Making Progressivism Real
by Shai Sachs, Fri Nov 16, 2007 at 11:54:59 AM EST
On Monday, Chris Bowers wrote about a fascinating Lear/Zogby study on entertainment choices and ideological orientation. The study is interesting because in addition to asking respondents to self-identify as liberal, conservative, or moderate, the study asks respondents a flurry of questions and then assigns ideological markers ("Blue", "Red", and "Purple") to respondents post-hoc.
Bowers argues that the most significant way to produce political change is to support cultural institutions which produce progressive ideological change will make a much larger difference in electoral and legislative outcomes than anything that is done in the political world. I think it's a very wise point. Clever campaign ads and better voter targeting will only take a progressive candidate so far in a world where progressives are vastly outnumbered by conservatives. Contra-wise, even a very poorly run campaign for a progressive candidate can succeed in a world awash with progressives. That's why labor unions, progressive news and opinion media, and liberal religious organizations are so important: they are cultural institutions which make progressivism real for people who may not be tuned into politics actively, and thereby make people more progressive. The first-order political impacts of these organizations, like church voter registration drives and campaign donations from unions, are just gravy.
For a long time, I've assumed that creating the kind of ideological change that will result in parity between progressives and conservatives is going to be a mammoth task. That's largely because ideological self-identification in exit polls has produced pretty steady results for a long time - about 33% of the electorate identifies as conservative, 20% as liberal, and the remaining 47% as moderate.
However, the new Zogby/Lear survey paints quite a different picture. The survey puts about 39% of the country in the "Blue" team, 37% of the country in the "Red" team, and the remaining 24% in the "Purple" team. That's an astounding result! It means that a large chunk of the progressive base is going to the polls and thinking of themselves as "moderates", rather than as "liberals". Indeed, the survey data bear this out. When asked to self-identify ideologically, Blue team members spread out almost equally between "progressive" (31.1%), "liberal" (36.6%), and "moderate" (31.5%). In contrast, 87% of Red team members described themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative", with another 12% describing themselves as "moderate". (It's important to note that these ideological self-identifications didn't seem to matter for the presidential vote. Despite having many more self-described moderates, the Blue team voted 95.6% for Kerry, as opposed to the 98.6% of the Red team which voted for Bush; the comparable numbers among self-identified liberals and conservatives voting for Kerry and Bush respectively are in the mid-80s in exit polls. It's hard to say whether the Blue team slipped in voting progressively in down-ballot races. Finally, it's worth )
In light of these findings, I think the Center for American Progress's "Progressive and Proud of it" advertising campaign is both timely and wise. If you haven't seen the videos, click over there and check them out. I like them, a lot, although I do have some quibbles with the details. (For example, why put two white guys in the knock-off Mac commercials? Shouldn't progressives be represented by someone who's either not white, or not a guy?)
On the whole, however, this advertising campaign, along with similar efforts like Commonweal Institute's "Promoting Progressive Values" project, are exactly the kind of thing we need. These efforts help people who might not be politically involved understand what progressivism is, and why they should identify with it. At the same time, these efforts lay the groundwork for candidates to self-identify as progressive, and to follow-through on that self-identification with progressive actions while in office. If there's a large group of voters willing to call themselves progressives, candidates and elected officials have an interest in identifying themselves with that group.
In a way, the progressive ads are very similar to liberal cultural institutions. Institutions like unions, liberal churches, schools, and news media make ideology real by connecting the abstract concepts of an ideology with the tangible facts of everyday life. That is why we in the progressive movement should be working diligently to support labor organizing, establish and expand the reach of liberal religious organizations, and create progressive news and opinion media. These are the kinds of activities which are ultimately going to keep our movement growing.