In a recent Washington Post op-ed, left-wing activist Steve Rosenthal sounds a lot like other wishful thinkers arriving at a comfortable partisan conclusion. America, he writes, is only a few years from a full-blown progressive electorate. “A close examination of U.S. attitudes in the past decade-plus,” Rosenthal contends, “reveals that the United States is steadily becoming more progressive.” (Rosenthal makes no distinction between “progressive” and “liberal” so I won’t either.)
It seems to be widely accepted by the media that demographics, GOP ineptitude and internal division, and a generational shift on social issues places the American voter on an enduring leftward course. Is this inevitable? Well, about as inevitable as Karl Rove’s durable Republican majority.
You don’t have to be stickler for academic rigor to appreciate that an 825-word column with a few links to some Gallup polls is not really a “close examination” of anything. But you don’t have to be a historian to understand that the electorate, while hardly immune to terrible ideas, is, in the end, stubbornly moderate with little use for philosophical consistency. Which is to say, no one knows what the future will look like.
Voters not only have conflicting ideological views, they change their minds on those issues all the time — and oftentimes for no good reason at all. We are irrational. We are mercurial. We’re irresponsible. And when we’re not, events that “change everything” (9/11 or the 2007 recession come to mind) tend to blow up these alleged electoral trajectories we’re on, anyway. And let’s not forget voter backlashes, religious awakenings, economic booms and busts, political scandals, charismatic leaders and technological advances, all of which can disrupt lines on the graph.
That’s just broadly speaking, of course. Even if we accepted Rosenthal’s facts in the short term, a person could use his piece to make a rather compelling case that the nation is trending more libertarian than progressive.
A cultural shift is not always an ideological one. Or, at least, not always the one you imagine. Our norms are always evolving. Immigration, pot legalization, same-sex marriage and “big business” are the issues that Rosenthal’s claims portend progressivism’s triumph. Yet, most of these are only incidentally progressive. Marijuana legalization or support for same-sex marriage is far more likely caused by a growing ‘live and let live’ mindset than any burst of leftist idealism. And if the ‘live and let live’ mindset starts bleeding into other area of American life — say education, health care or religious freedom– the left is in trouble.
In the end, the progressive agenda demands that you trust the state to control economic outcomes; an idea that is yet to be proven especially popular among Americans. Will it be? Who knows? But right now what does seem to be growing is skepticism towards government. Especially among the young. When Gallup asks, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” it doesn’t bode well for the left that a plurality– Independents, Republicans and Democrats – say its government. Fifty-three percent of Americans claim to believe government does “too many things.” (Forty percent think its powers should be expanded.) Add to this the fact that, according to Gallup, a record number of Americans (42 percent) are rejecting partisan labels and identifying as political independents. Sounds like there’s a growing number of voters with a libertarian disposition– though most would never articulate it that way.
And right now, the unpopularity and struggles of Obamacare – the most notable political accomplishment associated with the progressive left – makes it tough to imagine any electorate signing off on another national technocratic adventure in the foreseeable future. The Obamacare debate has made it nearly impossible to do anything in DC (a triumph for libertarian governance). Judging from the polls, the voters Rosenthal claims are turning hard left seem to be more amenable to supporting reforms that loosen, rather than expand, federal control over health care. What makes anyone believe a more progressive alternative would be popular?
The perception, and it has some merit, is that the Republicans are prone to focus on business over people. The truth is that those running Washington are always pro-“big business” no matter which party is in charge. A new class of populist politician, on both left and right, though, is far more distrustful of “big” anything. (Libertarians – and many conservatives — have always differentiated between markets and cronyism.) While the GOP has work to do reinventing itself, what exactly makes Rosenthal believe that progressive economic solutions will popular in the future? Polls show that voters have little appetite for more regulation, much less the regulatory schemes that a progressive would have in store. Most of the issues that drive momentum far left – environmentalism and inequality – are not high priorities for voters. And if there is ever a recovery, many those things would have even less resonance with the average voter.
As for immigration reform – also one of the least important issues facing voters — isn’t exactly a monopoly of the progressive left, anyway. But immigration, even if it is ceded to the left wing, doesn’t portend a broader movement toward progressivism, any more than the growing popularity of charter schools means puts the electorate in league with the Tea Party. Nor do we know that immigration reform, if passed, would remain popular once implemented.
But like many folks on the left, Rosenthal is forced to make a big leap. He contends that a shift on social issues and the electoral success of (a now-unpopular) Barack Obama proves that the entire progressive buffet is destined for widespread approval. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way. Support for gay marriage does not mean support for unions. (Unions, one of backbones of political progressivism, have never been less popular in practice.) Pot legalization does not mean we’re ready for nationalize energy policy. And support for immigration reform doesn’t mean people are prepared to “Make Everything Owned by Everybody.” And while I certainly don’t believe we’re about to privatize Social Security, to believe that the philosophy of the electorate is on a fixed leftward arc — which seems to be conventional wisdom these days — is premature.