere: What gets called fiscal conservatism doesn’t seem very conservative. The meaning of conservative is to conserve, to maintain social order, to uphold institutions of authority, to resist radical change. Accordingly, what Americans call fiscal conservatism seems radically liberal in essence. Conservatives of the more traditional bent clearly are not the base of the Republican Party. Some have argued that America doesn’t have a truly conservative tradition. In The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz wrote:

But how then are we to describe these baffling Americans? Were they rationalists or were they traditionalists? The truth is, they were neither, which is perhaps another way of saying that they were both. [ . . . ] the past became a continuous future, and the God of the traditionalists sanctioned the very arrogance of the men who defied Him. [ . . . ] one of the enduring secrets of the American character: a capacity to combine rock-ribbed traditionalism with high inventiveness, ancestor worship with ardent optimism. Most critics have seized upon one or the other of these aspects of the American mind, finding it impossible to conceive how both can go together. That is why the insight of Gunnar Myrdal is a very distinguished one when he writes: “America is … conservative… . But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” Radicalism and conservatism have been twisted entirely out of shape by the liberal flow of American history. [ . . . ]  The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition.

The contest of ideologies in American society hasn’t been between traditional conservatism and radical liberalism. Rather, it’s been a contest between John Locke’s self-oriented liberalism and Thomas Paine’s social-oriented liberalism, the former often defending class divisions (in defense of the ownership rights of the ownership class) and the latter challenging them.

Anyway, here is the data which many use to confirm their belief about America’s inherent conservatism. 

In 2010, Conservatives Still Outnumber Moderates, Liberals

 Political Ideology -- 2010 Half-Year Update (1992-2010 Trend)

Liberal-Conservative Self-Identification 1972-2008

  ’72 ’74 ’76 ’78 ’80 ’82 ’84 ’86 ’88 ’90 ’92 ’94 ’96 ’98 ’00 ’02 ’04 ’08
Extremely Liberal 1 2 1 2 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 1 2 2 2 2 3
Liberal 7 11 7 8 6 6 7 6 6 7 8 6 7 7 9 12 9 10
Slightly Liberal 10 8 8 10 9 8 9 11 9 8 10 7 10 9 9 9 8 9
Moderate, Middle of Road 27 26 25 27 20 22 23 28 22 24 23 26 24 28 23 22 25 22
Slightly Conservative 15 12 12 14 13 13 14 15 15 14 15 14 15 15 12 10 12 12
Conservative 10 12 11 11 13 12 13 13 14 10 13 19 15 13 15 21 16 17
Extremely Conservative 1 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 3 3 3 2 3 4 3 3
DK, Haven’t Thought 28 27 33 27 36 36 30 25 30 33 27 24 25 23 27 22 25 25

Table 3.1
Source: The American National Election Studies
Link to the ASCII text version of this table   

This data makes conservatives think their beliefs and policies are the norm of American society (that they are the ‘Real Americans’) and that therefore liberals are radicals who don’t understand what America stands for. Similarly, conservatives make the allegation that the mainstream media is ‘liberal’, implying that liberals are elitists who are out of touch with the average American. The liberal media allegation is particularly ironic considering that it’s the mainstream media that has failed in challenging the false claim of a conservative majority and failed to report on all of the polling data that disproves this false claim. 

Dispelling the Myth of Conservative America
By Shahdabul Faraz

As expected, Republicans have used these poll results to assert that the American people are, and always will be, unfriendly towards liberal ideology. This is, however, a blatant lie. 

In reality, the country is solidly center-left on the political spectrum. While this does directly contradict the above poll results, one must understand that the word “liberal” has been violently under attack for decades. 

The highly effective, right-wing propaganda machine has successfully demonized the word “liberal” almost out of existence. Instead of defending the word, those on the political left effectively abandoned the term “liberal” and settled on “progressive.” The combination of constant right-wing attacks coupled with a lack of defense from those on the left has unfortunately tarnished the “liberal” brand. As a result, the American people are naturally hesitant to self-identify as being a liberal.

Much of the traditional media has failed to critically analyze this 2009 Gallup poll as well as other similarly misleading ones. Republican politicians have taken advantage of this failure by actively promoting misinformation on air. In an interview with MSNBC airing November of last year, former Representative Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., confidently stated, “[America] is a center-right nation.” Apart from a few prominent liberal commentators, there has been a lackluster effort to counter this falsehood. As a result, the failure of the media has allowed what was once misinformation to become conventional wisdom.

Even without analyzing what these labels mean, it’s obvious that the picture isn’t so simple. Plus, merely looking at the years between 2005 and 2008 hardly gives a large context in which to determine if there is any stable pattern or trend.

Is America really becoming more conservative?
By E.J. Dionne 

First, those Gallup numbers: Forty percent of Americans describe their political views as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 20 percent as liberal. “This marks a shift from 2005 through 2008, when moderates were tied with conservatives as the most prevalent group,” Gallup reported of its study based on combining16 surveys for a sample of 16,321. 

The shift from 2008 is hardly startling. Conservatives were up three points from 2008, moderates down one and liberals down two. On the other hand, the country was ever so slightly less conservative in the most recent third quarter of the year than it was in the second quarter: According to Gallup, the conservatives’ advantage over moderates went from 6 points in the second quarter to 3 points in the recent quarter. It’s not exactly clear which way the trend is running.

Of course these are all small shifts, and that’s the point: We are not going through some ideological revolution.

The complexity begins to show more clearly when comparing to other similar polls about self-identified labels.

In the 2009 Post/ABC News surveys, moderates still lead conservatives. The average for the year: 39 percent moderate, 36 percent conservative, 22 percent liberal. In only one survey did the conservatives “lead” the moderates, by 38 percent to 36 percent. Conservatives will be happy to know that was in the most recent survey.

At Pew, Keeter divided his surveys in half, from January to the end of June and from July to the present. 

In the January to June surveys (involving 10,630 interviews), the Pew numbers were: 37.9 percent moderate, 36.9 percent conservative and 19.7 percent liberal

In the Pew surveys since July, there was a shift (of 1.6 percent) toward the conservatives. The numbers were: 38.5 percent conservative, 35.5 percent moderate and 20.1 percent liberal.

Keeter described the 1.6 percent shift toward “conservative” as “on the borderline of statistical significance” and the movement as “glacial.”

And if you add in a few more choices of labels, the data becomes even more interesting.

It’s important to note that there is a debate over what these ideological labels actually mean to voters. And polls that give respondents the chance of calling themselves “progressive” produce a substantially larger number on the left end of the spectrum, since many who won’t pick the “liberal” label do call themselves “progressive.” A study earlier this year by the Center for American Progress found that when progressive and libertarian were offered as additional options, the country was split almost exactly in half between left and right.

So, even without looking at any specific issues, we can see there is no obvious conservative lean to the American public. I could argue (as I’ve often done) that ‘progressive’ isn’t necessarily left and ‘libertarian’ isn’t necessarily right. But, as far as I can tell, for most people these labels are mostly thought of that way. According to common understanding, left labels and right labels are about equally popular.

Before I get into the deeper analysis, let me show some data that further demonstrates the complexity of the issue. The mainstream perception is that the Democratic Party is the ‘liberal’ party. I disagree with this considering that, based on Pew data (Beyond Red vs Blue), liberals are only about 1/3 of the Democratic Party (with conservatives & moderates each about a 1/3) and about 1/2 of liberals are independents, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend the mainstream perception is correct. Based on those assumptions, how would the following data be interpreted (with higher numbers equaling higher positive feelings which correlates to campaign victories)?

Average Feeling Thermometer Toward Parties 1978-2008

  ’78 ’80 ’82 ’84 ’86 ’88 ’90 ’92 ’94 ’96 ’98 ’00 ’02 ’04 ’08
Democratic Party 62 61 63 62 63 61 61 59 54 59 60 59 ** 58 57
Republican Party 55 57 54 58 57 59 55 52 57 53 50 54 ** 54 48
Net Pro Dem. – Pro Rep. 54 52 55 52 53 51 53 54 49 53 55 53 ** 53 55
Both Parties 59 59 58 60 60 60 58 55 56 56 55 56 ** 56 54
‘Parties in General’ ** 55 56 55 57 ** 53 ** 51 52 ** 53 ** ** **

Table 2B.2
Source: The American National Election Studies
Link to the ASCII text version of this table   

So, if most Americans are actually conservative and the Democratic Party is actually liberal, then why does the Democratic Party have higher positive ratings than the Republican Party for more than a decade? Either Americans aren’t so conservative or the Democratic Party isn’t so liberal. I’d argue it’s both. 

Now check out this data.

Average Feeling Thermometer Toward Liberals and Conservatives 1964-2008

  ’64 ’66 ’68 ’70 ’72 ’74 ’76 ’78 ’80 ’82 ’84 ’86 ’88 ’90 ’92 ’94 ’96 ’98 ’00 ’02 ’04 ’08
Libs 53 50 51 43 54 54 52 ** 52 46 56 53 52 55 51 50 52 52 54 51 55 55
Cons 57 56 57 53 61 61 59 ** 62 53 60 58 61 60 56 61 60 56 59 58 61 60

Table 3.2
Source: The American National Election Studies
Link to the ASCII text version of this table   

If Americans are so conservative, then why do they have a decently positive feeling rating toward what they perceive as ‘liberals’? The positive feelings for liberals hasn’t dropped below 50 in several decades. That ain’t too shabby for a supposedly conservative population.

People are free to self-identify any way they so choose, but labels are meaningless if objective definitions and deeper issues aren’t considered. My point is that other data doesn’t support the conservative interpretation of the ‘conservative’ label (as it’s being used by most Americans). There are many ways to interpret the data as it’s confusing and sometimes seemingly conflicting. Some fair-minded analysts have concluded that Americans aren’t entirely conservative or liberal, rather that it depends on specific issues. I respect such cautious objectivity, but I would point out some relevant factors that demonstrate a specific direction in which the country is leaning.

It’s hard to make sense of which positions are liberal and which conservative. There are both liberal and conservative arguments for and against various aspects of government. Being for government isn’t inherently liberal, but having a more trusting attitude toward government, especially democratic government for and by the people, does seem to be more liberal (as a general principle, liberals are more trusting of almost everything). The issue for conservatives is more about which authority one should submit to (government, church, etc) which isn’t the same as the liberal sense of trust (one major thing liberals distrust is the submitting to any authority without question and for reasons of fear). Confusing though it may be, there are certain issues that seem more fundamentally liberal such as human rights (for all people, inclusive of those who have been traditionally disenfranchised and oppressed throughout history: minorities, immigrants, women, gays, etc). As Robert F. Kennedy stated it in his Day of Affirmation address (1966):

“The essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer — not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.”

These liberal rights are the rights of the living, quite distinct from the conservative rights of unchanging principle (or even Divine Law); or, to put in American political terms, a living constitution that is increasingly inclusive of all people vs a constitutional originalism where the constitution is treated like the Ten Commandments. A core issue of disagreement between conservatives and liberals (in the US) is whether human rights (i.e., equality) are based on ownership rights (i.e., liberty) or vice versa (those who traditionally have had power and property of course emphasize liberty, often meaning freedom from the demands — ‘mobocracy’ — of those who lack power and property). This has been a divisive issue since the beginning of the country, having played out in the very wording of the Declaration of Independence. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, in An American Dilemma (pp. 8-9):

For practical purposes the main norms of the American Creed as usually pronounced are centered in the belief in equality and in the rights to liberty. In the Declaration of Independence–as in the earlier Virginia Bill of Rights–equality was given the supreme rank and the rights to liberty are posited as derived from equality. This logic was even more clearly expressed in Jefferson’s original formulation of the first of the “self-evident truths”: “All men are created equal and from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The key values of the ideological divide are the basis of the key issues of society and politics. As such, determining the key issues is important in distinguishing liberalism vs conservatism in the American population. Key issues are important because they are the wedge issues that decide elections. What is telling to my mind is that it’s specifically the key issues of American politics that have been strongly moving leftward. I would conclude two things. First, the majority of Americans are definitely not right-leaning in any clear sense and there isn’t any evidence that the center of public opinion is shifting rightward. Second, however one might add up all the various issues, the majority of Americans are progressively liberal or becoming more progressively liberal on many if not most of the key issues. 

A large part of the confusion comes from the fact that a major political shift happened in the middle of last century. This shift altered the way Americans understood politics. At that time, conservatives gained control of the political narrative (which was assisted by the assassination of several popular voices and key figures of progressivism; sadly, conservatism ‘won’ by progressivism being literally killed).

Kennedy’s assassination, so soon after that of Martin Luther King, spread a deep pall of hopelessness over many Americans. [ . . . ] Political scientists who studied national polling data before and after Robert Kennedy’s assassination believed that his chances of winning the election were substantial. “One cannot help but be impressed,” notes one such study, “by the reverberations of Kennedy charisma even in the least likely quarters, such as among Southern whites or among Republicans elsewhere. . . . There is evidence of enough edge . . . to suggest that Robert Kennedy might have won election over Richard Nixon, and perhaps with even greater ease than he would have won his own party’s nomination.”
The Liberal Hour, Mackenzie & Weisbrot

With the last of the great progessive leaders of that era gone, the political narrative shifted. And it’s the political narrative that determines how people perceive the world and how they label themselves.

Some details need to be given to explain the ideological and labeling confusion that followed. Out of this era of assassinations and riots, it was actually the neo-conservatives (not traditional conservatives or Goldwater classical liberals) who captured power. Reagan was the penultimate neocon, former union leader and progressive Democrat who, using his actor’s skills, had become a corporate spokesperson and eventually a Republican politician. Reagan took the progressive language he had learned earlier in his life and put it to use in promoting the neocon narrative (e.g., Morning in America). Conservatism became all about a starry-eyed vision of capitalist progress and the American Dream became a greed-driven ‘meritocracy’ (with the government portrayed as the problem and with the lone businessman portrayed as the agent of moral reform; not what you can do for your country but what you can do for yourself).

With its progressive language usurped by neocons, the remaining progressives had a hard time competing. All of the most charismatically inspiring progressives were dead and so there was no one capable of challenging the neocon rhetoric. So, for the last 40 years, there hasn’t been any major political figures genuinely speaking for the progressive vision… or, at least, few progressive leaders who were charismatic enough to capture the public imagination. On top of that, I’d argue neither has there been any major political figures genuinely speaking for anything vaguely resembling the conservatism of the past. The only ideology that has been able to challenge neo-conservatism is neo-liberalism which is hardly an inspiring alternative. In the process, the Democratic leadership has merely become a watered down version of the Republican neocons. And the mainstream media just parrots the rhetoric from inside the Beltway. Is it surprising that the average American today is apparently clueless about what labels mean?

When words lose their meaning – I do not think ‘conservative’ means what you think it means
By AzBlueMeanie 

The media villagers lazily recite the Gallup polling to assert that America is a center-right country ideologically.

Political scientists, however, know better. The old classifications of liberal, conservative and moderate have long since lost their meaning.The decades long far-right media assault to demonize “liberals” has caused many liberals to defensively identify themseleves as “progressives.” The “liberal” brand of the Democratic Party has been watered down by conservative corporatist Democratic organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, New Democrats, Third Way, Boll Weevils and Blue Dogs, etc. Today’s Democratic Party is not the party of FDR and Truman, or LBJ.

I have said many times that conservatives today “are not your father’s GOP.” Conservatives today are the John Birchers whom Republican conservatives like William F. Buckley kicked out of the GOP for being too extremist, and the theocratic Christian Right whom “the father of movement conservatism,” Arizona’s Sen. Barry Goldwater, rejected as being too extremist. Think about the irony in that for a moment. This is the man who famously said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”

The media villagers collectively suffer from amnesia and cannot recall that the Republican Party once had a liberal wing and many moderates. They have since been purged from the Republican Party by its extemist fringe, but they are still out there in the electorate.

When respondents are given more options from which to identify their political beliefs and, more importantly, when polled on specific issues, a surprising and seemingly contradictory result emerges (only because of media mislabeling). Americans are far more left-of-center in their beliefs on specific issues, even self-identified conservatives. These “liberal” beliefs are in fact the “centrist” or “moderate” position of  large majorities of Americans.

The following are words which express the liberal-minded faith in America’s inevitable progressive direction and the hope that we Americans can live up to our collective potential. This was spoken by Robert F. Kennedy to the Senate and so he was more specifically warning the political elite about would happen if they attempted to thwart rather than embrace this era of social change.

“A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”
~ Robert F. Kennedy

It should be clearly noted that this progressive direction isn’t anything new. I’d argue that the continuing progressive revolution is the central story of America and of post-Enlightenment Western civilization in general.

People seem to have short memories when it comes to history. The labor movement and the creation of the first unions preceded the American revolution. In fact, all of the working class riotings and organizing in Britain and Europe at that time were behind much of the revolutionary fervor in America. It was Paine who first described the progressive vision of a “Free and independent States of America” (i.e., the unified vision of liberty and equality, of individual freedom and collective betterment), and it was Paine who was first inspired by the working class movement in England. The ideal of progress wasn’t just discovered in the 20th century. If the founding generation didn’t care about progressivism (i.e., social progress), they wouldn’t have fought a revolution to create a new kind of democratic republic.

 – – – 

No one should be surprised that America’s progressivism, which began before America was even a country and which inspired the American Revolution, still continues to this day and will continue for as long as the American Dream continues. America was founded on and remains defined by the seeking of improvement, individual and collective. To oppose progressivism is to oppose America and all that America stands for.

– – –

In making my case for a progressively liberal (or liberally progressive) America, I’ll now share data from various sources showing a different interpretation is required to make sense of actual public opinion.

 – – – 

Gay Marriage Opponents Now in Minority

poll from CNN this week is the latest to show a majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent saying that marriages between gay and lesbian couples “should be recognized by the law as valid” and 47 percent opposed.

This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage. That represents quite a lot of progress for supporters of same-sex marriage. Prior to last year, there had been just one survey — a Washington Post poll conducted in April 2009 — to show support for gay marriage as the plurality position, and none had shown it with a majority.

As we noted last August, support for gay marriage seems to have been increasing at an accelerated pace over the past couple of years. Below is an update to the graph from last year’s article, which charts the trend from all available public polls on same-sex marriage going back to 1988.

Marijuana Legalization: Poll Suggests Public Support Growing

Data compiled by the Pew Research Center and drawn primarily from the General Social Survey has found a consistent trend towards supporting legalization of marijuana for recreational use, but no poll so far has shown a majority in favor.

In a poll released Tuesday by CNN, 41 percent of American adults said they favored legalizing marijuana, while 56 percent opposed. Another poll, conducted early last month by the Pew Research Center, found 45 percent of adults supporting legalization and 50 percent against it.

[ . . . ] Demographic trends show that the movement to embrace legalization will likely continue: Both recent polls reveal younger respondents as the most likely supporters. In the Pew poll, the majority of 18-29 year olds (54 percent favor/42 percent oppose) and a slim plurality of 30-49 year olds (49 percent support/47 percent oppose) said marijuana use should be legal. In the new CNN poll, about as many respondents under 50 said they supported legalizing marijuana (49 percent) as opposed it (50 percent).

New Poll Confirms Country is Clearly Progressive
Cenk Uygur 

When asked what’s the first thing they would do to balance the budget, Americans had an unmistakably clear answer — raise taxes on the rich. It came in number one by a mile, with a whopping 61 percent.

If that wasn’t progressive enough, cutting defense spending came in number two, with 20 percent.

And if all of that wasn’t clear enough, when asked about cutting Medicare, only 4 percent were in favor of it. Only 3 percent wanted to cut Social Security as a way to balance the budget.

I thought the country was center-right? That’s what all of the pundits tell us 24/7 on television. What happened now? Do those answers look center-right to you? They look decidedly center-left to anyone with a pulse.

[ . . . ] Well, apparently the American people disagree with Washington’s priorities. If the Democrats, Republicans and the president persist in trying to cut Social Security in the face of these numbers, then we will know that we have lost our democracy altogether. That the people in power couldn’t give a damn what we want. That the take over of the American government by the corporations, the rich and the powerful is complete.

America: A Center-Left Nation

The idea that America is a center‐right country whose citizens are skeptical of, if not hostile toward, progressive candidates and policies has long been a staple of political commentary. There would be nothing problematic in journalists’ relying on this notion if actual evidence existed to support it. The truth, however, is that in most policy areas, it is progressive ideas that enjoy majority support. At a time when Democrats control not only the White House and both houses of Congress but a majority of governorships and state legislatures, as well, the picture of America as a center‐right country has become particularly hard to sustain.  

The term “center‐right” itself is based on questionable premises. It comes from the notion that combining the “right” ‐‐ self‐described conservatives ‐‐ with the “center” ‐‐ self‐described moderates (or in a partisan context, Republicans with independents) ‐‐ creates the center‐right majority of the country. But on issue after issue, and in growing percentages over time, nominal independents or moderates increasingly mirror the opinions of nominal Democrats or liberals. The majority is center‐left; it is the right that is isolated. 

[ . . . ] It is one of the most fundamental ideological divides between the left and the right: Conservatives purport to believe that government should be as small as possible and favor market‐oriented solutions to social problems; progressives, on the other hand, see government playing a more vital role in meeting basic social needs, including infrastructure, economic security, education, and health care. As the most recent National Election Study (NES) data demonstrate, clear majorities of the public recognize the importance of a well‐run and well‐funded government to their lives and to the security and prosperity of the country, and, indeed, want it to do more.  

On all three of the following measures, the public has moved in a more progressive direction. The number saying the government should be doing more things increased by 9 points from the 2004 study, the number saying government has gotten bigger because the problems have gotten bigger increased by 3 points, and the number saying we need a strong government to handle today’s economic problems increased by 5 points.

The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth

When asked for evidence, advocates of the idea that America is a conservative country will often cite the fact that polls show more people labeling themselves as “conservative” than “liberal.” This is certainly true, as data from the NES show:

Yet there are a number of reasons to conclude that the data on self-labeling tells us relatively little about the actual ideological positioning of the public. First, as political scientists have understood for more than 40 years, most Americans simply don’t think in ideological terms. To take one example, the national election studies has asked respondents in the past, “Would you say that either one of the parties is more conservative than the other at the national level?” The number answering “the republicans” seldom exceeded 60 percent when the question was asked in the past; after a 12-year hiatus, the nes asked the question again in 2004, when two-thirds of the public, an all-time high, gave the correct answer. This means that, at a time when the parties are more ideologically distinct than ever, one-third of the public can’t name correctly which party is more conservative. If this bare minimum of knowledge is unavailable to such a large proportion of the population, it is fair to say that their self-placement on ideological scales will not be a particularly reliable gauge of their actual beliefs on issues.

Is One Party More Conservative 1960-2008 (source)

  60 62 64 66 68 70 72 74 76 78 80 82 84 86 88 90 92 94 96 98 00 02 04 08
11 ** 14 ** 9 16 15 ** 17 ** ** ** 15 ** 12 18 12 ** ** ** ** ** 17 16
61 ** 59 ** 63 51 57 ** 54 ** ** ** 53 ** 57 44 57 ** ** ** ** ** 68 67
28 ** 27 ** 28 33 28 ** 29 ** ** ** 32 ** 31 38 31 ** ** ** ** ** 15 17


Table 2B.5
Source: The American National Election Studies
Link to the ASCII text version of this table   

There is an understandable assumption within Washington that if survey respondents answer the ideological self-placement question by choosing “liberal” or “conservative,” then their positions on issues roughly correlate with those of the Democratic and republican parties, respectively; and that if they choose “moderate,” then their issue positions are midway between those of the two parties. But in fact, this is not the case. According to the NES, 56 percent of those who call themselves moderates associate with the Democratic Party, while only 31 percent associate with the republican Party. As one of the authors of this study wrote previously:

“And it isn’t just party identification; on issue after issue, moderates have opinions almost exactly mirroring those of liberals. In the NES survey, 4 percent of liberals say we should increase spending on Social Security, as do 8 percent of moderates—while only 47 percent of conservatives agree. Eighty-eight percent of liberals and 84 percent of moderates say federal funding on education should be increased, compared to only 58 percent of conservatives. Seventy-three percent of liberals and percent of moderates want more spending for child care—but only 8 percent of conservatives agree. Sixty-two percent of liberals and 57 percent of moderates want to spend more on aid to the poor, compared to only 9 percent of conservatives.”5 

Another reason people don’t use the liberal label is that the term “liberal” has been victim of a relentless conservative marketing campaign that has succeeded at vilifying liberals and liberalism. The consequence is that only strong liberals are willing to identify as such. But many people who hold liberal issue positions call themselves moderates, or even conservatives. As Christopher ellis wrote in a recent study of ideological labeling, “[M]any conservatives are not very conservative”:

“…nearly three-quarters of self-identified conservatives are notconservative on at least one issue dimension [size and scope of government, or abortion and homosexuality], and considerably more than half hold liberal preferences on the dominant dimension of conflict over the size and scope of government. Simply put, many conservatives are not very conservative”54 

When people do use ideological labels, they often apply them inconsistently. In 1967, Hadley Cantril and lloyd Free famously observed that Americans were “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals.”55 They didn’t like the idea of government, but they liked what government does and can do.

As all the data presented in this report make clear, whatever Americans choose to call themselves, on issue after issue—economic issues, social issues, security issues, and more—majorities of the public find themselves on the progressive side. And on many of the most contentious “culture war” issues, the public has been growing more progressive year after year. Much of the news media seems not to have noticed. But the facts are too clear to ignore.

Poll: 70 Percent of “Tea Party Supporters” Oppose Medicare Cuts

(data from a McClatchy-Marist poll)

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Progressivism Goes Mainstream
New research on ideology refutes the conservative myth that America is a “center right” nation.
By John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira

How do we make sense of all this righteous anger? Are conservatives tapping into a deep-seated aversion to progressive government among the electorate? Hardly. Not unlike the characters in Rand’s various fantasies of libertarian anarchy, conservatives today are living in an alternative universe. And the sooner they wake up to this reality the better off they will be.

The 2008 presidential election not only solidified partisan shifts to the Democratic Party, it also marked a significant transformation in the ideological and electoral landscape of America. In two major studies of American beliefs and demographic trends–the State of American Political Ideology, 2009 and New Progressive America, both conducted by the Progressive Studies Program at the Center for American Progress–we found that the president’s agenda reflects deep and growing consensus among the American public about the priorities and values that should guide our government and society. Not surprisingly, conservatives are the ones who are out of line with the values of most Americans.

Interactive Map: A New Progressive America

New Progressive America

Between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by four points. But the share of white-working class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points.

[ . . . ] These trends will continue. The United States will be majority-minority by 2042. By 2050, the country will be 54 percent minority as Hispanics double from 15 percent to 30 percent of the population, Asians increase from 5 percent to 9 percent and African Americans move from 14 percent to 15 percent.

Other demographic trends accentuate progressives’ advantage. The Millennial Generation—those born between1978 and 2000—gave Obama a stunning 66 percent-to-32 percent margin in 2008. This generation is adding 4.5 million adults to the voting pool every year. Or consider professionals, who are now the most progressive occupational group and increase that support with every election. Fast-growth segments among women like singles and the college-educated favor progressives over conservatives by large margins. And even as progressives improve their performance among the traditional faithful, the growth of religious diversity—especially rapid increases among the unaffiliated—favors progressives. By the election of 2016, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation.

Geographical trends are equally as stunning. Progressive gains since 1988 have been heavily concentrated in not just the urbanized cores of large metropolitan areas, but also the growing suburbs around them. Even in exurbia, progressives have made big gains. Progressive gains were only minimal in the smallest metropolitan areas and in small town rural America and only in the most isolated, least populated rural counties did progressives actually lose ground.

[ . . . ] As the country is growing and changing, so are the American people’s views on what government can and should do. This is shaping a new progressive agenda to go with the new demography and the new geography, starting with the likely diminution in the culture wars that have bedeviled American politics for so long. While cultural disagreements remain, their political influence is being undermined by the rise of the Millennial Generation, increasing religious and family diversity and the decline of the culturally conservative white working class. Culture wars issues, which so conspicuously failed to move many voters in the last couple of elections, will lose even more force in years to come.

State of American Political Ideology, 2009
A National Study of Values and Beliefs
By John Halpin and Karl Agne

The growing progressive movement in the United States finds itself at a historic and propitious crossroads. With large Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress and an ambitious new president who campaigned and won election on promises of bold changes—both serving a citizenry that is deeply frustrated with the status quo and desperate for new leadership at all levels of our society—the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades. Driven by a rising generation of young 18- to 29-year-old “Millennial” generation voters whose vast numbers and unique worldview have already made a significant impact at the ballot box, our country is embracing many core progressive values and shows a real commitment to a progressive vision of government, international affairs, and economic and political policies that could transform the country in a way that has not been seen since FDR and the New Deal.

The 2008 presidential election not only solidified demographic and partisan shifts toward the Democratic Party but also marked a significant turn in the ideological landscape of the electorate. After nearly three decades of public acceptance of the Reagan-Bush model of conservatism—limited government, tax cuts, traditional values, and military strength— a broad and deep cross-section of the American public now holds markedly progressive attitudes about government and society.

Public Opinion Snapshot: The Weakness of Conservative Opposition to Health Care Reform
By Ruy Teixeira

In recent polls, more of the public opposes than favors the health care reform bills in Congress. Conservatives would have you believe that the opposition plurality in these polls is a result of public distaste for a big government takeover of our health care system. Not so. In a December CNN poll, a total of 55 percent either favored the Senate health reform bill outright (42 percent) or opposed it at this point because its approach to health care isn’t liberal enough (13 percent). Just 39 percent said they opposed the bill because its approach to health care was too liberal.

NBC/WSJ poll: Voters deficit-worried but wary of cuts
By Mark Murray

As politicians in Washington — and across the country — seek to cut spending to reduce their budget deficits, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the American public is divided about how far they should go.

In the poll, eight in 10 respondents say they are concerned about the growing federal deficit and the national debt, but more than 60 percent — including key swing-voter groups — are concerned that major cuts from Congress could impact their lives and their families.

What’s more, while Americans find some budget cuts acceptable, they are adamantly opposed to cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education.

And although a combined 22 percent of poll-takers name the deficit/government spending as the top issue the federal government should address, 37 percent believe job creation/economic growth is the No. 1 issue.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, says these results are a “cautionary sign” for a Republican Party pursuing deep budget cuts.

He points out that the Americans who are most concerned about spending cuts are core Republicans and Tea Party supporters, not independents and swing voters.

“It may be hard to understand why a person might jump off a cliff, unless you understand they’re being chased by a tiger,” he said. “That tiger is the Tea Party.”

Public Proposes Federal Budget Dramatically Different Than House or White House

Full report(PDF)
American Public Shows How it Would Cut the Budget Deficit

An innovative study has found that when a representative sample of the American public was presented the federal budget, they proposed changes far different from those the Obama administration or the Republican-led House have proposed.

The biggest difference in spending is that the public favored deep cuts in defense spending, while the administration and the House propose modest increases. However, the public also favored more spending on job training, education, and pollution control than did either the administration or the House. On average the public made a net reduction of $146 billion–far more than either the administration or the House called for.

While there were some partisan differences in the magnitude of spending changes, in two out of three cases average Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed on which items should be cut or increased.

The public also showed readiness to increase taxes by an average of $292 billion–again, far more than either the administration or the House.

“Clearly both the administration and the Republican-led House are out of step with the public’s values and priorities in regard to the budget,” comments Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), which conducted the study.

American Public Shows How it Would Cut the Budget Deficit

Full report(PDF)
Questionnaire with Findings, Methodology (PDF)

Through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, on average, respondents cut the discretionary budget deficit projected for 2015 by seventy percent. Six in ten solved the problem of the projected Social Security shortfall through adjustments in payroll taxes, premiums, and benefits. The projected Medicare shortfall was also dramatically reduced.

The Political Ideology of the Millennial Generation
A National Study of Political Values and Beliefs Among 18- to 29-Year-Old Adults
By John Halpin and Karl Agne

Of all the storylines emerging from the historic 2008 elections perhaps none has more impact on the future of our country than the rise of the Millennial Generation. These young 18- to 29-year-old Americans born between 1978 and 2000 represent the largest and most diverse generation in American history. Last year, their record turnout and overwhelming support for Barack Obama—as well as Democrats up and down the ballot— delivered a decisive victory and signaled a turning point in our country’s political history.

What is most important about these voters is not their current predilection for Democratic candidates, however, but rather the deeply held progressive beliefs underlying their voting preferences. The progressive beliefs of these young adult voters could recast the core ideological battles that have defined our country’s post-Vietnam political discourse.

The presidency of George W. Bush marked the formative political experience for many of these younger Americans, and the results are not good for conservatives looking to gain support among this critical segment of the electorate. The combined effect of Bush’s social policies, the war in Iraq, his tax cuts, and the collapse of the economy clearly had a strongly negative impact on the ideological views of Millennial voters. Younger Americans today express broad and deep support for a progressive worldview on government, society, and world affairs and are ambivalent to outright hostile to many core elements of the conservative worldview.

Case in point: Of the 21 values and beliefs garnering majority support in our recently completed national study of political values and beliefs among young adults, only four can be classified as conservative.

Think Again: Why We’re Liberals: The Polls Speak
By Eric Alterman and George Zornick

The November 2004 National Election Study—which tries to eliminate the “moderate” option—found that 35 percent of those questioned call themselves liberal, compared to 55 percent who identify as conservative. A Pew poll at roughly the same time found 19 percent liberal and 39 percent conservative, with the balance preferring “moderate.” Then a Democracy Corps poll in January 2006 found 19 percent calling themselves liberal versus 36 percent conservative.

These numbers are practically indistinguishable from the average for the past 30 years (20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate). And yet when “moderates” were questioned by pollsters for Louis Harris and Associates in 2005, they turned out to share pretty much the same beliefs as self-described liberals—they just couldn’t bring themselves to embrace the hated label.

In fact, due primarily to the hijacking of the Republican Party by a coterie of extremist conservatives on issue after issue, a powerful supermajority of more than 60 percent of Americans questioned in these surveys almost always espouse the “liberal” alternatives. And most Americans’ answers, believe it or not, frequently fall to the left of those espoused by many liberal politicians.

[ . . . ] And yet the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, D.C., in conducting an extensive set of opinion polls over the past few decades, has demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions, by almost any definition.

To offer just a few examples of this liberal-in-all-but-name attitude regarding economic and welfare policy, according to the 2006 survey released in March 2007, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves”—up from 61 percent in 2002. The number saying that the government should guarantee “every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” has increased by a similar margin over the past five years (from 63 percent to 69 percent).

Two-thirds of the public (66 percent)—including a majority of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent)—favor government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most people also believe that the nation’s corporations are too powerful and fail to strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high, about the same number who say that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” (68 percent).

When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) support stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, while 69 percent agree that “we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies,” and fully 60 percent of people questioned say they would “be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.”

Regarding so-called social issues, only 28 percent of respondents agree that school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known to be homosexual, while 66 percent disagree. A 56 percent majority opposes making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 35 percent favor this position.

These findings reinforce previous polls like that in 2004 by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, which asked voters whether “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose” or if “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.” The condom/contraceptive option won the day by a margin of 67 percent to 30 percent. Unsurprisingly, a similar number (65 percent) said they worried that refusing to provide teens with good information about contraception might lead to unsafe sex, while only 28 percent were more concerned that such information might encourage teens to have sex.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans even tend to side with liberals rather than conservatives in their attitudes toward religion. According to a 2006 study sponsored by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress and conducted by the firm Financial Dynamism, 67 percent of voters believe that religious freedom is a “critical” part of their image of America, compared to less than three in 10 who believe the Judeo-Christian faith specifically is critical to this image. Only 20 percent of American voters approve of leaders using the political system to turn religious beliefs into action.

In terms of the role that religious and moral teachings should play in public debate about key issues, American voters do not focus on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the kind of topics that so exercise conservative Christian leaders. They would prefer to see their churches lead on issues such as alleviating “poverty and hunger” (75 percent), “homelessness” (61 percent), “government corruption” (58 percent), “terrorism” (56 percent), “the environment” (54 percent), and “health care” (52 percent).

Americans specifically reject the conservative Christian desire to suppress science in the service of religious dogma. Eighty percent of those questioned agree that “faith and science can and should coexist. We can respect our belief in God and our commitment to the dignity of every human life by using our scientific knowledge to help those who are sick or vulnerable.” The same overwhelming number endorses the view that “stem cell research can be a force for moral good rather than a moral failing.”

Liberal and Conservative Trends in the United States Since World War II
By Tom W. Smith

Overall, the post-World War II period has been a time of liberal advance. Liberal trends outnumbered conservative trends by over two-to-one (Duncan, Schuman, and Duncan, 1973; Hamby, 1985; Hoge, 1974; Hoge, Luna, and Miller, 1981; Willits, Bealer, and Crider, 1977). Liberal gains were strongest on such topics as race relations and women’s rights that concerned equal rights for all (Gusfeld, 1981; Rokeach and Ball-Rokeach, 1988; Smith and Sheatsley, 1984) and on abortion, civil liberties, and sexual morality that dealt with individual choice (Caplow et al., 1983; Hoge, Luna, and Miller, 1984; McClosky and Brill, 1983; Mueller, 1988). Topics dealing with material concerns and government regulation were mixed in their trends. Responses to calls for more government action were also quite mixed, with the number of trends in opposition to more government edging out trends in favor of more government. In addition, this role of government dimension had little relationship to liberalism/conservatism. Finally, crime was the one topic that consistently showed little or no liberal growth.

Liberal movement slowed appreciably in the mid-1970s and a number of trends, especially in the areas of abortion, civil liberties, crime, and spending and taxes, slowed, stalled, or even, in a few cases, reversed. But the hosannas from the right and wailing from the left over a conservative tide and the Reagan Revolution (Smith, 1982 and 1985a) are both overreactions. On average, liberal momentum and advance ended on the liberal plateau of the mid-1970s, but no general conservative advance occurred.

Government is Good

If we are asked about this issue in the abstract, 45% of us say we want “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and 42% say that we want “a bigger government providing more services”5 – a pretty even split. But then when people are asked about specific policy areas, much larger numbers of people say they support expanded government services. For example, almost three quarters of Americans say they want to see more federal involvement in ensuring access to affordable health care, providing a decent standard of living for the elderly, and making sure that food and medicines are safe. And over 60% want more government involvement in reducing poverty, ensuring clean air and water, and setting minimum educational standards for school. These are hardly the answers of a people who want drastically smaller government.

Table 1: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs8

Should Spend More Spending About Right Should Spend Less Don’t Know or No Answer
Protecting the environment 59.8% 27.9% 7.7% 4.6%
Protecting the nation’s health 66.8% 25.0% 5.6% 2.6%
Halting the rising crime rate 60.9% 28.4% 9.3% 3.0%
Dealing with drug addiction 58.2% 27.9% 9.3% 4.6%
Improving the education system 69.7% 22.1% 6.3% 1.9%
Social Security 55.7% 31.9% 6.3% 6.1%
Solving urban problems 45.5% 29.8% 12.1% 12.5%
The military, arms, and defense 17.5% 46.3% 30.3% 5.9%
Highways and bridges 38.2% 47.1% 9.6% 5.1%
Welfare 16.0% 36.1% 43.3% 4.6%
Parks and recreation 34.0% 55.2% 6.1% 4.7%
Mass transit 31.7% 47.3% 9.4% 11.5%

In Search of Ideologues in America



– – –

If you want to look at the public opinions on certain issues, check out some of my other posts:

Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)

Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich

Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life

Culture Wars Continuing

56 thoughts on “US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

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    “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

    According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

    Religion has long been co-opted by religious conservatives as a vehicle for political gain, but this study hints that the future of faith-based political advocacy could rest with the left-leaning faithful. Religious progressives already make up 28 percent of the Democratic party—this in addition to 42 percent that are religious moderates—a number that only stands to grow as Millennials age and begin to vote in greater numbers.

    Religious progressives are also more ethnically diverse than religious conservatives, a fact that bodes well for the Democratic party as the country becomes more racially varied. And when it comes to economic issues, religious progressives are actually more passionate than other liberals about eradicating income inequality; the study found that 88 percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.

    “This survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow.


    According to a new CAP poll, 71 percent of Americans:

    … are much more open to diversity and more supportive of steps to reduce racial inequalities than is commonly portrayed in politics and the media. Furthermore, Americans are more likely to see opportunities from rising diversity than they are to see challenges. They understand the problems associated with inequality in society and strongly support new steps and investments to reduce these inequalities and expand economic opportunities. Although differences remain between rising communities of color and whites in terms of openness to diversity and support for new policies to close remaining social gaps, many of these distinctions are more ideological in nature and less about race and ethnicity.

  5. You have a serious issue conflating opinion with fact. The first 8 quotes you cite are 100% opinion. I don’t even get the point of the quotes. You’re quoting authors who agree with you. That’s meaningless. You’re also conveniently leaving out the gallup poll people cite when they proclaim America to be a center-right country. In that poll, 10% say they’re “very conservative” and 30% identify themselves as “conservative”.

    • Welcome to my blog, Hector. I do appreciate that you’re showing a willingness to consider my arguments or at least visit posts that I’ve linked.

      You only mention my introductory comments to this post, but since you came all the way down to the comments section I know you passed by a whole heap of data about public opinion. The introductory thoughts are mostly my bringing some ideas together for the purposes of making sense of the data. Most of the data, however, isn’t in the introductory comments.

      If you looked at my data in this post and other posts I’ve linked, you’d know that the issues involved are a lot more complex than your statements would allow. I care more about substance than labels. Getting at the substane is hard work, though. You have to be willing to question your own assumptions and biases, and look for the underlying patterns. That is why I offered so much data here. I was trying to get at a broader view and higher vantage point in order to gain perspective.

      The label issue you mention is important, but it can only be understood in context. You have to first figure out what people mean when they identify a particular way. You can’t assume that others mean the same thing you mean when labels are used.

      This is an area that has been explored in the social science research. That is where it gets fascinating. Here are two of the posts that deal with the hard issues that trip up so many people:

      Here is a quote from the second link:

      “Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

      That challenges the conventional, mainstream view of what politics means. It points to a confusion or ambivalence at the heart of our society. Most people, including most elites, don’t know what they’re talking about. Labels, as they are commonly used, obscure more than they explain.

      Apparently, by the definition of political labels used by most, I too am a conservative. Either the labels are problematic or I really am on the political right. I don’t deny that I have some conservative tendencies, such as my prioritizing community and my emphasis on the precautionary principle (I even have libertarian inclinations, although of a left-libertarian variety), but I still don’t think I’m fundamentally conservative.

      I’m of the opinion that there is obviously something problematic with these labels and how they are used. If you think these labels are clear and accurate, then you need to make some major defense of what they mean in context of what the data shows.

  6. Accordingly, what Americans call fiscal conservatism seems radically liberal in essence.

    a.k.a. “neoliberalism”

    The contest of ideologies in American society hasn’t been between traditional conservatism and radical liberalism. Rather, it’s been a contest between John Locke’s self-oriented liberalism and Thomas Paine’s social-oriented liberalism, the former often defending class divisions (in defense of the ownership rights of the ownership class) and the latter challenging them.

    That’s quite an illuminating statement.
    Superb post!

    • This post is almost a decade old at this point. I’m not sure how I might write a post like this now. But it still expresses my viewpoint. And it remains relevant, maybe more relevant. Since then, the public has gone even further left and the government even further right. A few years after this post, I wrote about the elite disconnected from the public:

      I mostly stopped writing about such things as this. It is hard know what to do with such info. What the majority wants would matter in a functioning democracy, but that isn’t what we have. Even though the public is mostly liberal and on some issues quite leftist, polling is easily manipulated and so public perception is easily shaped. Most Americans are so deceived and indoctrinated by corporate media and corporatist politicians that they don’t know they’re part of a majority.

      I might add that this goes further back in American history. Many early Americans, by today’s standards, would be strongly liberal and even leftist. Thomas Paine is always a great example of this and, without him, Americans probably wouldn’t have been inspired to have won their revolution. John Adams hated Paine and still gave him primary credit for this victory, to such an extent that he quipped it would be remembered as the Age of Paine.

      This was seen in the radicalism left-wing movement that emerged prior to the Civil War. People forget that there is a reason the Republicans were originally referred to as the Red Republicans, and red to this day is associated with the party. Many early Republicans were radical extremists. Abraham Lincoln had a Marxist in his administration who taught him labor value: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Lincoln was also close friends with the Owen family who were influential socialists. His social circle included a wide variety of radical leftists, from abolitionists to free love advocates.

      There was a large political movement on the left in the 19th century. This involved not only Marxists and socialists, but also populists and anarchists. In the latter part of the century and into the next, this is referred to as the Populist era. It was the most powerful time in history for labor organizing, including in the Deep South where left-wing politics took root. It required immense propaganda, power, and violence (Pinkertons, federal troops, FBI, etc) to destroy this widely supported native leftism. The history we are told usually whitewashes this past. Even something as recent as the Vietnam War is mis-remembered, as many of the protesters were veterans and most Americans against the war were not college students but the working class.

      The United States is a liberal society. That is without a doubt. It frames everything, even the supposed opposition to liberalism. But this then leads us to the question of what exactly is liberalism. It so fully dominates that we can’t see outside of it. All the reactionary right-wingers end up doing is co-opting liberalism and then rebranding it, typically to use it as rhetoric toward authoritarian ends, but still the fact they so often have to use liberal rhetoric to sound reasonable at all in this country says a lot. Sometimes they even admit to this, in calling themselves classical liberals, albeit they are actually ignorant of classical liberalism (the radical leftist Thomas Paine was a classical liberal).

      This history has been obscured. And there is a lot of confusion in general. It’s hard to know what to make of it at times. More Americans will identify as conservative, if given a forced choice between that and liberal. Yet if given a third choice, a large proportion choose neither conservative nor liberal. Even among those who choose conservative, the actual breakdown of views shows that they largely support values and policies that are typically perceived as liberal and leftist in corporate ‘mainstream’ media. Their conservatism is mostly symbolic, rather than substantial, that is to say it is a social identity rather than a political position, but even as a social identity it further demonstrates the confusion.

      What often defines the distinction between the left and right isn’t so much economics. Americans are totally on board with left-wing public policies that emphasize the public good and involve government programs, both in local and national politics. If we had a fully functioning democracy and so if public opinion determined elections, we’d be as socially democratic (democratically socialist?) as the Nordic countries. But economics isn’t what fires up public debate or it’s not how the ruling elite allow public debate to be framed, in manipulating public perception of public opinion.

      This is where the culture wars come in. Still, even then it is often portrayed as if this is a new thing. It is assumed that we are a culturally conservative nation and this only changed with the 1960s. But look back at the radically libertine 1920s. The Lost Generation, prior to the so-called Great Generation, was in many ways far to the left in pushing all kinds of social, economic, and political reforms and sometimes pushing for revolution. That was a violent era of mass uprisings, armed revolts, race wars, etc — the American people literally fought back and the government was scared shitless, which is why they came down so hard on the Bonus Army. This radicalism continued into the post-war period. Some returning WWII veterans took up arms against their local ruling elite and enforced democracy (e.g., Battle of Athens).

      There is a culture war. Even the economic issues at heart are cultural issues. None of this is new. Take immigration and abortion as issues of concern that go back to the early 19th century. Abortion, along with birth control, had become so common by the mid-19th century that the political right of the time was fear-mongering about the demographic suicide of Anglo-Saxons, the equivalent of today’s fear-mongering about the demographic suicide of whites.

      For centuries, American society has been going through cycles of populist progressivism and reactionary backlash. But the defining frame of that conflict has always been Enlightenment liberalism. Conservatism has little to do with pre-Enlightenment traditionalism that was heavily communal and collectivist in nature. Consider Thomas Paine who, in advocating for such policies as a Citizens Dividend (e.g., basic income), was arguing compensation for the loss of the feudal commons and the rights of commoners, an act of theft and moral wrongdoing — an appeal to traditionalism. The political left are the heirs of this communal focus of the ancien regime. It is the so-called ‘conservatives’ who are the radicals seeking to impose a certain kind of radical liberalism through the most extreme forms of neoliberalism and hyper-individualism.

      Most Americans disagree with this right-wing project. So, the debate is most fundamentally about what kind of liberalism should rule our society and what relationship it has to the past. But liberalism itself is the starting point, as the United States is one of the few countries in the world directly founded on Enlightenment liberalism.

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