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Report: America's Progressive Majority?

June 13, 2007

The Campaign for America's Future and Media Matters have jointly released a new data-rich report aiming to undermine the mainstream media conventional wisdom that the United States is essentially a conservative country. The study, "The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America is a Myth," relies on opinion research to conclusively demonstrate that across virtually the entire gamut of issues, a majority of Americans hold progressive positions.
Sadly, polls don't win elections. The CAF/MM report fails to tell the more complex story behind conservatives' ability to compete politically in the face of overwhelming disdain for their policies. As I wrote just after John Kerry's debacle in 2004, Democrats shouldn't confuse Americans' overall propensity to support a given position with the intensity of feelings held by some. More importantly, when voter turnout runs as low as 40%, the only thing that matters is getting the "half of the half" of people actually casting ballots. The GOP strategy of divide, suppress and conquer, which seeks to mobilize the conservative base while driving down the turnout of Democratic and independent voters, is premised on precisely that truth.
A quick review of the poll numbers confirms the report's central finding that the U.S. continues to be a progressive nation despite media assurances to the contrary. By 58% to 42%, Americans in 2004 thought the government should do more, not less, in addressing national problems, even if that means more spending (43% to 20%). Survey data shows majority concern over income inequality. In a 2007 poll, Americans thought globalization hurt (48%) rather than helped (25%) standards of living. 84% supported an increase in the minimum wage. And in a 2005 survey, 60% of respondents favored increased government investment over additional tax cuts.
Across the range of domestic, foreign policy and cultural issues, the results are the same. 56% oppose new laws making it more difficult for American women to have access to abortions, with 62% opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. 78% support equal roles for women in business and government, and a stunning 89% back equal rights for gay Americans in the workplace. On energy, the environment and gun control, progressive positions also enjoy majority support. Even on defense and national security, two-thirds of Americans back international diplomacy over force in foreign policy. 63% support a withdrawal from Iraq. It's no wonder the authors conclude:

"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."

But while clear, the facts are not sufficient to win elections for Democrats. The CFA/MM report does not capture the dilemma of "intensity versus propensity." That is, while Democrats enjoy majority support on most issue nationally, for those conservative voters for whom "values" issue matter, they matter most. National preferences mask seemingly unbreakable Republican majorities in the South and Midwest. In 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in large part over issues of character and trust (Bush was preferred by 80%-17% of those for whom it was important), despite overwhelming support on the issues. In 2004, exit polls showed "moral values" was the single most important issue for voters (22%), and among them, Bush crushed John Kerry 80% to 18%. Abortion and gay marriage mattered to conservative Christian voters, and they turned out in droves. (Karl Rove said he wanted four million more evangelicals at the polls in 2004; they showed up and provided Bush his margin of victory.) At least so far, the economy, health care and reproductive rights haven't had the same mobilizing effect on America's progressive majority.
Mercifully for Democrats, the tide began to turn in 2006. Despite the Republicans' continued success in bringing out its religious right base, Iraq and corruption easily topped voters' list of most important issues. Even still, the Democrats may not have regained Congress without the Mark Foley scandal in October. (Apparently for many Americans, Republican men screwing the country is one thing; teenage boys is another thing altogether.) Looking forward to 2008, the current issue priorities for Americans (Iraq, economy, gas prices, health care, etc.) play to Democratic strengths.
Even still, that matters little for Republican strategy in the age of Karl Rove. That's because Republicans only care about the "half of the half" that actually vote. While analysts predicted heightened voter interest in the 2006 midterms, actual turnout nationwide was just over 40%, compared to 39.7% in 2002 and a pathetic 38.1% in 1998. That's where the GOP's 25 Percent Strategy comes in.
As I wrote just before last November's elections:

The Republican 25% Strategy of divide, suppress and conquer is simple. First, fire up the base with red meat issues, while using the proven conservative "distribution" channel of churches and single issue advocacy groups to get them to the polls. Second, drive down the participation of potential Democratic and independent voters through unprecedented redistricting, curbs on registration, onerous new ID requirements, and polling place eligibility challenges. Last but certainly not least for the Republican party of Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, when in doubt, just cheat.

Voter suppression, after all, is what the U.S. attorneys scandal is primarily about.
As the "Progressive Majority" report implies, the current media environment also works to counter the Democratic proclivities of the American people. In my discussion of Al Gore's new book "The Assault on Reason," I detailed how media concentration and an oversupply of news sources have combined to produce a 21st century "infotainment complex" where politics, news, opinion and entertainment merge:

The result? There is no journalistic search for objective truth. Instead, all controversies are presented as ideological clashes featuring morality plays with two - and only two - sides. In that format, the "best" entertainers are the loudest, most aggressive and most theatrical. That gives conservative themes and messages a huge built-in advantage.
Politics is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict, and good versus evil rule the day. In a time of great uncertainty at home and abroad, for overworked Americans awash in sea of information, visceral appeals and gut-level emotions, not data, facts and analysis, cut through the noise. Conservatives rage, liberals whine. And rage is much more entertaining.

This week's study from Media Matters and the Campaign for America's Future is an important arrow in the progressive quiver for shattering the myth of the United States as an essentially conservative nation. But that's just the first step in helping progressives actually win elections. As with any 12-step program, the first step is to recognize you have a problem.


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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