03/12/2009 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Progressive America

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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This past November, President Obama was elected with "the largest share of the popular vote received by any presidential candidate in 20 years" after running on the most progressive platform of any presidential candidate in at least 15 years, which included "a promise of universal health care coverage, a dramatic transformation to a low-carbon economy, and a historic investment in education." As soon as he was elected, however, conservatives and many in the media rushed to claim that despite Obama's resounding victory, "America remains a center-right country." More often then not, this claim was based on the fact that in polling that asks Americans to identify themselves as conservative, liberal, or moderate, "nearly twice as many people call themselves conservatives as liberals." But two new studies released yesterday by the Progressive Studies Program at the Center for American Progress challenge this conventional wisdom. Instead of relying on the conservative/liberal/moderate framework, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow John Halpin and Karl Agne broke down the electorate on a new 5-point scale of political ideology that reflects the primary ways people think about themselves today. Under this approach, 34 percent of the country self-identifies as "conservative," 29 percent as "moderate," 15 percent as "liberal," 16 percent as "progressive," and 2 percent as "libertarian." After moderates were asked which label they leaned towards, the overall ideological breakdown of the country divided into fairly neat left and right groupings, with 47 percent of Americans identifying as progressive or liberal, 48 percent as conservative or libertarian, and the rest unsure. Combining the ideological identification questions with 40 specific ideological statements equally divided between progressive and conservative beliefs, Halpin and Agne found the nation is evenly split in its stated political identity but is decidedly center-left in its policy orientation.

Halpin and Agne's survey found that when it comes to domestic policy, a majority of Americans increasingly favor progressive ideas such as sustainable lifestyles and green energy; public investment in education, infrastructure, and science; financial support for the poor, elderly, and sick; regulation of business to protect workers and consumers; and guaranteed affordable health coverage for every American. The progressive approach was also preferred on the international front, finding that after the Bush years, the American public is "far more interested in restoring the country's image abroad, fighting climate change, and pursuing security through diplomacy, alliances, and international institutions than in the continued pursuit of national objectives through the sole projection of military might." In fact, most of the ideas with the strongest consensus (approximately two-thirds total agreement and 40 percent strong agreement), are all progressive positions. Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that investments in education, infrastructure, and science "are necessary to ensure America's long-term economic growth;" 76 percent agree that America's economic future requires a transition to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; 73 percent of Americans believe that "government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers;" and nearly two in three Americans agree that "the federal government should guarantee affordable health coverage for every American." In all, the study found that Americans are "solidly center-left in their ideas about [the] role of government, the economy and domestic politics and somewhat less so on cultural and social issues."

One of the most striking findings of the survey was the significant increase in public favorability towards the "progressive" political identification. Favorable ratings of "progressive" increased by 25-points from 2004 to 2009, with almost all of the gains coming from people who previously were unaware of the term or unable to rate it moving into at least a "somewhat favorable" position. At the same time that awareness of progressivism is spreading, the American electorate is moving in a progressive direction both demographically and geographically. In his New Progressive America report, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Ruy Teixeira finds that an "array of growing demographic groups" have "aligned themselves with progressives and swelled their ranks." Between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by four points. As the share of white-working class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points. Additionally, the young Millennial Generation, which supported Obama by a stunning 66-to-32 percent margin in 2008, is adding 4.5 million adults to the voting pool every year. Geographically, "progressive gains since 1988 have been heavily concentrated in not just the urbanized cores of large metropolitan areas, but also the growing suburbs around them. Even in exurbia, progressives have made big gains." Within states, fast-growing dynamic metropolitan areas have shown "a persistent pattern of strong pro-progressive shifts."

Despite the clear shift in American attitudes towards progressive values and governance, conservatives are clinging to the myth that the American public agrees with them. In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, hate radio talker Rush Limbaugh bellowed that "we're not a minority" and that President Obama's progressive agenda was an "assault" on America "from within." On MSNBC's Morning Joe yesterday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), claimed that Republicans were "fired" because the American people were tired of big government. But as Halpin and Agne demonstrate, American beliefs about government have moved in a progressive direction. Six in 10 Americans believe that "government should do more to promote the common good," versus 37 percent who feel that "government should do more to promote individual liberty." Regarding concepts of freedom, the Progressive Studies Program study found that 57 percent believe that "freedom requires economic opportunity and minimum measures of security, such as food, housing, medical care and old age protection," compared to 38 percent who favor the idea that "freedom requires that individuals be left alone to pursue their lives as they please and to deal with the consequences of their actions on their own."