We'll no doubt hear too much commentary reading too much into a few elections tomorrow in a handful of states, so it's worth stepping back to recognize the deep support for progressive policies and ideas that are increasingly dominant across our nation. Obama's election as President is one indicator of that shift, but progressive gains are reflected in the underlying support for progressive policies in poll after poll, whether in demands for greater corporate accountability, health care reform, environmental sustainability or a host of other issues.
If progressives face a challenge, it's not on allegiance to our values such as rewarding work or promoting greater justice, it's a skepticism by many independents of the effectiveness of government in accomplishing the goals shared by most of the public.
However, if we understand the public support for progressive goals, it can inform our political messaging which should embrace a clear progressive agenda, even as we recognize that trust in government needs to be rebuilt after decades of right-wing attacks on its functioning. And we should also act with confidence, knowing that younger voters are even more progressive than their parents and grandparents, so our ability to move policy forward will only grow with each election cycle as these new progressives become a larger and larger share of the electorate.
This Dispatch will outline these trends in public opinion, with special emphasis on the results of two wide-ranging surveys this year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009  (hereafter "Pew"), and the Center for American Progress report, State of American Political Ideology, 2009: A National Study of Values and Beliefs  (hereafter "CAP-beliefs"). Other reports will be touched on as well, but the core results are similar across all major surveys on these points.
Table of Contents:
- Support for Progressive Values and Policy
- Addressing Fears on the Effectiveness of Government Action
- The Increasingly Isolated Right-Wing
- The Future Will Only Be More Progressive
Support for Progressive Values and Policy
One notable trend is that the American public is quite favorably disposed to the "progressive" label itself, far more so than even a few years ago. In 2009, 67% of the public view the term favorably, equal to those who view the term "conservative" favorably. But more people have an unfavorable view of "conservative" (28%) versus only 21% of the public viewing the term "progressive" unfavorably, giving "progressive" a much higher net favorable rating. (CAP-beliefs)
Notably, favorability for both "progressive" and "conservative" ideological labels is not highly partisan, with 50% of Democrats rating "conservative" favorably and 53% of Republicans rating "progressive" favorably. ("Liberal" has a more partisan flavor with only 21% of Republicans rating "liberal" favorably). In fact, 46% of the public believes that a "progressive" is something entirely different from a "liberal" or a "conservative." (CAP-beliefs)
The Center for American Progress found that when presented with two broad philosophical options, Americans overwhelmingly chose the "progressive" option over the "conservative" philosophical viewpoint:
- Six in 10 Americans believe that “government should do more to promote the common good,” versus 37 percent who feel that “government should do more to promote individual liberty.” ("CAP-beliefs")
- 57 percent of Americans believe that “freedom requires economic opportunity and minimum measures of security, such as food, housing, medical care and old age protection,” compared to 38 percent who favor the idea that “freedom requires that individuals be left alone to pursue their lives as they please and to deal with the consequences of their actions on their own.” ("CAP-beliefs")
The Rejection of Right-Wing Economic Ideology: While laissez-faire ideology was never as popular as the media
sometimes made it out to be, the recent economic breakdown has just reinforced
the long-term public view that our economic system is too corporate-dominated
and too unequal. While most Americans respect the importance of businesses in
the economy, they reject the ideology that this should translate into corporate
control of the political decisions or the degree of economic inequality that has
been a product of past policies. A few key polling results:
- Opposition to Corporate Power: 77% of Americans say that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies" and a 62% majority says businesses make too much profit. (See chart from Pew) As far as Wall Street’s overall impact, 49% believe that it “often hurts the economy more than helps it;” only 37% disagreed with this negative assessment of Wall Street.(Pew)
- Ending Economic Inequality: The public does not accept the idea that present economic inequality is natural and earned by the wealthy on their own. 60% of the public agree that "Rich people like to believe they have made it on their own, but in reality society has contributed greatly to their wealth" - with 30% strongly agreeing with this; 62% believe "The gap between rich and poor should be reduced, even if it means higher taxes for the wealthy" - with 38% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs)
- Importance of Government Investments: 79% believe "Government investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth." - with 45% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs)
- Need for Regulation of Business: 73% believe "Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers"- with 32% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs) 59% believe "Government must step in to protect the national economy when the market fails" - with 27% strongly agreeing (CAP-beliefs)
- Necessity of Labor as Counter to Corporate Power: Roughly six-in-ten (61%) agree that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person;” 34% disagree, although there has been erosion in union support in the last few years.
Views Dominate Policy Choices: And on key policies, the public
overwhelmingly supports progressive goals:
- Aid to Those in Need: 69% believe "Government has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick, and the elderly" - with 33% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs) 63% believe government should "take care of people who can't care for themselves" and 62% believe government should "guarantee food and shelter for all." (Pew)
- Environment: 67% believe "America must play a leading role in addressing climate change by reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions and complying with international agreements on global warming" - with 38% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs). 83% believe "There needs to be stricter environmental laws and regs to protect the environment." However, the economic crisis means there are more worries about the costs of environmental enforcement-- a majority (51%) support protecting the environment "even if it causes slower economic growth) but that is less than in 2007 (when 66% held that position). (Pew)
- Health Care: 65% believe that government "should guarantee affordable health coverage for every American" - with 44% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs). Pew found 86% public support for the idea that "gov't needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible." (Pew)
Addressing Fears on the Effectiveness of Government Action
If an overwhelming majority of the population supports progressive goals, a key obstacle to building a dominant progressive coalition are fears by many moderate voters that government won't be effective in achieving them.
Part of the problem is, ironically, the broad criticism of corporate power in our society, since 65% of the public believes "Government policies too often serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy" - with 34% strongly agreeing. (CAP-beliefs) However, this is combined with a deeper skepticism of government effectiveness, with 61% of the public believing that "government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient" - with 30% strongly agreeing. (CAP- beliefs). This is similar to Pew numbers finding 57% believing government is "usually inefficient and wasteful."(Pew) Given the institutional and seemingly purposeful incompetence of conservative leadership in Washington, D.C. that mired us in Iraq and allowed Hurricane Katrina to devastate a city, that skepticism is hardly surprising. Filibusters in Washington, D.C. are just one more element that feeds the perception fed by the right-wing of government ineffectiveness.
The end result is that, despite supporting many
progressive policies in practice, slight majorities end up opting in the
abstract for anti-government beliefs, such as:
- 57% believe "Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth" with 25% strongly agreeing.(CAP-beliefs)
- 55% believe "Limited government is always better than big government" - with 31% strongly agreeing.(CAP-beliefs)
Rising Support for Government Action: Still, Pew found that skepticism of government has eroded in the last two years, no doubt due to the economic crisis. While a small majority (55%) still fears that "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives", that is down from 64% back in 2007. Notably, fears over the inefficiency of government spending, while still strong, are far less than in the early 1990s and less even than two years ago.(See graph from Pew to the right).
So while in the theory, the public has reservations about government action, Pew finds strong support (62%) for the idea that "a free market economy needs govt regulation in order to best serve the public interest." (Pew) And the overwhelming support for government acting to make health care more affordable means only 46% agree that they are "concerned about the govt becoming too involved in health care."
Positive Role for Government: What this emphasizes is that most
moderate voters do not have to be convinced of the importance of progressive
goals but rather need assurance that the means to achieve those goals will be
effective. A recent policy brief, Promoting Broad Prosperity , by the Topos Partnership
and Demos details some key approaches to progressive messaging on the role of
government. These messaging approaches include:
- Instead of talking about government in the abstract, emphasize that “public structures” created and maintained by government are foundational to prosperity and economic stability, as well as the strength of the middle class.
- True prosperity rests on collective success, not just individual opportunity or success. Systems (like the FDIC, community colleges and Social Security) are built collectively and yield collective benefits.
- Since Americans are relatively unaware of the many ways in which policy inevitably shapes the distribution of income and wealth, explaining how government policies direct the flow of money to different parts of our society helps people focus on how policies lead to particular social and economic outcomes.
The key is to avoid falling into the trap of talking about government in the abstract, where the public retains some skepticism, but instead to emphasize existing public structures like schools or other concrete programs that people support and see working every day.
The Increasingly Isolated Right-Wing
One trap progressive leaders should avoid is thinking that compromising with conservative groups, who are ideologically opposed to progressive values as well as the means of achieving them, will somehow appeal to most moderate and independent voters. That hard right-wing bloc is quite distinct from most independent voters, including independents that might self-identify as conservative in some cases but in fact share many progressive values.
Diminishing Power of
"Wedge" Issues: Hot button issues like abortion, gay rights or
immigration still play a factor in uniting the values of some moderates with the
right-wing, but even on those issues, the right-wing is finding itself
- 59% of Americans believe "Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights" - with 36% strongly agreeing (CAP-beliefs)
- Only 42% believe "Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs and abuse government benefits" - and only 22% strongly agree. (CAP-beliefs) In fact, Pew found that support for "providing a way for illegal immigrants already in U.S. to gain legal citizenship" increased between 2007 and 2009 from 58% in support to 63% in support.
- Only 34% believe "Homosexuality is unnatural and should not be accepted by society" - and only 22% strongly agree. (CAP-beliefs)
The Isolated Right-Wing: This leave a hard right minority driving anti-progressive rhetoric in the media and society that is quite isolated from mainstream American sentiments. Because fewer people are identifying as Republicans, this has made the remainder of self-identified Republicans more conservative than in polling in past years. Much of the anti-government sentiment comes from that hard-right faction of the GOP, with 72% of Republicans fearing the "federal government controls too much of our daily lives."(Pew) In fact, since 2007, belief that "regulation of business usually does more harm than good" fell among both independents and Democrats, but actually spiked upwards from 55% in 2007 to 75% in 2009 among Republicans -- creating a stark current difference in views on regulation.
Democracy Corps conducted focus groups  recently among what the pollsters identified as the hard conservative base, roughly one-in-five voters, and found that this group of voters has a very distinct and isolating view of the country. They dismiss health care reform out of hand and see the Obama Administration as ruthlessly advancing a ”˜secret agenda’ to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism. Markedly, they see themselves as having special knowledge gleaned from access to conservative media like Fox News and pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. This same group are not particularly partisan supporters of the Republican Party institutionally, since they see the party establishment itself as betraying conservative values.
Independents Distinct from Right-Wing: Interviews by Democracy Corps with conservative independents show that those independents share neither the ideology nor conspiracy theories of these right-wing voters, the staple of "Tea Party" protests, but rather fit the model discussed above of moderates wanting progressive outcomes but skeptical of government delivering it.
What this means is that compromising progressive values and goals to appease the right-wing faction won't help with reaching independents. Instead, messaging to independents needs to emphasize the shared goals of achieving progressive policy while continuing to address the independents' fears around the efficacy of government action.
The Future Will Only Be More Progressive
All of the above is a static snapshot of the current electorate, but the reality is that the fastest growing parts of the population -- young people and communities of color -- are far more progressive than the overall current population. So the future electorate promises to be even more progressive.
The following is from two other Center for American Progress reports -- New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority  (hereafter "CAP-Change") and New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation  (hereafter "CAP-Millennial).
The Coming Millennial Revolution in American Politics: Voters born since 1978 -- the so-called Millennial Generation - voted for Obama by a margin of 66% to 32%, but that is, according to the Center for American Progress, only part of a "deeper story of a generation with progressive views in all areas and big expectations for change that will fundamentally reshape our electorate." Millennial voters eligible to vote are increasing by about 4 million a year-- by 2020, there will be 90 million Millennial eligible voters, just under just under 40 percent of America’s eligible voters.
On specific issues, Millennials are more progressive than
the population as a whole (the following is from the CAP-Millennial report):
- On health care, 71% of Millennials support a federal government guarantee of health care coverage for all Americans, compared to 65 percent among the total population.
- On the minimum wage, 63% of Millennials ranked raising the minimum wage as a top priority, compared to 54 percent of the total population.
- On taxation, 60 percent of Millennials said raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year will be good for the economy, compared to 47 percent of the general population who said it would be good for the economy.
- On labor unions, 75 percent of Millennial voters agree that labor unions are necessary to protect the working person, compared to 64 percent of 30- to 59-year-olds and 66 percent of people over 60.
Ending the Culture War and Strengthening Belief in Effectiveness of Government: The growth of Millennials in the electorate will increasingly end the relevance of "culture war" wedge issues: 58% of Millennials support allowing gays to marry, strikingly different from older cohorts where only 31 percent support marriage equality. Millennials support a path to citizenship for immigrants by far larger margins than the population as a whole and support more religious tolerance and teaching evolution by higher margins than older voters.
Crucially, young voters are notably less cynical about the effectiveness of government as a tool for achieving those progressive goals. When asked in the 2008 National Election Study whether the free market can handle key problems without government’s involvement, Millennials instead demonstrated an overwhelming preference for strong government by a margin of 78 to 22 percent. 63 percent of Millennials in surveys believer that “government needs to do more to address the major challenges facing our country,” while only 37% agree that “government is already too involved in areas that are better left to individuals or the free market” (CAP-Millennial) Similarly, Pew shows that young people have far more belief that government can be effective, with only 43% of those under 30 saying government is inefficient, compared with 64% of those 65 and older. Just 39% of those under 30 say they are worried about the involvement of government in health care, while 53% of those 65 and older do so. (Pew)
Diversity and the Future of America: Increasing racial and religious diversity will just solidify the progressive trend in the next decade or so. Between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections rose by 11 percentage points and the United States will be majority-minority by 2042. In fact, when you include religious diversity into the calculation, by the election of 2016, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation. (CAP-Change) While white Millennials are far more progressive than their parents, non-white voters generally support progressive policies by even greater margins.
The bottom-line is that progressive values and support for progressive policies are widespread in the electorate. If progressives can clearly articulate why particular government means will be effective, there will be deep support for progressive policy goals. As importantly, progressive leadership needs to avoid the trap of muffling a strong progressive vision out of fear of the noisy wing of an increasingly isolated right-wing. Instead, if progressive leaders articulate that vision clearly and hold the loyalty of the growing bloc of Millennial voters and communities of color who, progressives will be able to solidify long-term support for progressive policy in our communities and nation.
Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press report, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes:
Center for American Progress report, State of American Political Ideology, 2009: A National Study of Values and Beliefs 
Democracy Corps - The Very Separate World of Conservative Republicans
Topos Partnership and Demos - Promoting Broad Prosperity
Center for American Progress - New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority
Center for American Progress - New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation