Eight years ago, when Campaign for America’s Future and Media Matters for America issued the report “Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth,” George W. Bush was still president, Barack Obama was trailing by 15 points in the Democratic primary and gays could only legally marry in Massachusetts.
Back then, the report had to explain if the nation was more liberal than perceived by pundits and politicians, then why didn’t more Americans choose to label themselves “liberal.” The word was a “victim of a relentless conservative marketing campaign” and yet “many people who hold liberal issue positions call themselves moderates.”
This may have seemed like a stretch to some at the time. But now the ideological landscape is even clearer, as overt liberal pride is on the rise.
As I explain in Politico Magazine, there’s a big jump in Democrats that describe themselves as “socially liberal” and a notable bump in voters overall who embrace “liberal,” while “conservative” has taken a hit. The vast majority of Americans consider Obama a “liberal,” and elected him twice with solid margins.
Some try to discount the liberal resurgence as merely public affection for Obama, as Republicans were triumphant in both midterms. But for decades the president’s party has struggled with midterms, even those who, in Obama’s words, “changed the trajectory of America” like FDR and Ronald Reagan.
Moreover, in the 2014 elections, Republican wins in blue states only came off when candidates leaned left on key issues, which only proves the point that America’s political center of gravity has shifted leftward. It doesn’t mean Republicans can’t win; it means they need to adapt if they want to win.
FDR sparked an ideological recalibration after the Great Depression proved the folly of conservative policies and the New Deal got America back on track. Republican Dwight Eisenhower could still win the presidency against that backdrop, but not with a right-wing agenda of dismantling the New Deal. Ronald Reagan was able to make the case that excessive government was the cause of high inflation and unemployment in the late 1970s, and the solid growth on his watch made the liberal case tougher to make. Bill Clinton could still win, but he had to sacrifice decent welfare benefits to appease an electorate skeptical of government spending.
Now the tables have turned again, as conservative neglect led to the 2008 crash, and Obama’s public investments and new regulations helped right the ship.
Of course, polls are inherently fluid and public perceptions of presidencies take time to solidify. Calvin Coolidge looked pretty good in 1928, with the economy roaring and Black Tuesday nowhere in sight. FDR looked less impressive during his second term after being rocked by recession. Bad surprises on Obama’s watch could change the current trajectory.
But the current one is promising, and Republicans need to watch it carefully. If the center of gravity moves from under their feet, 2016 is going to be their 1988 – the last gasp before their ideological dead weight has to be thrown overboard.