Public Opinion Data Says America is Really Center-Left

Americans on average are more liberal than sterotypes about US attitudes would suggest.

So why do most Americans, and more important their representatives, act as if the country is conservative-leaning? The cynical take is the most persuasive: while the numbers may be skewed to the left, the money is weighted to the right. With TV advertising both costly and crucial to getting political messages out, conservatives have been able to punch above their weight thanks to their well-heeled donors. And these efforts to shape opinion go beyond the airways to trying also to reach opinion leaders, such as economists. However, there also appears to be a shift to the left due to the economic crisis plus left-leaning groups showing more demographic growth.

There were a couple of interesting tidbits in this story. The first is how the media continues to depict popular attitudes as more right wing than they are. Second is that individuals may be labeling themselves as conservative (thanks to “liberal” having been made a dirty word) when their attitudes on issues may in fact put them in the progressive camp.

From Voltairenet (hat tip reader Michael T):

The media still calls America a “center-right” nation, but “center-left” is closer to the truth. On issues ranging from health care to energy, the public is more progressive than people think. Demographic groups from youth to Hispanics are voting farther left and in larger numbers than ever before. The new report the Campaign for America’s Future is publishing with Media Matters for America— “America: A Center-Left Nation” —documents the trends and challenges the mainstream media to recognize reality….

In issue after substantive issue, significant majorities of Americans favor progressive solutions to the nation’s problems and reject the right’s worldview. That’s true whether the issue at hand is taxes, war and peace, the role of government in the economy, health care, and on and on.

Yet the idea that America is a “center-right” nation persists; Republican and conservative activists repeat the assertion ad nauseum — as it’s in their interest to do — and most of the political press corps swallows it whole.

The idea is like a zombie — you can bludgeon it, burn it or get Dick Cheney to shoot it in the face, but it keeps coming — it will not die.

The persistence of the center-right narrative, even in the face of piles of evidence suggesting it’s little more than a myth, has very real consequences on our political discourse….

This week [end of May], a new report [1] released by the Campaign for America’s Future and the media watchdog group MediaMatters attempts to finally bury the idea that the U.S. leans rightward. It takes a comprehensive look at the political landscape in which we live and a look forward at America’s shifting demographic profile — all of which reveal a citizenry that is anything but center-right and will only continue to trend in a more progressive direction, leaving modern conservatism increasingly isolated in its ideas.

The study gathered public-opinion data from a number of respected, nonpartisan polling outfits, findings from the (huge) National Election Study series and official statistics on ethnicity and gender to make the case. Among the findings:

On what may be the key difference between liberals and conservatives today — the role of government — more than twice as many people agree with the statement, “there are more things government should be doing” than believe the Reaganite adage, “the less government, the better.”

In 1994, more than half of Americans said, “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good” and fewer than 4 out of 10 thought “government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest.” That’s been flipped on its head during the 15 years since — today, fewer than 4 in 10 believe regulation causes more harm than good.

A majority (55-70 percent, depending on how the question is worded) believes it’s the government’s responsibility to provide health care to all Americans; fewer than a third of those responding to a CBS/New York Times poll thought health insurance should be “left only to private enterprise.”

Almost 2 out of 3 Americans believe the taxes they pay are fair, and that the very wealthy pay too little in taxes; almost 7 in 10 believe corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

During a conference call with reporters, Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s future, acknowledged that until 15 to 20 years ago, a center-right coalition of conservatives and political moderates did represent a majority of the electorate, but noted that the views of moderates and independents have grown much more closely aligned with those of more progressive voters, and the result is a center-left mandate for the new administration and Democratic-controlled Congress.

What’s more, the country’s changing demographics suggest that America will continue to be a center-left country in the coming decades. The most progressive (or at least solidly Democratic-leaning) constituencies in the country — single women, African Americans and other minority groups, young people — are growing as a share of the electorate, while the “Reagan Democrats” — older, working-class whites — who were the backbone of the conservative movement are declining as a share of the population.

Page Gardner, founder of Women’s Voices/Women Vote, said of the new coalition, “if you look at their views across the board, they’re incredibly progressive.”

More Americans are also living in high-density urban environments than ever before, which political scientists have long held creates more tolerance for diversity and in general a more receptive attitude toward the role of government in one’s daily life…

And it’s not just returns from the election — the report notes:

“Conservative commentators, particularly those on Fox News, have portrayed Obama as so liberal that his activist agenda bordered on socialist or even Marxist. Yet according to Gallup polling, Obama’s approval ratings for this first 100 days in office were higher than those of any president since Ronald Reagan and higher than seven of the last eight presidents at the 100-day mark. It doesn’t seem likely that an entrenched center-right nation would reward such a liberal president with historically high job approval.”

But as MediaMatters Director Eric Burns outlined, by and large, the media have not only failed to fully acknowledge the ideological outlook of the American electorate, the months since the election has been marked by the “mainstreaming of incredibly conservative views” within America’s pundit class, with “sometimes violent” rhetoric being debated as if it were comfortably within the mainstream.

Burns suggested that part of the reason the center-right meme persists is that many political reporters today cut their teeth in the era of the “Reagan Revolution” and during the “Clinton wars” of the 1990s — an era in which conservatives were ascendant.

Another factor is that there hasn’t been a significant shift in Americans’ self-described ideology, as a much-discussed Pew poll taken just after the election found.

Pew’s research showed, “Only about 1 in 5 Americans currently call themselves liberal (21 percent), while 38 percent say they are conservative and 36 percent describe themselves as moderate. This is virtually unchanged from recent years; when George W. Bush was first elected president, 18 percent of Americans said they were liberal, 36 percent were conservative and 38 percent considered themselves moderate.”

The problem with self-identification, however, is that it hinges on how one defines those labels — an individual may say he or she is conservative for a variety of reasons, but that same person may favor the progressive position on every issue down the line. According to the most recent (1997) Household Survey of Adult Civic Participation, only around half of Americans could say “which party is more conservative at the national level.”

It’s ultimately issues that get decided in Washington, and the report issued this week adds to an already-large body of data suggesting that Americans are highly receptive to progressive arguments on issue after issue, regardless of with which label they may identify themselves.

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  1. Hugh

    I had an exchange with someone on another blog about this. There is a big difference between how Americans self-identify politically and what their stands are on the issues.

    As for the media, I and others frequently quote the following:

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it"

    Upton Sinclair

  2. attempter

    So here's yet more data supporting what true progressives have said from the start, that there's no reality-based reason for Obama's appeasement agenda (which he's gratuitously committed himself to from the start).

    On the bailouts, the Global War on Terror, torture, tribunals, secrecy, gay marriage, health care: on all of these Obama is either in fact right-of-center, or he is a coward.

    But in none of them is he politically constrained.

  3. Francois

    Pundits and pols ignores those results at their peril.

    There are several very important issues coming down: health care reform, ECFA, Financial regulation. If Congress and the punditocracy ignore the wishes of the people on these issues, 2010 could prove very ugly for incumbents.

    As for the American Izvestia, better known as mainstream media, therein lies the answer to their biggest problems: if you ignore your audience, they'll abandon you.

    What's so hard to understand about that?

  4. Dan Duncan

    Here's some more polling data for you:

    The Center of Heuristics and Biases did a poll which established the the following: Americans think that a says that Bloggers who blindly accept "Public Opinion data" from Media Matters and Campaign for America's Future have no credibility.

    OK there Yves…gosh, I'm sure that's an objective, scientific poll you got there. Media Matters? Campaign for America's Future?

    Attempter writes: "So here's yet more data supporting what true progressives have said from the start…"

    Francois who writes: "Pundits and pols ignores those results at their peril…"

    C'mon. This is a joke, right? Naked Capitalism–The Onion Edition?

    Tell me, please, that the three of you got together and decided to make fun of stupid and nakedly partisan polls. Yves puts up the Big headline. Attempter chimes in that a poll from these groups is "obviously important factual data" and Francois comes over the top with a coup de grâce French Death Blow in the form of "Ignore these results at your peril!"

    Funny stuff, you guys! You almost had me believing that you took this garbage seriously. Please accept my apologies with a hearty laugh.

    Hey, can I play too?

    This just in: The AFL/CIO (which incidentally lists several members as founders of Campaign for America's Future) has a poll out: Americans are Center/Left and they love Unions!

    The NRA has a poll out too. Americans love guns!

    Fox News did a poll: Americans think all other media outlets besides Fox News are biased!

    "Ignore these results at your peril!"

  5. Dikaios Logos

    Though public opinion in the aggregate is likely center-left, actual political power is substantially to the right of that. Why? The system of apportioning 2 senators to small states heightens the power of the small, largely rural landlocked states that reflexively vote for the right.

  6. frances snoot

    "The system of apportioning 2 senators to small states heightens the power of the small, largely rural landlocked states that reflexively vote for the right."

    The system is termed democracy: do you have a better idea, Dikalos?

  7. Peripheral Visionary

    There is much to take issue with here, but first and foremost is the tendency to view politics as being on a right-left spectrum. Independent lines of thought are developing in the nation right now, most notably libertarianism, and I have serious doubts as to how valid the right-left dichotomy will be going forawrd.

    But the country continues to be dominated by moderates, whose political leaning depends in large part on how questions are put. From what I can see, most people will support the objectives of the progressive platform, even as they oppose the costs. People will support protecting the environment–but they will not accept the loss of jobs to serve that end. People will support freely available healthcare–but they will not support radically higher taxes to that end (note that the poll asked whether people were content with their taxes, not whether they would be willing to pay substantially higher taxes to support further government programs.) The benefits as promised by progressives are appealing, but whether people are willing to pay the cost is another story entirely.

    To one other major point, on the "youth" vote leaning left. Young people have been leaning left since the 1960's, and it has not moved the country's politics much, if at all. That's because–and this may come as a shock to the pundits–young people grow up. Young people become old people, and as they do, they tend to drift right. Paying taxes and having to deal with government regulations are a significant part of that. Social change programs that promise a utopian future are incredibly appealing to college students, who don't have to pay for or deal with any of it; when they are faced with the reality of what those social change programs cost, attitudes change. Young people have, and will continue, to support any program in a sufficiently attractive package, because, to put it bluntly, it's not their money paying for it.

    The question of progressivism's future is a much larger one. I will simply make one point: that progressivism, at least the current version of it, is predicated in large part on having a wealthy society that can fund expansive social programs and that can compensate for an economy where efficiency is not the first priority. That assumption, of the bottomless wealth of society to fund progressive programs, is about to be called into question.

  8. panchovillaggr

    "The idea is like a zombie — you can bludgeon it, burn it or get Dick Cheney to shoot it in the face, but it keeps coming — it will not die."

    Now that is some clearly thought out, unbiased writing. Nothing wreaking of liberal doctrine here. Thanks yves.

  9. asphaltjesus

    Frances Snoot: The U.S. is a Republic. More of a lower-case democracy.

    Yves' back in the last presidential campaign ice-age when there was a large field of Democratic candidates, someone, somewhere did a telephone poll and discovered that the people being polled were strongly in favor of Kucinich's platform, so why wasn't that guy the Dem's pick?

    Because, voters vote for more of the same. For whatever reason, most people talk a good game but are either satisfied with the status quo or don't have the courage to do anything beyond voting just right or left of center.

    Regardless of the quality of the source, It seems to me the underlying issue of interest for you is the lack of relevance/objectivity that the mainstream media continues to develop. I left a comment in the past suggesting your talents aren't best served working this angle, but I was wrong. I forget how many people consume the mainstream media's regurgitated stories crafted to serve the source's political end without a moment's consideration.

    All of that can be summarized as, keep up the good work!!

  10. frances snoot

    The US was a republic. Unconstitutional federalization has changed the geo-political structure. The agenda behind the stimulus will strangle the states under more federal control. I said democracy, because I prefer what we have now to the progressive utilitarian global empire being foisted upon our country by the Eurosocialists in the UN. Thanks for the correction, though.

    "Because, voters vote for more of the same. For whatever reason, most people talk a good game but are either satisfied with the status quo or don't have the courage to do anything beyond voting just right or left of center."

    I disagree. America is bankrupt and being restructured for the convenience of international banking interests.

  11. JT

    "That assumption, of the bottomless wealth of society to fund progressive programs, is about to be called into question."

    As someone who leans "progressive," the ostensibly "progressive" Obama administration has done just about everything the opposite of what I would have wanted.

    For example, the absolute last two things I wanted was a government that would force the lower middle class that tends to lack employment related benefits to purchase health insurance they already can't afford, while failing to regulate the financial industry that the Fed and Treasury is feeding trillions of dollars.

    That's no "progressive" government– I don't care who helped elect this President.

    I also agree about Media Matters etc–they're a superficial, two note orchesta. I can't even read that crap.

    Out in four years. Just because.

  12. Alex

    Center-left as long as you define the center as being way to the right, in comparison to any other western democracy.

    As a Canadian, having lived in "liberal" California for a few years, I can say I was quite amazed at what qualifies as liberal, given that I was labelled a "socialist" or "communist" on quite a number of occasions for voicing a (Canadian) left-leaning viewpoint of matters.

  13. Big Picture Trader


    You really lose me when you talk politics. I guess we'll all find out how "center-left" America is come Fall of 2010, and Americans have had nearly 2 years to contemplate the cost of our new Obama-nation.

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