Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The American Public: Calls Itself “Conservative” But Favors FDR-Style Liberalism

The data I’m using comes from a recent poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal.  You can read the entire poll here.

  • True or False: Most Americans agree with Congressional Republicans and Beltway pundits that wealthy Americans should not have their taxes raised. FALSE.  81% of Americans believe that the rich pay too little in taxes and should have their taxes raised.  55% are really in favor of this and an additional 26% find this “mostly acceptable.”
  • True or False: Most Americans love Big Oil and favor keeping their tax subsidies so that they continue to provide good jobs and cheap energy to American homes and cars.  FALSE.  74% of Americans want the tax subsidides (giveaways) to the oil industry eliminated. (Yet House Republicans, supposed deficit hawks, just voted unanimously to keep giving this corporate welfare to the most profitable industry in human history–companies whose quarterly profits are larger than the Gross Domestic Product of many nations!)
  • True or False:  Despite the Obama-GOP compromise of the lame duck Congress of November-December 2010, most Americans want to eliminate the Bush tax cuts to families making more than $250,000 per year.  True.  67% of Americans favor ending those tax cuts.  Americans are smart about this, because the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy did more to balloon the federal defict than any other factor, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of ’08-’10, the TARP banking bailout, the bailout of GM & Chrysler, or the economic stimulus/recovery act.  In fact, the Bush tax cuts, the wars, and the recession account for more than 90% of the deficit–not the recovery measures.
  • True or False: Most Americans would support eliminating Medicare and turning it into a system of coupons or vouchers for seniors to purchase private health insurance.  (This plan is actually proposed by House Budget chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), who gave the GOP response to Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address and recently this plan has seemed to get support from Speaker of the House Boehner (R-OH). ) FALSE. 51% of Americans find this plan completely unacceptable.
  • True or False: Americans generally support public employees having a union with collective bargaining rights.  True. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll 52% of Americans found stripping such rights unacceptable.  A USA Today/Gallup poll found 61% of Americans opposing a move to strip collective bargaining from public sector workers in their state.  And a CBS/New York Times poll found 62% of the public supporting collective bargaining rights for public employees.

These are generally positions which have been considered politically “liberal.”  These are more liberal views than anything coming out of either party in Washington, D.C. right now.  It is far more liberal than what the Beltway pundits spew.  Specifically, this is “economic populism,” the kind of political liberalism of the FDR-era New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society–policies that help the poor and middle class more than the wealthy.  The pundits like to call such sentiments “class warfare,” but, if so, it appears that most Americans think such class warfare is a good idea.  Maybe they realize that for 30 years class warfare has been waged by the wealthy against the rest of us (leading to an ever widening gap between the superrich and everyone else) and that the term “class warfare” is only used if the poor and working class fight back.  That gap is huge:  The top 1% of Americans captured 50% half of all the economic growth from 1993-2007!  Income inequality is higher in the United States than in Mubarak’s Egypt!

So, Americans are just as liberal, just as economically populist, as they have ever been, if not more so.  But they don’t identify with the term “liberal,” which has been systematically demonized ever since the Reagan years. Only 24% of Americans call themselves “liberal” politically.  By contrast, 36% call themselves “conservative” and another 38% call themselves “moderate.”

So, when pundits claim that America is a “conservative” or “center-right” nation, they are asking about labels.  But when you ask about policies–Americans are center-left. They are liberal or progressive.  What is strange–other than the disconnect in terminology– is that this economically populist, liberal to progressive sentiment has not been able to be translated into a political force that can achieve policy objectives.  But the attacks on union workers by Republican governors may have just provided the spark to set that dry tinder ablaze.

March 4, 2011 - Posted by | economic justice, labor


  1. Our problem is that we want big government at small government prices. We’re okay with the wealthy paying more, as long as our taxes don’t go up.

    The biggest deficit raisers are the failure to keep the income level on ss contributions at the appropriate levels.

    We paid for two wars without raising taxes — first time in history.


    Comment by Bob Cornwall | March 4, 2011 | Reply

    • Bob, in a recession, it makes economic sense to concentrate on raising the taxes of the wealthy and cutting them or leaving them alone for the rest. Those at the top don’t spend enough–especially during a recession–to help the rest of us. They also have the means to best fund the programs we all need and want.

      But if you cut payroll taxes for those making less than $75K, most of it will go directly back into the economy where it’s needed.

      The other thing to do is to close loopholes and collect taxes better–go after tax cheats–both corporations and individuals. But the House GOP just voted to cut IRS agents–which is like a business cutting its sales force just when it needs more revenue!

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 4, 2011 | Reply

  2. There does indeed seem to be a large dissonance between how one labels themselves politically and their actual political views.

    Comment by diglot | March 4, 2011 | Reply

    • Not surprising. Beginning in 1980, there was a huge move to demonize the term “liberal.” First it scared off liberal Republicans. Then in the ’90s, Democrats began running from the term. Even recently, there was the move to switch to the term “progressive,” even though there are technical differences between liberals and progressives.

      Likewise, there was a move to brand everything good as “conservative.” But if you take away the labels and don’t tell people who is in favor of something and who is opposed, the answers they give are pretty liberal. And this has remained fairly constant.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 4, 2011 | Reply

  3. Hi Michael,
    I was cleaning up my blog subscriptions and realized I never updated my reader for your new site – thankfully I figured it out and am glad to be reading you again!

    I think that part of the reason for this phenomenon is that conservatives are excellent at communicating to the public (which usually involves scaring people). I read a book about this a few years back, it’s called Talking Right. They are great at coming up with memorable and easily-repetable key words, like “death panel” and “stay the course.”

    Liberals, in general, are too wordy (see Obama). They need a more succinct way to get their message across, because their opponents have been too successful in painting them as volvo-driving, ivory tower-dwelling eroders of society.

    Comment by Natalie | March 6, 2011 | Reply

    • You make a great point, Natalie–and it’s scary when you consider that Obama (who is barely center-left and certainly not liberal)is the best communicator Democrats have had in 2 generations.

      If I had my way, I’d make every Democratic or Green politician, every progressive activist, every progressive think-tank leader, etc. memorize the communication lessons of George Lakoff.

      But I also think that center-left and left politics forget to concentrate on the bread-and-butter basics. YES, gay rights are important. YES, we need to save the environment (quickly!). Yes, we must work on all the social issues. But if we don’t keep economic populism front and center, we lose the heart of the American people and allow the conservatives to steal them–until they overreach as they have right now with the attack on workers and people.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 6, 2011 | Reply

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