How do we make sense of all this righteous anger? Are conservatives tapping into a deep-seated aversion to progressive government among the electorate? Hardly. Not unlike the characters in Rand's various fantasies of libertarian anarchy, conservatives today are living in an alternative universe. And the sooner they wake up to this reality the better off they will be.
The 2008 presidential election not only solidified partisan shifts to the Democratic Party, it also marked a significant transformation in the ideological and electoral landscape of America. In two major studies of American beliefs and demographic trends--the State of American Political Ideology, 2009 and New Progressive America, both conducted by the Progressive Studies Program at the Center for American Progress--we found that the president's agenda reflects deep and growing consensus among the American public about the priorities and values that should guide our government and society. Not surprisingly, conservatives are the ones who are out of line with the values of most Americans.
The rise of progressivism in America today is reflected most directly in public ratings of various ideological approaches. Today more than two-thirds of Americans rate a "progressive" approach to politics favorably, a 25-point increase in favorability over the last five years, with gains coming primarily from those who were previously unaware of the term. "Progressive" now equals "conservative" in terms of overall public favorability (67 percent, respectively). Both the "liberal" and "libertarian" labels enjoy much lower overall favorability, with only a plurality of Americans rating each positively. (As a side note, conservative elites might want to rethink their Ayn Rand obsession: a mere 35 percent of self-identified conservatives rate the term "libertarian" favorably, only 10-points higher than their rating of "liberal.")
Employing an innovative measurement of Americans' ideological self-identification, our study expanded the traditional liberal-moderate-conservative test with a five-point measure that more accurately reflects the dominant ideologies in politics today. Under this approach, roughly a third of Americans classify themselves as "progressive" or "liberal," a third are self-described "moderate" or "other," and just over a third label themselves "conservative" or "libertarian." After a follow-up question that pushes moderates to choose between the other ideological approaches, a roughly even left-right breakdown surfaces: 47 percent of Americans are "progressive" or "liberal" and 48 percent are "conservative" or "libertarian." The notion that we are a center-right nation is certainly exaggerated.
On a more substantive level, beyond ideological labels, we presented Americans with a series of 40 statements, split evenly between progressive and conservative ideas. Examining the results, it is clear that public acceptance of the Reagan-Bush model of conservatism--limited government, tax cuts, traditional values, and military strength--has given way to a broad and deep cross section of the American public now holding solidly progressive attitudes about government and society.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans agree that "government investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America's long-term economic growth." Overall, the unanimity of opinion found on this issue is rare, showing that conservatives are out of step with the rest of the country in opposing new government investments. More than two in three Americans agree that "government has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick, and the elderly," while 15 percent are neutral and another 15 percent disagree. Democrats remain almost unanimously supportive, and independents lean strongly toward this progressive position. A slim majority of Republicans similarly agree.
While conservative elites have long held government regulation as an impediment to economic growth, nearly three in four Americans disagree, believing instead that "government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers." Once again, there is surprising partisan and ideological harmony among Americans, with agreement topping 60 percent among both Republicans and conservatives. Seventy-six percent of Americans also agree with the president's argument that "America's economic future requires a transformation away from oil, gas, and coal to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar," with 12 percent neutral and just 11 percent who say such a transformation is not needed. A major pillar of Obama's economic vision, and the key to his cost-containment strategies, is ensuring affordable health coverage for all Americans. Nearly 65 percent of Americans are on board with this goal, including 44 percent who strongly agree that "the federal government should guarantee affordable health coverage for every American."
Complementing these consensus political values are significant demographic and electoral shifts that favor progressives. Obama's 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 represents the largest share of the popular vote received by any presidential candidate in 20 years. The last candidate to register that level of support was George H. W. Bush, who won by an identical 53 percent-to-46 percent margin in 1988. Separated by 20 years, the two elections are mirror images of one another, but with conservatives on the winning end of the first and progressives on the winning end of the second.
What happened to create such a reversal? In those intervening 20 years, a new progressive America has emerged, with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda. The share of black, Asian, and Hispanic voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive, white, college-graduate voters has risen by four points. But the share of white working-class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points. This pattern is repeated in state after state, helping to send these areas in a progressive direction. For example, in Pennsylvania the white working-class population declined by 25 points between 1988 and 2008, while white college graduates rose by 16 points and people of color rose by 8 points. And in Nevada, the white working class is down 24 points over the same time period, while voters of color are up an astounding 19 points and white college graduates are up by 4 points.
This shift strengthens the progressive agenda and will continue to strengthen it in the future as the decline of the white working class and the rise in more progressive populations continues. By 2050, the country will be 54 percent people of color as Hispanics double from 15 percent to 30 percent of the population, Asians increase from 5 percent to 9 percent, and African Americans move from 14 percent to 15 percent.
Other key progressive constituencies are expected to grow as well. The millennial generation--those born between 1978 and 2000--gave Obama a stunning 66 percent-to-32 percent margin in 2008. Between now and 2018, millennials of voting age will increase by 4.5 million a year. Professionals, single women, and college-educated women are other growing groups that heavily favor progressives.
Geographic trends are equally important. Progressive gains since 1988 have been heavily concentrated in not just the urbanized cores of large metro areas but also the growing suburbs around them. Even in exurbia, progressives have made big gains. Only in the smallest metro areas and in rural America were progressive gains minimal. And only in the most isolated, least populated rural counties did progressives actually lose ground.
Within states, there is a persistent pattern of strong progressive shifts in fast-growing metropolitan areas. In Colorado, Obama improved over Kerry's margin by 14 points in the fast-growing Denver metro area and made his greatest gains in the even-faster-growing Denver suburbs. In Nevada, Obama carried the Las Vegas metro area by 19 points, which was 14 points better than Kerry did in 2004 and 35 points better than Michael Dukakis did in 1988. In Florida, Obama won the Orlando metro area by 9 points, a 17-point gain over 2004 and an amazing 48-point shift since 1988. In Virginia, Obama dominated the D.C. suburbs, the growth engine of the state, by 19 points--15 points more than Kerry and 38 points more than Dukakis. The story is the same in state after state: Where America is growing the most, progressives are gaining strength and gaining it fast.
As the country is evolving, so are the American people's views on what government can and should do. Start with the likely diminution in the culture wars that have bedeviled American politics for so long. While cultural disagreements remain, their political influence is being undermined by the rise of the millennial generation, increasing religious and family diversity, and the decline of the culturally conservative white working class. Culture-war issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which so conspicuously failed to move many voters in the last couple of elections, will lose even more force in years to come.
Instead, we are likely to see more attention paid to health care, energy, and education--issues Americans care about and in which government has a positive role to play. The public holds distinctly progressive views in each of these areas, supporting health care for all, a transition to clean energy, and building a 21st-century education system, including a major infusion of resources to improve K-12 education and college access. The public's commitment to these progressive goals is only likely to intensify, since rising demographic groups tend to be especially supportive.
Although these attitudinal and demographic trends strongly suggest a rising progressive America, the emergence of this new coalition and agenda is neither assured nor automatic. Conservatives are not out of the ideological hunt altogether. Majorities of Americans, ranging from 55 percent to 58 percent, agree with a cluster of conservative ideas about the role of markets, taxes, Social Security, and limited government. Nearly two-thirds of Americans agree with the conservative stance on free trade, and another six in 10 support the conservative view that "government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient."
Similarly, recent political history from both the Clinton and Bush years shows us that voters are often fickle and prone to significant shifts in opinion if their demands and desires are not met or if leaders fall short of their expectations. Voter antipathy toward Bush and conservatives could easily shift toward Obama and progressives if they are not careful. The economy, public spending, and the financial bailouts are the most likely issues to trip up progressives; they are areas where our study found clear undercurrents of anti-corporate, anti-bailout populism across many segments of the electorate.
The research also reveals an interesting complexity in American ideology that could alter the political calculus in important ways. For example, we find that majorities of self-identified conservatives agree with four out of five progressive perspectives on the role of government, while majorities of self-identified progressives and liberals agree with conservative economic positions on trade and Social Security.
Conservatives could possibly take advantage of these ideological complexities with a leader who reconfigured the Republican Party to better address progressive goals through conservative means, as has David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. However, given the ideological sentiments enveloping the GOP today, this transformation seems unlikely in the short term. Unless and until conservatives recognize the depth of affinity between Obama's ideological progressivism and that of the American electorate, conservative ideas likely will remain in secondary status for years to come.
As for progressives, they have a marvelous opportunity. If Obama and his supporters can deliver on his ambitious agenda, with the very real changes that it would bring to our country, these changes will reinforce the progressive values that are now ascendant. This reinforcement of progressive beliefs, bolstered by ongoing demographic trends, would, in turn, create the possibility of more progressive change. Such a virtuous circle could lead to a real and durable political realignment.