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Nathan Newman on April 23, 2007 - 11:29am
But are these gains just a temporary reaction against the failures of national leadership, or are they based on a solid foundation of changes in public opinion?
In fact, a major multi-decade study of public opinion published just in the last few weeks by the Pew Research Center emphasizes that current political changes are matched by a strengthening of progressive values in the public. The study, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007, shows that not only have there been important shifts in the last couple of years, but more importantly, there are long-term trends over the past few decades that have created opportunities for progressive leaders to deliver bold programs that take on the cynicism that affects too many Americans.
The Public Backlash Against Corporate Excess
The change in political winds is driven partly by the sense in the public that corporate profits and rising economic inequality are out of control. A few key points:
- 76% of the public believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.
- Nearly two-thirds (65%) say corporate profits are too high, up from 59% in 2003; the intensity against these excess corporate profits is the highest in twenty years of polling.
- Just 38% feel that corporations strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest, again the lowest percentage in twenty years.
While Americans still believe that a strong business sector is important for the strength of the country, they increasingly feel corporate power is undermining other values that they care about, such as a fair opportunity for all.
Fear of rising inequality is pervasive. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the public agree with this statement: “Today it’s really true that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”? The percentage holding this view has risen eight points just since 2002.
With rising inequality, 68% of Americans believe "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person" with 79% of those making less than $30,000 per year endorsing the need for stronger unions as a counterweight to corporate power.
Endorsing Strong Environmental Protection
The other part of the public backlash is condemnation of corporate pollution of the environment. ExxonMobil scores the most unfavorable ratings of any corporation in Pew's poll and an overwhelming majority (83%) of the public supports stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.
Rejecting the oil industry's mantra of opening more land for drilling, 69% of the public endorses the position that “we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies.”? Americans recognize that artificially cheap fossil fuels have consequences and 60% would "be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment," a sentiment that shows that, properly presented, there is a public appetite for increased gas taxes or carbon taxes to encourage conservation.
The environmental movement as a group receives some of the highest favorability ratings of any political group, with 63% approving of it, compared to only 45% approving of the "Christian conservative movement" and 52% approving of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Health Care & Restoring the Safety Net
Despite the YOYO (You're On Your Own) ideology promoted by the right-wing, 69% of Americans now believe that government has a responsibility "to take care of people who can't take care of themselves" - an increase in support for a strong safety net from 61% as recently as 2002.
Similarly, 69% say the government should guarantee "every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep," up from 63% in 2002 and the highest it has been since 1991. This belief in a hand-up for those in need trumps even fears of deficit spending: 54% of the public believes, "The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt," compared to just 41% who endorsed that statement back in 1994.
Health Care for All: 26% of Americans say there has been a time in the last 12 months when they have been unable to afford necessary health care for themselves or a family member. Support for extending health care to all Americans trumps any tax-phobia: 66% of Americans favor "the government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes."
With some governors and legislatures stepping up to support revenue increases to pay for extending health care to the uninsured, there is clearly a super-majority in support of their actions.
Race and Immigration
Despite the right-wing attempts to play the race card to divide the American electorate, there is less and less racial fear for them to tap.
As recently as 1987, only 48% of the public believed that it was okay for blacks and whites to date. Today, 83% approve of inter-racial dating, a gigantic decline in personal prejudice.
However, most Americans believe that racial discrimination in the workplace is very much alive-- only a third of the public believes discrimination against blacks is rare. While the public is divided over "racial preferences," 70% of the public support some form of "affirmative action programs to help blacks, women and other minorities to get better jobs and education," a significant increase since 1995 when only 58% of the public supported affirmative action to deal with discrimination.
On immigration, while the public does think better border controls are needed, a plurality (48%) reject building the fence on the Mexican border, while 59% support the more progressive approach of allowing undocumented immigrants who have been here a few years to gain legal status with the possibility of American citizenship.
The Decline of the Social Issues "Wedge" Card
While Americans remain overwhelmingly a religious people, with 83% saying they never doubt the existence of God, those religious beliefs are yielding less conservative social policies in the public sphere. A few examples:
- In 1987, 51% of the public supported firing teachers who are known to be homosexual; just 28% now support that view.
- In 1987, 43% of the public believed "AIDS might be God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior," but just 23% now agree with that statement.
- Where less that 29% of the public in 1987 completely disagreed with the statement that "Women should return to their traditional roles in society," 51% of the public now completely rejects that statement, and 75% of Americans now reject the idea that women should be confined to traditional roles.
Abortion is still an intense issue for people, but a 56% majority opposes making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while only 35% favor more abortion restrictions. Back in 1985, 47% of the public favored restricting abortion rights, so this is again a significant change in values over the last two decades.
One reason we see the right-wing hyperventilating over gay marriage is that it's about the last card they have to play. Appeals to racism and even most forms of anti-gay prejudice don't register with much of the voting public, so the right-wing has to continually trot out gay marriage like a one-trick pony.
The Progressive Challenge: Public Cynicism
However, while the public wants active government for everything from strengthening labor rights to protecting the environment to ending racial discrimination to providing health care for all, they are now deeply cynical about the ability of government to deliver on those needs.
With Bush and his corporate cronies taking a wrecking ball to government and demonstrating massive incompetence, from Iraq to cleaning up after hurricane Katrina, the result has been a significant increase just since 2002 in the percentage of the public that believes things run by government are "inefficient and wasteful." While the public wants what government delivers, 62% worry about the waste and corruption they have too often seen demonstrated.
Similarly, we have seen a decline since 2002, from 55% down to 45%, in the percentage of the public that believes that "government is really run for the benefit of all the people."
While sometimes merited, that cynicism by the public is often the largest obstacle to progressive success. It's a good reason for legislators to take the steps-- ethics reforms, public financing of elections, greater disclosure of tax and budget benefits for corporations -- to help overcome the skepticism that many Americans have in our democracy.
The Future Looks Bright
Possibly the most hopeful message from the Pew polls is that public opinion in the future is likely to continue trending in the progressive direction, since young people are distinctly more progressive than their parents. For example:
- Young people hold a more favorable view of government; they are far less prone to see government as inefficient.
- Younger generations are more socially liberal than older ones; those 18-29 are the one age group that supports (56%) gay marriage.
- 94% of those born since 1977 approve of interracial dating.
The biggest problem is that young people don't vote, but tools like Election Day Registration and Vote-by-Mail can help bring these progressive youth out to vote -- a gift to progressives if they take advantage of it.
What the Pew Poll shows is that there is a hunger for smart, progressive leadership to deliver on the desire of the American people for a more fair economy and greater social justice. Leaders may face cynicism that they can succeed, but if they take the bold steps needed, they can be confident that theirs is a deep well of public support for their actions.