Progressives Are the New Silent Majority

Most Americans actually prefer progressive policies—so how did we get here?

Theo Anderson January 17, 2017

On most policy questions, polling shows that about three-fifths or more of the public prefers progressive positions. (Christina B Castro/ Flickr)

Some­thing remark­able has hap­pened over the past few years: A new silent major­i­ty has emerged, decades after Richard Nixon made that phrase famous. Nixon meant the peo­ple whose val­ues were, he said, dom­i­nant in Amer­i­can cul­ture, but under­rep­re­sent­ed in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Call­ing them the silent major­i­ty was a way of chan­nel­ing the white back­lash against the civ­il rights movement.

"There is no easy answer. But for Democrats looking for a path back to power, lifting up the grievances of the forgotten, silent majority—and focusing on the economic and electoral structures that stifle and suppress its voice and vote—would be a good place to start."

The new silent major­i­ty is defined by the broad con­sen­sus that has emerged in the Unit­ed States around pro­gres­sive poli­cies. This con­sen­sus isn’t wide­ly report­ed. In fact, it’s obscured by the oft-repeat­ed idea that the nation is deeply polar­ized, as if Amer­i­cans are torn between sup­port for con­ser­v­a­tive and pro­gres­sive poli­cies. They aren’t. On the bat­tle­field of ide­ol­o­gy, con­ser­v­a­tives have been routed.

The pro­gres­sive con­sen­sus cuts across eco­nom­ic and social issues and includes even tra­di­tion­al cul­ture-war flash­points. On most pol­i­cy ques­tions, polling shows that about three-fifths or more of the pub­lic prefers pro­gres­sive positions.

Con­sid­er some examples.

Health­care reform: In a Gallup sur­vey last year, rough­ly half of respon­dents favored repeal­ing Oba­macare, while half favored keep­ing it. But 58 per­cent sup­port­ed a third option: replac­ing it with a fed­er­al­ly fund­ed health­care sys­tem pro­vid­ing insur­ance for all Amer­i­cans.” The word­ing is vague, but that sounds a lot like the sin­gle-pay­er, Medicare for All” sys­tem that pro­gres­sives have lob­bied for.

Unions: Fifty-eight per­cent of respon­dents to a 2015 Gallup sur­vey said they approve of” labor unions — and 72 per­cent said unions should have either more influ­ence than they now have, or at least the same amount. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the approval rate was in the 70s through the mid-1960s. It declined to rough­ly 60 per­cent in the ear­ly 1970s and dipped to the high 40s in the wake of the finan­cial melt­down of 2008, but has steadi­ly recov­ered since then.

Cam­paign finance reform: Sev­en­ty-sev­en per­cent of the pub­lic sup­ports lim­its on cam­paign spend­ing, accord­ing to a 2015 Pew poll. Vot­ers in the deep-red state of South Dako­ta made that clear last Novem­ber by approv­ing a sweep­ing cam­paign-finance reform ini­tia­tive. The mea­sure passed despite strong oppo­si­tion from the state chap­ter of Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty, a PAC fund­ed by the Koch brothers.

Cli­mate change and renew­able ener­gy: There was a sharp spike in peo­ple who report­ed that they are at least a fair amount” wor­ried about cli­mate change last year — from 55 to 64 per­cent—accord­ing to Gallup. The share of peo­ple who believe that the effects have already begun also rose, from 55 to 59 per­cent. It’s true that opin­ions about cli­mate change fluc­tu­ate sig­nif­i­cant­ly based on cur­rent events, the word­ing of the ques­tion and oth­er fac­tors. A recent Pew poll, for exam­ple, found that only 48 per­cent of respon­dents believed human activ­i­ty caus­es cli­mate change, ver­sus 65 per­cent in the Gallup poll. But what­ev­er they believe about the caus­es, Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ing agree about solu­tions. In the Pew poll, sup­port for solar pan­el and wind tur­bine farms was more than 80 per­cent. A major­i­ty opposed every oth­er poten­tial ener­gy source: off­shore drilling, nuclear pow­er plants, frack­ing and coal. And a post-elec­tion poll found that even peo­ple who vot­ed for Don­ald Trump are on board with tak­ing some action against cli­mate change. Six­ty-one per­cent said that com­pa­nies should be required to reduce car­bon emis­sions, and 78 per­cent sup­port air-pol­lu­tion regulations.

Repro­duc­tive rights: Fifty-six per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe abor­tion should be legal in all or most cases.”

LGBT rights: In 1996, 27 per­cent of Amer­i­cans thought same-sex mar­riages should be legal. Last year, 61 per­cent did. And, by a nar­row major­i­ty, most Amer­i­cans believe that trans­gen­der peo­ple should be able to use the pub­lic bath­room of the gen­der they iden­ti­fy with.

The list of issues on which rough­ly 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans agree with pro­gres­sives could go on at length. It would include, for exam­ple, a high­er min­i­mum wage, legal­ized mar­i­jua­na and free child care. The trend holds true even on Trump’s sig­na­ture issue of immi­gra­tion. Last sum­mer, Gallup found that 84 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port­ed a path to cit­i­zen­ship for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, while only 33 per­cent sup­port­ed build­ing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. Among Repub­li­cans, 62 per­cent sup­port­ed build­ing the wall — but 76 per­cent also sup­port­ed a path to citizenship.

An uneven play­ing field

Amer­i­cans pre­fer pro­gres­sive poli­cies near­ly across the board, yet the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and a major­i­ty of state gov­ern­ments are con­trolled by a par­ty that aims to under­mine, over­turn and resist those policies.

How did this happen?

Democ­ra­cy plays a minor role. White, elder­ly peo­ple vote at high­er lev­els than any oth­er demo­graph­ic bloc, and they vote Repub­li­can, espe­cial­ly if they iden­ti­fy as Christian. 

That advan­tage would make the GOP a com­pet­i­tive but dis­tinct­ly minor­i­ty par­ty if the play­ing field were lev­el. But the play­ing field isn’t lev­el. Increas­ing­ly, the GOP uses anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic tools to tilt the field to its advan­tage. Those tools include rad­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing of Con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, vot­er sup­pres­sion in com­pet­i­tive states and flood­ing the polit­i­cal process with dark mon­ey from cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy donors. These are in addi­tion to the strong bias toward small, pre­dom­i­nant­ly white Repub­li­can states built into the Sen­ate and the Elec­toral Col­lege, and the use of pre­emp­tion laws by state leg­is­la­tures to block pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy in urban centers.

Togeth­er, these mea­sures rad­i­cal­ly inflate the pow­er of the GOP’s com­par­a­tive­ly small base of white reli­gious con­ser­v­a­tives, trans­form­ing it into an elec­toral jug­ger­naut. At the same time, they pull the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the right, mak­ing it ever-more reliant on cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy donors in an attempt to remain com­pet­i­tive in a rigged system.

A path back to power?

The worst exam­ple of the process to date is North Car­oli­na, where the GOP-dom­i­nat­ed leg­is­la­ture is so cor­rupt that the state is only slight­ly ahead of the failed democ­ra­cies that con­sti­tute much of the devel­op­ing world,” as Andrew Reynolds, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na, recent­ly wrote.

Reynolds not­ed that the state’s ger­ry­man­der­ing is espe­cial­ly obscene. It’s not only the worst case of unfair dis­trict­ing in the Unit­ed States; it’s the worst case ever ana­lyzed by the Elec­toral Integri­ty Project,” which has mea­sured 213 elec­tions in 153 coun­tries and is wide­ly agreed to be the most accu­rate method for eval­u­at­ing how free and fair and demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions are across time and place.”

The rig­ging works as intend­ed, giv­ing the GOP a ham­mer­lock on the North Car­oli­na leg­is­la­ture: One par­ty wins just half the votes but 100 per­cent of the pow­er,” Reynolds wrote. The oth­er par­ty wins just a hand­ful of votes less and 0 per­cent of the leg­isla­tive power.”

It’s the same sto­ry across the nation. Trump’s vic­to­ry is the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem in micro­cosm: The GOP wins with a minor­i­ty of votes and claims a man­date to push through poli­cies that a major­i­ty of the nation oppos­es. Vot­ers feel, right­ly, that their voic­es don’t count. They become more cyn­i­cal and dis­en­gage, while the Repub­li­can minor­i­ty feels ever-more empow­ered. There is noth­ing in their way and no author­i­ty that can derail their pow­er grab. Our polar­iza­tion” is more like a hostage-taking.

We’ve heard a lot since the elec­tion about white work­ing class vot­ers who feel dis­en­fran­chised and put Trump over the top. That sto­ry is cer­tain­ly worth telling. But it pales by com­par­i­son with a much big­ger, large­ly untold sto­ry: the 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who sup­port pro­gres­sive poli­cies and have lit­tle voice in the nation’s politics.

The prob­lem has been decades in the mak­ing. There is no easy answer. But for Democ­rats look­ing for a path back to pow­er, lift­ing up the griev­ances of the for­got­ten, silent major­i­ty — and focus­ing on the eco­nom­ic and elec­toral struc­tures that sti­fle and sup­press its voice and vote — would be a good place to start. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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