What Happened To The Progressive Majority?

Isaiah J. Poole

On a day in which voters in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania are heading to the polls in what is being widely described as an anti-politician, anti-government rage, and with a particularly strident strain of conservatism portrayed as on the ascendancy, it might seem harder to support the conclusions of a series of Campaign for America’s Future reports that portray America as fundamentally a “center-left” nation.

But Tea Party activists and xenophobic Arizonans aside, Simon Rosenberg, a longtime political strategist, says the progressive majority identified in 2009, 2008 and 2007 Campaign for America’s Future reports still exists. Meanwhile, he says, “the conservative coalition is aging and contracting,” opening the way for an era of progressive political dominance comparable to the period from the New Deal to the Great Society.

But that’s only if progressives face the anxiety and restlessness in the electorate head-on with an effective message. How to do that is the subject that Rosenberg will address at the America’s Future NOW! conference June 7-9.

Rosenberg—the founder of NDN and the New Policy Institute, which does research on progressive policy issues and on voting trends—offered a preview of his talk at his downtown Washington office.

“There is only one message and one argument” this year, Rosenberg said in his downtown Washington office. “It’s got to be about the economy.”

Specifically, progressives have to continue to make the case that their policies address the interests of working-class people—such as their desire for more income, for better access to health care, for better schools—while conservative policies have led to or argued for the opposite: less income for working-families in inflation-adjusted terms, support for continued barriers to health-care access, for cuts in education spending and other vital services.

In order to energize the progressive majority at a time when the economy is still not strong enough to provide jobs for the nearly 27 million people who currently are either unemployed or underemployed, “progressives and the president have to convey that they understand the challenge that’s before us and have a plan that is commensurate to the challenge,” Rosenberg said.

Don’t be fooled, Rosenberg says, by some recent poll findings.

In a May NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, 40 percent of respondents defined themselves as “conservative or very conservative” while 22 percent described themselves as “very liberal or somewhat liberal.” Thirty-seven percent described themselves as “moderate.” In that same poll, respondents were equally split on the question of whether “America needs more sense of community and people helping one another” or “America needs more self-reliance and personal responsibility.”

The Washington Post/ABC News Poll has repeatedly asked respondents whether they prefer “larger government with more services” or “smaller government with fewer services.” In June 2008, 50 percent sided with “smaller government” while 45 percent preferred “larger government.” In April 2010, the percentage wanting “smaller government” rose to 56 percent, while those supporting “larger government” dropped to 40 percent.

Those numbers are more a reflection of a skepticism about government’s ability to solve problems, Rosenberg said, particularly in an environment shaped by decades of conservative arguments about government as an obstacle to social good rather than an instrument of social good.

Beyond those numbers is evidence that growing numbers reject the conservative orthodoxy that less government is always good.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that when voters were asked if they were more concerned that financial reform legislation in Congress was going too far (the argument advanced by financial reform lobbyists and by a multimillion-dollar U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad campaign),

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