The Emerging Center-Left Majority

This article has been corrected.

The scope of Barack Obama's sweeping victory hasn't yet registered in much of the media. Conservatives and Republicans have responded to defeat with one constant refrain: they can take solace in the fact that America is a "center right" nation. That reality means defeat is only temporary, its causes largely transitory. The losses this time are attributed to Bush's many failures, from Iraq to the economy (the explanation varies from faction to faction).

But election 2008 was not simply a testament to the remarkable candidacy of Barack Obama, nor a product of Bush's catastrophic presidency. Rather, the results suggest that this may not simply be a change election but a sea-change election. An extended election-night survey undertaken by Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future suggests that we may be witness to the emergence of a new progressive majority, that contrary to conservatives' claims, America is now a center-left nation.

The conservative claim to a center-right majority comes from addition. More voters say they are conservative than liberal (by a margin of 34 to 22 in this election). Add conservatives to the 44 percent who say they are moderates and you've got the majority.

But the addition doesn't hold up under any analysis. It assumes that moderates are without definition and more likely to swing right than left. This simply ignores reality. In 2008, self-described moderates, about 44 percent of the electorate, voted 60 to 39 for Obama. And, as has been increasingly true in polling going back to 2004, broad majorities have a world view far closer to liberals and Democrats than to conservatives or Republicans.

In this poll, for example, when asked if homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society, moderates and liberals agree that it is a way of life that should be accepted by society by 65- and 33-point margins respectively, compared to conservatives who believe it should be discouraged by 32 points. When asked if our security depends on building strong ties with other nations or on our own military strength, both liberals and moderates agree with multilateralism by double-digit margins, while conservatives disagree. On values and on issues, moderates -- with one large exception -- swing toward liberals.

The exception is that moderates remain far more skeptical about government -- and government spending -- than liberals do. Conservative misrule has given them every reason to believe that large portions of their taxes are wasted. Not surprisingly, Republicans and conservatives have already been trying to paint Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal, while bemoaning the fact that Bush ran up deficits at the same time he increased spending across the board.

But progressives needn't be defensive about the majority that is dubious about government spending. Making government work effectively is at the heart, not the capillaries of the progressive agenda. This test doesn't distract; it focuses us on our task. No progressive majority can ever be consolidated for long if it doesn't demonstrate that government can be an effective ally for everyone.

And that is all moderates are looking for. They aren't skeptical about the need for government. By large margins, they think regulation does more good than harm. They want investments made in education and training. They favor a concerted government-led drive for energy independence. They far prefer a health-care plan with a choice between their current insurance and a public plan like Medicare, rather than one that would give them a tax credit to negotiate with insurance companies on their own. Their concern is less that government will do too much and more that government will fail to do what it must and waste their money in the process.

The second problem with the conservative thesis is that the majority forged by Barack Obama looks likely to be far more durable than the fanciful "permanent majority" that Karl Rove thought was within reach for Republicans after 2000 (when Bush lost the popular vote).

This election looks like a potential realignment election because it consolidates new and expanded elements of a center-left majority that has an increasingly shared worldview. Young voters 18 to 29 voted over two to one for Obama, and at 18 percent, made up a greater share of the electorate than those over 65. Obama consolidated Democrats' grip on diversity, with blacks (up to 13 percent of the electorate) voting 95 percent for Obama, Hispanics (up to 9 percent and growing) voting over two to one, and Asians and other minorities also increasing their support. Hispanics made up 14 percent of the electorate in Florida and voted 57 percent for Obama. In contrast, whites made up less than three-quarters of the voting population, the lowest percentage ever and one that will continue to drop. Women were 53 percent of the population and voted 56 to 43 for Obama. More significantly, unmarried women -- 21 percent of the electorate -- voted 70 to 29 for Obama. Voters in union households -- one in five of voters in all -- went 59 to 39 Obama; white union households voted 60 to 40 the same. McCain's vote tended to rise as income levels went up, but Obama consolidated Democrats' edge among those with graduate degrees.

These groups share basic concerns. They are comfortable with diversity and tolerant. They are more secular than Sarah Palin's real America. With the exception of the professionals, they are under great economic pressure and look to government for help on energy, health care, jobs, and wages. They want out of Iraq and are eager for the U.S. to share the burdens with allies. They favor environmental and consumer regulation. They want greater investment in education and training, in research and development, in state-of-the-art infrastructure. This broad but increasingly shared worldview makes it easier to forge them into a majority, despite natural tensions.

Contrast that with the "permanent majority" that Karl Rove confidently projected for George Bush. That required fusing the evangelical right with the country-club establishment. Rove counted on mobilizing his base and then on using tactical maneuvers to help build a majority. No Child Left Behind and compassionate conservatism for suburban mothers. Faith-based initiatives for the black church. Gestures at inclusion and ill-fated immigration reform for Latino voters. Personal accounts and the "ownership society" for the young. A wartime president claiming post-September 11 patriotism for partisan advantage. The tactics were temporary and often frustrated; the appeals transitory. And as the poll shows, the Republican Party appears increasingly as an aging, monochromatic, regional party in the grip of its evangelical base.

Conservatives dismiss the notion that this election represents the solidifying of a center-left America. Bill Kristol notes that although there was a noticeable shift in party identification, the same is not true of voters' ideological self-identification, which leads him to reassure conservatives that the country is still with them, saying, "This was a good Democratic year, but [this] is still a center-right country. Conservatives and the Republican Party will have a real chance for a comeback -- unless the skills of the new president turn what was primarily an anti-Bush vote into the basis for a new liberal governing era." Similarly, Grover Norquist, in a discussion, also dismissed speculation about America becoming a center-left country, arguing that conservatives have been counted out before -- after 1965 when Johnson beat Goldwater, after 1976 when Carter swept in after Watergate. Each time, conservatives regrouped; Democrats overreached and Republicans came back. "This time will be no different," Norquist said.

No doubt there is a danger of exaggerating the results of an extraordinary election forged by a remarkable candidate running an exemplary campaign in the wake of a failed war and in the midst of sharply worsening economic conditions. No majority can be consolidated unless the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress actually produce. Failure does have consequences, as George Bush proved.

But what is clear is that a new majority is emerging and will get stronger simply from demography. Its members have given Obama a mandate. They want Democrats and Republicans to support Obama and the agenda that he puts forth. If that agenda is successful, then 2008 may well mark the beginning of a new era of progressive reform and the consolidation of a center-left America.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that, with one major exception moderates swing toward conservatives on the issues. As the article explains, they in fact agree with liberals more often.