Issues or Labels: Is the U.S. leaning progressive?

Progressives have, for about a couple of years now, been insisting that the public in the United States is leaning their way on the issues. But polls cited by a Time Magazine blog and now by CBS dispute this, noting that a plurality labels itself conservative rather than liberal or moderate. The polls show mixed evidence on issues. According to the Time blog:

On values issues it is more of a mixed bag. Substantially fewer believe that the government should promote traditional values, and substantially more describe themselves as “pro-life.” Overall, however, there has not been substantial movement here.

On government power, there are similar results. The percentage of people who think taxes are too high has dropped [four] points, but the percentage who think that government has too much power has shot up 10 points, to 52%.

Finally, on defense, supermajorities believe that defense spending is too low or about right, and a similar number believe that Afghanistan was not a mistake. The percentage of people who believe that Iraq was not a mistake is up a tick from 2008, though it is down substantially from 2004.

According to CBS:

Gallup has also found that Americans have moved rightward on some issues: A record-high 55 percent want less regulation on guns, a record-high 42 percent want less influence by unions, and there has been an increase in the percent who say they oppose abortion rights (47 percent), believe global warming warnings are exaggerated (41 percent), want the government to “promote traditional values” (53 percent) and believe there is too much government regulation in business (45 percent).

There is some good news for Democrats here, however, as they look toward the future: The survey shows that Americans age 18-29 are roughly as likely to call themselves liberal (31 percent) as they are to call themselves conservative (30 percent). Americans 65 and older, meanwhile, are more likely than any group to call themselves conservative (48 percent).

So Progressives can hope that the old fogies will die off sooner rather than later and that the 18-29 year age group does not shift in a conservative direction in the 20-30 years it will take for them to begin to achieve significant power. I wouldn’t hold my breath: the rather despicable elite that is in a final stretch to retirement came of age during the 1960s and early 1970s. While they might have campaigned against an embedded political culture in Washington, D.C., they brought us deregulation, a wider gap between rich and poor, more military spending (despite the end of the Cold War), and environmental policies that make Richard Nixon appear positively progressive.

There are major failings in all the polls cited, at least as these articles report them. None of them break down their results by class or geographic area and all of them confound liberals with Democrats and conservatives with Republicans. If we understand that rich kids are much more likely to grow up to be powerful and that Republican support appears to be strongest in the South, and consider that many Republican voters feel their representatives in Congress are “out of touch”, so much so that a race between a third party candidate and the Republican in New York’s 23rd District has become interesting, the situation appears much murkier.

And any expectation that the U.S. public will move in a progressive direction demands that the people overcome a considerable conservative ideological bias in predominant forms of public communication that favors selfishness (view a BBC series, entitled Century of the Self, episodes 1, 2, 3, and 4, each about an hour long), deregulated capitalism, an expensive military, and a racist regime of “law and order”.

This, ultimately, is the most important disagreement I have with my favorite professor at my previous school, Robert Terrell. He infers progress in race relations from his freedom to teach at a public university (he is African American, so he would have been barred forty years ago) and retains a quaint faith in the political establishment’s ability to rectify itself. He keeps reminding me that “politics are the art of the possible” even as nearly the entire U.S. political establishment bears responsibility for the over one million “excess” deaths in Iraq, even as the country has been at some state of war for nearly the whole of its existence, and even as the only thing the establishment can think to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms is to repeal, repudiate, and minimize as many of them as it thinks it can get away with. We have this history because despite numerous occasional uprisings (see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States) a critical mass among the people has never revolted against it, even when presidential elections have been rather blatantly stolen as in 2000 and 2004.

It is instead a persistent U.S. public acquiescence to conservative policy which speaks volumes about any light at the end of the tunnel for Progressives. Even if Progressives read public opinion correctly, it isn’t doing us any good.

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