Yes Virginia, There is a New Progressive America: A Reply to Jay Cost

Yes Virginia, There is a New Progressive America: A Reply to Jay Cost

By Ruy Teixeira - March 18, 2009

First, let me thank Jay Cost, whose own data analyses I always find worthwhile, for taking the time to go over my report, New Progressive America, and offer some comments. I don't agree with his interpretation but I do appreciate his effort to engage the argument.

Cost makes three basic points: 1) there is no law that says the demographic changes described in my report will necessarily benefit progressives, at least over the long haul; 2) short-term factors like the economy and presidential approval dominate elections, so you can't really tell whether long-term or realigning factors played a role when comparing 2008 to 1988; and 3) the public opinion data I cited in my report do not show that the public is progressive. Let's take these each in turn.

Cost is right there is no iron law that says the demographic changes described in my report will continue benefiting progressives to, say, 2048 (a date he mentions in his comments). But they do right now and will likely continue to do so for quite some time until conservatives develop a political approach rising demographic groups find attractive. Until then, it will matter a great deal that groups like minorities, professionals, single and college-educated women, secular voters and the Millennial generation are increasing their share of voters, while the white working class, the mainstay of conservative support for decades, is rapidly declining.

In theory, the progressive "mix effect" of increased voter share for progressive groups could be balanced or even overcome by large within group shifts toward conservatives. But where are these within group shifts to come from? Indeed, the most significant within group shift I see going on right now is among white college graduates, who, voter shifts and opinion data tell us, are becoming increasingly hostile, not friendly, toward conservatives.

Cost's second point is that comparing 1988 and 2008 is not useful because of the role of short-term forces in elections. This seems dubious. In 1988, George H.W. Bush tried for, in essence, the third Reagan term and in 2008 McCain tried for the third George W. Bush term. The first won; the second lost. Comparing the composition of the electorate and the shifting patterns of support across the two elections tells us how long-term forces contributed to the 2008 outcome and its potential durability, with some groups and areas growing much more than others and some groups and areas shifting much more than others. Short-term forces--animosity toward Bush (though is that purely a short-term factor with no long-term component?), the economic situation--certainly put the overall electorate in motion in 2008 but how that electorate was structured and which parts of the electorate moved the farthest reflected these long-term forces. So you need to factor in both short and long term forces to understand the 2008 election and its significance moving forward.

Of course, there are some--Cost appears to be one--who argue that all elections are not much more than short-term forces and that's all you need to look at. By that logic, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was all about short-term discontent with Carter and the economy and the shifting patterns of support compared to twenty years previously were not of much significance. But that wasn't true then and I suspect the argument that Obama's victory was all short-term forces will also turn out to be incorrect.

Cost's third point is that the public opinion data I put forward don't show that the American public leans progressive. One problem here is he only references the data from our new political ideology survey, as if that was the only data I mentioned. In fact, I spend 6,000 words going over data from many other surveys besides our own to document the public's current progressivism--a progressivism that seems well-attuned to the ambitious goals of the Obama administration. Please consult the report for copious detail.

But it is also true that our new survey does in fact show that the public leans progressive. The survey included a battery of 40 statements, each of which was a positive expression of either a conservative or progressive argument, with an even mix between conservative and progressive arguments. Overall, Americans expressed more agreement with the progressive than conservative arguments. Indeed, six of the top seven statements in terms of level of agreement, and eight of the top ten, were progressive statements. These statements included such items as the need for government investment in education, infrastructure and science, the need for a transition to clean energy, the need for government regulation and the need to provide financial support for the poor, the sick and the elderly, the need for a positive image around the world to promote our national security, the idea that our security is best promoted by diplomacy, alliances and international institutions and the idea that America should play a leading role in addressing climate change through reduced emissions and international agreements. This is not to say that conservative arguments do not retain considerable strength--they do, as the report clearly and, I think, very honestly documents. But the net of progressive and conservative views at this point favors progressives.

More broadly, Cost emphasizes that there is no way to be certain that I'm right in my claims about a new progressive America. True enough--there is no way to be absolutely certain. But the shifts and trends documented in my report suggest I'm probably right. Cost may choose to believe it's of no real significance that growing demographic groups and areas of the country are strengthening progressives, while conservatives are holding their own only where America is stagnant and declining. He may even be able to convince conservatives that he is right. In doing so, however, is he doing them a disservice? The longer conservatives believe nothing has really changed, the longer they will resist doing what they need to do: change their positions, soften their ideology and move toward the new progressive center of American politics. After all, it may be a progressive center, but it's still the center. And eventually conservatives are going to have to deal with that.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at both The Century Foundation and American Progress, as well as a Fellow of the New Politics Institute. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he is co-directing a joint Brookings-American Enterprise Institute project on political demography and geography, The Future of Red, Blue and Purple America.

Ruy Teixeira

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