David Coates

Chapter 1: Introduction

As Answering Back went to press, Ruy Teixeira published his survey of American political opinion at the start of the Obama presidency, New Progressive America (Washington, Center for American Progress, March 2009). Teixeir’s general thesis is that America is no longer a center-right political culture but a more center-left one. ‘It is clear,” he wrote that public acceptance of the Reagan-Bush model of conservatism – limited government, tax cuts, traditional values, and military strength – has given way to a broad and deep cross-section of the American public holding solidly progressive attitudes about government and society (RT, writing in The Nation, May 2009)

The survey gathered responses to 40 statements split evenly between progressive and conservative opinions. It found, for example, 80% support for the view that “government investments in education, infrastructure and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth”; 69% agreement that “government has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick and the elderly”; and 73% support for the view that “government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers” (New Progressive America, p. 35). The report also argued that demographic trends will increase support for progressive causes: increasing the presence of minority voters, voters born between 1978 and 1990, professional and college-trained graduates, and diminishing the weight of white working class voters whose growing conservatism was such a marked feature of the Reagan years. “By the election of 2016,” Teixeira wrote, “it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation”. Key sections of the new electorate are said to be more concerned with the economy, education and the environment than were their predecessors, and less moved by the traditional agenda of the culture war. If all that is true, political power is something that progressives, now having won, should be able to retain by staying true to their principles rather than by compromising them in some misguided search for bipartisanship and the floating conservative voter

That, of course, remains to be seen. Certainly bipartisanship – so prized by the Obama administration – largely eluded them through 2009. Republicans willing to reach across the aisle continued to be censored by their own party base: that was Lindsay Graham’s fate in November 2009, and also Charlie Crisp’s as he sought the Republican Senate seat vacated by Mel Martinez. Recommended reading for young conservatives in 2009 was less likely to be Obama’s The Audacity of Hope than it was the widely redistributed Atlas Shrugged, the work of the intensely pro-business and anti-statist novelist of the Cold War years, Ayn Rand.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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