06/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Left is the New Center

Last week, the nonpartisan Pew Center released its 2009 survey on American political values. Its headline could have read "Left Wins Culture War." As the Right ramps up for a Supreme Court showdown over abortion and gay marriage, this report couldn't be more timely. It's a clarion call for Democrats to come out of the closet.

Like a host of other polls of recent months, the Pew survey shows the GOP near an all-time low. Only 22% of Americans identify as Republicans. Since partisan identification surveys began in 1929, only in the post-Watergate years have fewer Americans identified as Republicans. Only 40% view the Republican party favorably, while a majority of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of the GOP.

But the bad news for the GOP isn't automatically good news for the Democratic party. Democrats have an 11 point advantage in party identification, but at 33%, that's down 6 points from the election day high. The problem is that many of the refugees from the GOP prefer to call themselves independents. (A plurality of independents -- 46% -- lean Democratic, giving the Democrats a 17 point advantage in party identification when leaners are taken into account.) According to Pew's top-line analysis of its survey,

Centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion as the Obama era begins. . . Republicans and Democrats are even more divided than in the past, while the growing political middle is steadfastly mixed in its beliefs about government, the free market and other values that underlie views on contemporary issues and policies.

The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years. Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security." [emphasis added]

What are the views of the political middle on these "divisive core beliefs"? By Pew's index of social conservatism, 46% are conservative, down from 67% in 1987, the year Pew started this survey. Two-thirds of those surveyed support gay civil rights, 53% support civil unions for gays and lesbians, and while a majority of the total population still oppose gay marriage, opposition has declined by 11 points since 1996. Only 19% of those surveyed favor a return to traditional roles for women; perhaps unremarkable until one considers that 30% of Americans believed in traditionalism in 1987. Only 16% agree with the religious right that abortion should be illegal in all cases. 63% favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Other recent polls show even stronger public support for socially liberal positions. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 57% of those under age 40 support gay marriage and 22% do not identify with any religion. CNN/ Opinion Research Corporation recently found support for Roe v. Wade at an all-time high of 68%. (The one outlier, Gallup's poll on abortion, has been most effectively challenged here.)

In sum, Pew's survey suggests that Americans have fled the GOP because of its extreme positions on social issues, not because of its economic royalism. Put another way, although 60% of independents prefer the GOP position on issues of the economy and government, they can't stomach the party's reactionary social, cultural, and religious views.

So, why did Pew report this as a confirmation of Americans' centrism? Simply because the majority of those surveyed fell between the extreme right and the progressive left. Like many interpreters, Pew confuses a term about relative position -- the center -- with a philosophical disposition toward Centrism, or moderate politics. The center is crowded, indeed, but Centrism is an empty political category. Its substance changes. And, at this moment, Left is the new Center.

When we take into account the very mixed views Americans hold about progressive economic policies, the conclusion becomes obvious that Americans are turning away from the GOP and toward the Democratic party because, not in spite of, the Democrats' social liberalism.

Yet Centrist Democratic politicians continue to invoke the putative Center to derail policies tarred as "Left." (See, for example, Sen. Ben Nelson, who is holding up Dawn Johnsen's nomination and threatens to filibuster Obama's Supreme Court nominee.) This kind of obstructionism gets validation from self-defined Centrist pundits and activists, who for the past three decades have counseled Democrats to moderate their views on social and cultural issues. It gets enabled by self-defined progressive pundits and activists, who for the past two decades have counseled Democrats to soft-pedal their liberal views on social and cultural issues, so as not to alienate socially conservative economic populists.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it looks as if the Left's much derided cultural liberalism is the key to cementing the Democrats' majority status for the coming years. Here's hoping our Democratic leaders read the fine print of the public opinion polls before this summer's Culture War blockbuster, the SCOTUS hearings, premieres.