The Republican message guru of the 80’s, and into the 90’s, Arthur Finkelstein of New York, built a successful career on one simple idea. If his candidate was trailing in the polls, he would call the opponent a liberal. His formula had two main advantages: simplicity and portability: FILL IN YOUR OPPONENT’S NAME HERE is too liberal for FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE. With this advice, he helped Republicans win many elections, because the liberal label meant favoring big government and higher taxes, being soft on crime, and social permissiveness.
Today you see these ads far less often. Even though the opinion polls have consistently shown almost no increase in the number of Americans who describe themselves as politically “liberal,” I believe there is solid evidence that the liberal bashing has lost its punch because over the last two decades Americans have gradually become more liberal. My conclusion derives from listening to hundreds of focus groups over the last two decades by our firm, Belden Russonello & Stewart, as well as an analysis of public opinion surveys. The latest Pew values survey describes the current phenomenon as a return to “centrism,” but whatever you call it, the move in public opinion is leftward. A look at public opinion polls on government, taxes, civil rights and gay rights supports what we have heard in focus groups.
More liberal on taxes and government
Perhaps nothing has separated liberals from conservatives more over the past several decades than attitudes towards taxes. The idea that government takes too much of our personal income is central to the conservative position in the country, and the liberal position has been that taxes pay for things we need, therefore we do not begrudge them.
The data over the last 15 years indicate a shift away from the conservative position on taxes. Since 1994, the proportions of Americans who think their federal income taxes are too high declined from 66% to 46%, according to Gallup. The Gallup polls also show that more Americans today than ten years ago think the income tax they pay is fair (51% in 1997 and 61% in 2009); and fewer think that “middle income people” are paying “too much” of federal taxes than thought so in the past (57% in 1994 compared to 43% in 2009).
Opinions about government generally track the difficulties of the nation. When the nation is troubled economically or because of a security threat, the public is more supportive of government action in general. When times are good overall, Americans tend to forget what government does for them and claim to be rugged individualists.
After 9/11 attacks, the public’s confidence in government to make the right decisions shot up to its highest level in decades.
When NORC’s General Social Survey asked Americans if the “government should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all poor Americans,” or if they believe “it is not the government’s responsibility and everyone should take care of himself,” the numbers in favor of government help rose during the recession of 1990 and ‘91, then dipped until 2000, when they shot back up and stayed up.
These and other surveys indicate an increasing openness to government helping people in need and a public that is stepping away from the taxophobia that fueled the Reagan revolution.
More liberal on crime
A look at the public opinion data on crime adds fuel to the idea that Americans are becoming more progressive. Several polls show that the death penalty is becoming less popular, and that more Americans believe the government should spend more money attacking the causes of crime than on law enforcement through more prisons, police and judges. Also, several polls have shown that although legalizing marijuana still is rejected by a majority of Americans, support for legalization has grown in the past few years.
More liberal on rights
Perhaps the largest shift leftward in public opinion on liberal-conservative issues over the last 15 years has been the rise in support of individuals’ exercising their rights and the growing tolerance for people who are different. Gay rights are the most dramatic, but not the only example of this increased tolerance. Gallup studies show that from 1996 to the present, Americans have moved steadily in favor of calling “homosexuality” an “acceptable alternative life style” (44% in 1996, 57% in 2009), as well as more in favor of “marriage between same sex couples being recognized by the law as valid with the same rights as traditional marriages” (27% in 1996, 40% in 2009).
Our own BRS polls for the ACLU have shown that a majority of Americans now support a “gay or lesbian couple” being able to adopt a baby legally (46% in 1998, 53% in 2007).
Also, ABC News/Washington Post surveys have indicated a 31-point rise from 1993 to 2009 in the belief that “homosexuals who do publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military.” (44% in 1993, 75% this year)
Beyond gay rights, a general question about individual rights, which BRS has asked since 1998, shows a slight but steady rise in the number of Americans who think “generally, in this country we do not go far enough “to protect liberties and rights (from 31% to 36%), ” and a corresponding drop (from 29% to 24%) who think we “go too far” to protect rights.
The policies of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney catapulted civil liberties to the front burner of American politics in the same way that Reagan and his interior secretary James Watt built widespread national support for environmental causes. A public that had been previously asleep to threats of civil liberties now has been awakened by government action on Guantanamo, incarceration of people indefinitely without showing evidence, illegal wiretapping, etc. A recent BRS poll reveals that “protecting civil liberties and the Constitution” rates near the top of the public’s issue concerns, just below the economy and the war in Iraq, at the same level as protecting the country from terrorists, and ahead of health care reform and improving education.
The data on individual rights, government, taxes, and crime do not offer a complete picture of how Americans think about these issues, but taken together they add credence to the idea that the American public opinion is moving gradually to the left in many ways. How far we do not know. It is likely, however, that the trend will continue.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for People and the Press, astutely points out that much of the turn leftward on issues such as gay rights is due to cohort replacement: the younger generations hold more liberal views than their elders, and as the older generations disappear, they will be replaced by their more liberal children and grandchildren.
It may be hard to imagine now, but some day soon a media consultant will make his or her name with the following formula: FILL IN YOUR OPPONENT’S NAME HERE is too conservative for FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE.