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. It remains to be seen to what extent they can rely on Barack Obama to fulfill their aspirations.
On 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.
Aside from coloring the way the media covers — and the public views — the vital issues of the day, it impacts progressive activists, who even when they have the wind at their backs often feel the need to move slowly, cautiously and in ways that will minimize direct confrontation with the conservative movement.
Progressives have long begun the legislative process in the middle and then moved to the center-right, when the reality is that the country is looking for bold changes, not incremental tinkering.
This week [end of May], a new report  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.
Finally, the report notes that the social issues that used to inspire not only the right but also many in the center are rapidly losing traction — in part because of the demographic trends described above.
Most Americans remain pro-choice (despite one oddly-worded Gallup poll to the contrary), and while a slim majority opposes full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, the general level of acceptance of gays and lesbians is growing ever greater.
That a sea-change is happening in America’s political culture should be apparent by the results of the last election, a race that the Republican party explicitly framed as a question of ideology, accusing Barack Obama of being very far to the left — even deriding him as a cryptosocialist.
But the authors of the report point out, "for the press, Democratic victories are explained away as candidates having moved to the right, while Republican victories are confirmed as a true expression of America’s conservative pulse."
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.
"America: A Center-Left Nation"
(PDF - 472.3 kb)