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Why isn’t there a progressive majority in the US?

November 25, 2007

Progressive politics center on a few core commitments — the value of some kinds of equality (equality of opportunity, equality of access to some central social goods like education and healthcare), a concern for the pattern of rising inequality in income and wealth in the United States since 1980, a commitment to the idea of a social welfare net for all citizens, a concern for international justice, a concern for the global environment, and a concern that our nation should not use military force aggressively or wantonly. These values highlight inequality and injustice as particularly important wrongs, and they support political agendas that would strive to create greater equality and justice in our country and the world.

The question here is, why has it been supremely difficult to create a progressive majority in the United States?

Consider first a material calculation of interests. Let’s assume that people choose what party or candidate to support based on the effects that party would have on their own interests, if successful in gaining office. There are tens of millions of Americans who lack access to health insurance. Even larger numbers fall below the level of a family income of $50,000. And increasing millions of young Americans are finding that the rising privatization of the costs of public education are making university attendance impossible. The progressive values mentioned above suggest policy goals that would address all these interests. So why does this constituency not create an electoral majority, based simply on a calculation of material interest? Why has a party not emerged that successfully crafts an agenda capable of mobilizing this majority?

Consider next the workings of a factor that has played such a decisive role in American politics, fundamentalist moral and social values. These are the “social issues” that get the blogosphere going and that motivate some voters so strongly. These values are working against the material interests of the majority just enumerated (because they lead to the success of parties and politicians dedicated to an anti-progressive agenda). So why do these values find a foothold among non-privileged voters in sufficient numbers to swing elections?

One part of the answer to these questions derives from a more realistic understanding of the mechanisms of political choice formation in this country. Parties and candidates are able to influence voters on the basis of their ability to raise campaign moneys and to use these funds to put together marketing campaigns that shape the minds of potential voters. This appears not to be a rational process, but rather one that turns on emotion, misrepresentation, and framing. It is an exercise in applied social psychology rather than rational debate. So if campaign strategists can turn funding into persuasion, then the “material interest” theory above is to some extent neutralized. And therefore we shouldn’t expect a majority defined simply in terms of its shared material interests, to turn into an effective electoral majority.

Combined with this point about political funding and marketing is the creation of a substantially greater sophistication when it comes to disaggregating and combining the micro-demography of a particular election. Targeted campaign marketing has turned into a big business and an effective political strategy. The tactics of mobilizing the faithful while depressing the opponents have reached the level of a fairly successful form of social engineering.

What these points amount to is a fairly gloomy assessment of today’s democracy. Parties succeed in distracting voters from their real interests and commitments by shaping meaningless ideological debates, framing issues in false or misleading terms, obscuring the real underlying issues, and manipulating election outcomes with micro-electoral information. And so the real interests of a majority of voters may continue to be ignored.

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