One of the things we have heard incessantly from conservatives since Election Day is that America is “still a center-right country.” Thiis claim is almost entirely based on exit poll findings that self-identified conservatives still outnumber self-indentified liberals, by the same margin as in 2004.
It’s good to see TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg and Campaign for America’s Future’s Bob Borosage take this claim on directly in an article for The American Prospect:
The conservative claim to a center-right majority comes from addition. More voters say they are conservative than liberal (by a margin of 34 to 22 in this election). Add conservatives to the 44 percent who say they are moderates and you’ve got the majority.
But the addition doesn’t hold up under any analysis. It assumes that moderates are without definition and more likely to swing right than left. This simply ignores reality. In 2008, self-described moderates, about 44 percent of the electorate, voted 60 to 39 for Obama. And, as has been increasingly true in polling going back to 2004, broad majorities have a world view far closer to liberals and Democrats than to conservatives or Republicans.
In this poll, for example, when asked if homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society, moderates and liberals agree that it is a way of life that should be accepted by society by 65- and 33-point margins respectively, compared to conservatives who believe it should be discouraged by 32 points. When asked if our security depends on building strong ties with other nations or on our own military strength, both liberals and moderates agree with multilateralism by double-digit margins, while conservatives disagree. On values and on issues, moderates — with one large exception — swing toward liberals.
The “large exception” that Greeberg and Borosage point to is that moderates are significantly more skeptical about the competence of government than liberals. All that means, ultimately, is that Democrats in power need to govern well, particularly after eight years of “big” but inept government under George W. Bush:
[P]rogressives needn’t be defensive about the majority that is dubious about government spending. Making government work effectively is at the heart, not the capillaries of the progressive agenda. This test doesn’t distract; it focuses us on our task. No progressive majority can ever be consolidated for long if it doesn’t demonstrate that government can be an effective ally for everyone.
And that is all moderates are looking for. They aren’t skeptical about the need for government. By large margins, they think regulation does more good than harm. They want investments made in education and training. They favor a concerted government-led drive for energy independence. They far prefer a health-care plan with a choice between their current insurance and a public plan like Medicare, rather than one that would give them a tax credit to negotiate with insurance companies on their own. Their concern is less that government will do too much and more that government will fail to do what it must and waste their money in the process.
The other big reason for the liberal/conservative ratio in exit polls, of course, is that most Democrats stopped using the “liberal” label decades ago, typically preferring “progressive” or “moderate” or even “center-left.” So the self-identification numbers aren’t particularly revealing.
All in all, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have a major window of opportunity to puruse initiatives the majority of Americans, including “moderates,” favor, along with the responsibility of providing, as the Clinton administration did to some extent, that government can get things right and avoid excessive bureaucracy.
The really challenging thing is that at some course over the next two years, the Democratic Party will become the “track” party, in the sense that it will be held responsible for “right track” and “wrong track” sentiments. Maybe Americans will cut Democrats some slack in the understanding that the consequences of Republican misrule cannot be reversed overnight. But we shouldn’t count on too much of a honeymoon if we truly want to solidify a center-left majority before the next elections.