It is results like these that make it tempting to agree with Bill Maher’s trenchant remark that “the true axis of evil is the stupidity of our population and the brilliance of our marketing.” However, in this article it is the wisdom of 50-plus percent that by definition will rule. By topic, here is what 20 years of polling tells us our fellow citizens think.
polling results are available to show that the general public doesn’t buy these tired shibboleths, already disproven by comparisons of neighboring states with differing minimum wages. In July of 2015, a group called the Small Business Majority polled the owners of small businesses around the country. The results showed that 60 percent of them supported raising the hourly minimum wage from its present $7.25 to $12, with 75 percent of those in favor saying they “strongly supported” this 60-plus percent increase.
Taxation Fairness—One issue that has faded from its former prominence in the minds of voters is tax reductions, long ago brilliantly rebranded by the right as “tax reform.” Trump uncovered an obvious lack of enthusiasm among angry working-class whites for any further reductions in marginal tax rates on the rich and the super-rich. Yet this has not dimmed the enthusiasm of the Republican Party, and indeed Trump himself, for proposing substantial, upper-bracket-weighted tax reductions. Yet 64 percent of all respondents (and 52 percent of those identified as Republicans) are “bothered a lot” that corporations “don’t pay their fair share” of taxes. And 61 percent of all respondents, including 45 percent of Republicans, were equally bothered that “Wealthy People” don’t pay their fair share.
Of more amusement value than surprise was the 33 percent of Republicans who responded that they were “bothered a lot” that “Poor People” didn’t pay their fair share. Yet a Gallup survey released on Tax Day of this year confirmed that tax reduction has declining potency as an issue. It found that 51 percent of those polled considered their own taxes “too high”—down from 65 percent giving that response in 2001. This indicates, I believe, that back in the heyday of Republican tax-cutting, the average voter viewed such plans as “great—my taxes will be cut.” Today, it is far more likely to be heard as: “They want to cut some fatcat’s taxes, not mine.”
Global Warming/Climate Change—The right has cleverly pitched its opposition to combating climate change as a defense of economic growth. Their argument that progress on one front can only be achieved by a serious cost on the other is even more wrong than usual, yet provides some cover for the climate-change denial that is almost required of every Republican officeholder. Yet this easily refutable position has been met with a strange unwillingness by Democrats to go beyond bland nostrums about the need to treat the issue seriously, leaving unanswered the claim that addressing climate change can only come at unacceptably high direct and indirect economic costs, or that the carbon cap-and-trade scheme once offered by Republicans only became anathema when championed by President Obama.
Democratic candidates should consider what the mass of voters, rather than Republican climate-change-deniers, think about this subject. Some 59 percent told WSJ/NBC pollsters in 2014 that they felt strongly enough about climate change to support limiting carbon emissions. When asked by Gallup this year whether they worried about global warming “A Great Deal” or “A Fair Amount,” 64 percent answered “A Great Deal,”while 36 percent who responded said they worried “Only a Little” or “Not at All.” This would appear to be an arena where voters would respond favorably to serious proposals that show how to reconcile economic growth with a reduction in man-made carbon emissions.
Attitudes Toward Free Trade—Thanks to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in their very different ways, an issue that had been considered a fringe motivator became a subject of public debate this election year. A poll of economists, who obviously have some grasp of the subject matter, would yield a 90 percent-plus vote in favor of “free trade.”
To the average citizen, the concept is less clear. Pew Research conducted a poll in August asking a fairly simple question: Do You Think Free Trade Is Good or Bad? The result was a near-even split between 37 percent saying “Good” and 39 percent selecting “Bad.” Rather telling was the 24 percent who opted for “Don’t Know.” Republicans and Republican-leaners fell into a 61 percent “Bad,” 32 percent “Good” split, while Democrats and Democratic-leaners came out at 58 percent “Good,” 34 percent “Bad.” This issue does not, however, present a clear-cut right-left division, as free-trade opponents occupy both extremes of the political spectrum.
Increased Defense Spending—Getting at underlying public attitudes toward America’s military posture at a given moment is not simple, with views often being influenced by which party occupies the White House. But how Americans see either increasing or decreasing defense spending is a reasonable proxy for whether a given individual wishes to see the United States expand or contract its overseas involvement. Snapshots taken by Pew Research this year and in 2011 provide a particularly useful insight into this issue, as 2011, in retrospect, can be seen as the high-water mark of support for American withdrawal from its extended overseas commitments. In comparison, this year’s primary season saw strong demands by all 16 Republican presidential hopefuls, save Rand Paul, for a large increase in defense spending.
While support for either reducing defense spending or maintaining it at current levels fell from 83 percent to 64 percent in the past five years, those two choices were still favored by 80 percent of Democrats and a solid majority of Independents. Clearly, ISIS and the Syrian crisis have diminished the public’s ardor for a retrenchment in our overseas commitments. But the most striking conclusion to be drawn from these numbers is that, even today, only one out of three Americans wants to see an increase in defense expenditures—a fundamental tenet embraced by Trump and almost all Republicans.
Who Do Americans Trust to Handle Foreign Policy?—This question had always been the Democrats’ achilles’ heel. In 1994, voters rated Republicans the safer choice, by 47 to 28 percent over the Democrats. In 2000, before 9/11, the GOP advantage stood at a narrower but still comfortable 37 percent to 30 percent. It took George W. Bush, and the widely accepted conclusion that the Iraq War was a disaster, for Democrats to come out on top by 2008, with a striking 48 percent to 35 percent advantage. But by this September, the Republicans had regained the upper hand, as Gallup found 47 percent of Americans trusting them better to handle foreign policy, versus 40 percent naming the Democrats.
Abortion—It is now 43 years since Roe v. Wade came down. After an initial 10-year period of surprisingly passive acceptance of the decision as the law of the land, the right—particularly the evangelical right—in the 1980s discovered its usefulness as a wedge issue. This has led to a hardening of positions on both sides. The right has done an effective job of dishonestly presenting its viewpoint as that of a growing majority, while using dishonest political coinages such as “partial-birth abortion,” and defining advocates of a woman’s right to choose as supporters of “abortion on demand.”
Looking at the polling data back over decades, one quickly sees that asking people to self-identify as either “pro-choice” or “pro-life” is a fool’s errand. But one can come to some solid conclusions about public opinion on this complex subject if one breaks responses regarding the desired legality of abortion into not two groups but four:
Those who favor abortion being:
• Always legal
• Legal under most circumstances
• Illegal in most cases
• Always illegal
Over the years, Gallup has found little variance in support for the two camps—when the first two categories are combined and weighed against the combination of the second two. Thus, Pew Research found that 57 percent of Americans polled in 1996 and 56 percent in 2016 said abortion should be legal either “Always” or “In Most Cases,” while those who responded that it should be either “Illegal Always” or “In Most Circumstances” totaled 40 percent in 1996 and 41 percent now. Thus the pro-choice camp has maintained a steady and solid advantage. Even the heated topic of federal funding of Planned Parenthood, despite the intense recent efforts of its opponents, gets a 58 percent thumbs-up.
Today, one of the Republicans’ standard “G’s”—God, Gays, and Guns—has been turned into a solid negative for them.
So where does that leave politicians seeking to balance reasonable policy and political risk? I think it lies in winning over most of the group that wishes to see abortion limited to only a few circumstances (the biggest single sector at an average 36 percent over the past five years) and who are repelled by the absolutist stance of nearly every major Republican politician. This year’s GOP platform avoided spelling out the landmine issues of abortion in the cases of rape or incest, but 59 percent of people polled think abortion should always be permissible in these two extreme circumstances. At the same time, the ironclad opposition by many on the left to any restrictions on abortion is a liability for candidates. The banning of “partial-birth abortion” (or its correct medical description “late-term abortion”), which is already prohibited in 16 states, is supported by 64 percent of potential voters, including 59 percent of Democrats. The reluctance of many progressives to recognize that steady advances in neo-natal science make the failure to support third-trimester bans in all cases except the life of the mother a time bomb for Democrats.
Gun Control—There is no issue where defining the morally correct position and the politically effective stance is a harder needle to thread. You may ask if people favor such measures as requiring background checks at gun shows or for online sales (85 percent do), or if sales to the mentally ill should be banned (a surprisingly lower 79 percent say yes), or if there should be a federal database of gun sales (70 percent are in favor). But these statistics regarding support for specific forms of gun control legislation reveal little about where people actually stand. To discern that, we are grateful once again to Pew Research for asking in July of 2015: Which is more important to you: 1) to control gun ownership or 2) to protect the right to own guns? When forced to choose, 50 percent considered control of gun ownership more important, while 47 percent responded that protecting gun rights was more important.
Capital Punishment—While there is not yet majority support for the liberal position of abolishing state executions, recent polling shows it is tantalizingly close. A poll released by Pew this September showed only 49 percent of respondents favoring capital punishment, with 42 percent opposed—a dramatic swing from the 80 percent support, 16 percent opposed split in 1995. Solid majorities of both Independents and Democrats oppose capital punishment, with only the 72 percent of Republican supporters keeping the overall total marginally in favor of its retention. Eleven states, comprising 26 percent of the nation’s population, have since 2000 either legislatively abolished capital punishment or subjected it to a moratorium imposed by government. (Note: In the November election, Nebraskans voted to overturn their legislature’s abolition of the death penalty, while Oklahoma voters resoundingly endorsed its retention. California sent a mixed signal, defeating a ban on executions while narrowly passing a ballot measure that moderately reformed the process. California, with 750 inmates on death row, has not executed anyone since 2006.)
There is a clear conclusion to be drawn from this deep dive into the polling data regarding what Americans truly believe about an enormous range of issues: despite the right wing having cleverly and dishonestly sold the public on the idea that this is a “conservative” country, the clear majority is most definitely progressive. The most eager purchasers of this skewed view of our polity have been Democratic politicians and the Democratic Party itself. While Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council may have been reading the tea leaves more or less correctly in 1995 when they moved the party toward the center, there is unquestionably a solid majority support for broadly progressive views in America today. This means that there should be a solidly progressive electoral majority, enough to not just elect a Democratic President, but also a Democratic majority in the Senate. The House, due to brilliant post-2010 GOP gerrymandering, requires by expert estimate about a 7 percent greater Democratic vote just to ensure a 50-50 split, and that may be a bridge too far for at least one or two more election cycles. Should we ever again have a “normal” election, it is my hope—and my belief—that these realities about what Americans truly believe will, at long last, assert themselves.
Post-election Afterword: I completed this article months before the election, expecting a different outcome. Neither I nor the editor expected to find ourselves having to justify how the views of a clear majority of Americans on nearly every major political, economic, and social issue could possibly be rationalized with the results of the election, which Trump won in the Electoral College, although trailing Hillary Clinton by approximately 2.8 million votes.
My hope is that this presentation of the underlying views of a majority of Americans will enable readers to oppose the false prophets of further accommodation with the right, and to arm themselves with the knowledge that time, demographics, and the American people are on the side of progressives. Reconciling the views of Americans with how they vote I will have to leave to others. —R.S.
Now go read the original article which you can find here
Roger Smith worked at the precinct level in New York in the 1960s on both of John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaigns and in 1972 co-chaired the spectacularly unsuccessful “Wall Street for McGovern” organization. He also worked for Senator Frank Church’s presidential bid in 1976. During the ’70s, he wrote a series of financial articles for Playboy under the nom de plume John B. Tipton. Over the past two decades, his journalistic focus has been on the media and entertainment industry, including a biweekly column in Variety on the economics of all aspects of entertainment—“It’s Only Money”—from 1999-2001. His politics have been unapologetically liberal all these years.