A big step in nation's march to left

November 12, 2006|By Paul Waldman

The last time a midterm election brought this kind of change to the Washington power structure, reporters and pundits explained that it was more than the product of clever election strategy, a couple of scandals or a failed policy. Instead, we were told in 1994 that the results at the ballot box signaled something deeper and more fundamental: a shift in Americans' beliefs.

"The country has unmistakably moved to the right," wrote The New York Times the day after Republicans took both houses of Congress. "The huge Republican gains also marked a clear shift to the right in the country," said The Washington Post. Similar notes were sounded after Republican wins in 2002 and 2004.

Yet, for some reason, we have yet to hear the opinion-makers tell us that Tuesday's election means that the country has "moved to the left."

But if 1994 was a move to the right, then 2006 would certainly qualify as a move to the left. After all, Republicans have owned all three branches of government for most of the last six years. They lowered taxes on the wealthy, increased spending on defense, cut or ignored regulation in areas such as environmental protection and worker safety, and pursued a bellicose foreign policy - the very program conservatives have been advocating for decades. The problem was that Americans weren't happy with the results.

Yet if recent experience is a guide, we shouldn't be too surprised that pundits haven't spotted a shift to the left in the rejection Republicans suffered Tuesday. This has been the pattern in recent years: When Democrats win, we're told it was a matter of circumstance or an unusually skillful candidate. When Republicans win, we're told it was because Americans are becoming more conservative.

Why? Because many members of the media have internalized the attacks conservatives have made on them for decades and come to adopt the complimentary conservative picture of what America is all about.

Journalists have accepted the idea that they are an urban elite disconnected from the "real America." They live in places such as Washington and New York, where liberal ideas dominate. The rest of the country, therefore, must be filled with conservatives. So when Democrats win, it can only be an accident of history - but when Republicans win, it must be a pure expression of popular will.

But the fact is that nearly all the movement in American public opinion in recent decades has been in one direction: to the left. This evolution is precisely why conservatives have grown so angry about the "culture wars" - because they're losing.

In 1977, the General Social Survey found 66 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement, "It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family." By 2004, that figure had fallen to 36 percent.

To take another example, a 1987 Pew poll found that only 48 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "It's all right for blacks and whites to date each other." By 2003, the number agreeing had risen to 77 percent, and it will no doubt keep rising in our ever-more-diverse society.

Conservatives might protest that opposition to interracial dating isn't a "conservative" position - but that's only because all sides have now accepted what was once the liberal position. In other words, we've moved to the left. Our ideas about race, gender roles, child rearing and a host of other matters have grown increasingly progressive over time. And that isn't even mentioning issues such as health care, the minimum wage or Social Security, where the liberal position has long been the more popular one.

Yet, through smart politicking, Republicans managed to hold on to power. By keeping their base energized and organized, they ensured that they wouldn't be beaten on turnout alone. Combined with ruthless redistricting to increase the number of safe Republican seats, and relentless exploitation of 9/11 - not to mention some key Democratic missteps - it was enough to get more than 50 percent on Election Day.

But it could only work for so long, particularly when their positions on issues don't command majority support. In fact, looking at public opinion over the last few decades, issues seem to come in two types: those on which the public is steadily moving to the left, and those, such as abortion and gun control, on which opinions barely budge no matter what happens in the political arena. Although Americans may be more conservative than our friends in Western Europe, it is virtually impossible to find a fundamental issue on which the public is moving steadily to the right.

When Republicans took over both houses in Congress in 1994, commentators told President Bill Clinton that his policies had been repudiated. The country had moved to the right, they said, so if Mr. Clinton wanted to salvage his presidency, he should do the same. In many ways, he followed their advice.

In the wake of resounding Democratic wins, will we hear the same voices advising President Bush to move to the left? Knowing what we do about Mr. Bush, the idea that he would listen to such a suggestion seems fanciful. But unless they want to see more defeats in the coming years, his fellow Republicans might want to think about it.

Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group, and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough." His e-mail is pwaldman@mediamatters.org.

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