Notes for a Progressive Agenda
by David Dyssegaard Kallick
The Nation magazine, November 23, 1998
Most political strategists assume the road to victory is through
the middle. What if, instead of fishing for supporters in the
center, progressives began by getting our own house in order?
What if we decided to hash out our differences, get clear about
our priorities and move into the broader public debate from an
impassioned and coherent base (think Christian Coalition)?
In order to learn more about who the members of progressive
organizations are and what could galvanize them, the New World
Foundation commissioned a poll of members of nine progressive
organizations. The poll, conducted by the respected firm Zogby
International, was jointly released on November 5 by the New World
Foundation, the Preamble Center and The Nation.
Not even the most poll-driven politician would craft a message
around a single survey. Still, the 113-question poll of more than
1,800 people "is a much-needed beginning to open a window
into what a program might look like if we led with o membership,"
says Colin Greer, president of the New World Foundation. And if
the experience of the pollsters making these phone calls is any
guide, the members are hungry for engagement in this kind of conversation
and pleased to fee their views count. Except on issues directly
related to the group's purpose (environment for environmentalists,
labor for labor organizations) there was little divergence in
either beliefs or demographics among the poll respondents, who
were drawn from a variety of grassroots an national organizations
that agreed to cooperate with the poll. They were: the Center
for Health, Environment and Justice; the Hunger Action Network
of New York State; Jobs With Justice the Labor Party; the National
Network for Immigrant Rights; the Natural Resources Defense Council;
the World Federalist Association; and the subscription lists of
The Progressive Populist and the Utne Reader. Here are some of
the major findings:
* Racism. Respondents ranked it as the country's single most
important social problem, followed by poverty, corporate power,
jobs/economy, environment, moral decline and education.
* Diversity. Beyond seeing negative consequences of racism,
progressives see positive benefits in diversity. For example,
89 percent of respondents agreed that "racial and cultural
diversity in our schools are very important."
* Economics. Progressives feel strongly and consistently that
corporations hold too much power, end they are willing to support
practical policies that reduce or balance that power.
* Environment. "Environmental concerns are as important
as economic concerns," agree 94 percent of the sample group.
* Healthcare. Eighty-seven percent of this core group feel
"the federal government should guarantee national health
care for everyone." Seventy-seven percent feel "the
profit motive should be removed from the provision of health care."
* Daycare. Progressives are eager to see solutions to the
problems of daycare, with 90 percent saying government should
make a major investment in daycare centers.
Agreement was also strong on abortion rights and on putting
a priority on drug prevention over incarceration.
On other questions, this constituency is divided or has reached
only a weak consensus. Progressives split on gay rights issues,
for example, with a substantial number strongly supporting making
same-sex marriage legal at the federal level and 19 percent strongly
opposed. School vouchers are controversial.
While core progressives show strong agreement on identifying
social problems, they are less unified when it comes to solutions.
They may be very concerned about racism, for example, but their
support for affirmative action is tepid. Similarly, poverty and
jobs rank high as problems, yet traditional liberal solutions
(such as welfare payments or providing government jobs) do not
generate much enthusiasm. A strategy built on consolidating the
core progressive constituency must include either new thinking
about solutions or new efforts to gain support for existing models.
As important as the program that can be drawn from this poll
is the proof it offers that, for the most part, core progressives
are demographically very similar to the rest of the country. Based
| on what we know from other polls, there is every reason to believe
that what resonates most strongly with this population could generate
majority support among the general public.
Fifteen percent of the progressive sample make under $15,000
pa year, compared with 17 percent of a Zogby general population
sample. Another 15 percent make $15,000 to $24,000, compared with
16 percent in the general population. All the way up through income
categories of ova $75,000, the gap is never larger than 6 percentage
Progressive groups slightly under-represent people of color.
Non-Hispanic whites make up 83 percent of the progressive sample
versus 80 percent of the total population in a 1996 US Census
survey; African-Americans make up 8 percent versus 10 percent;
Hispanics make up 3 percent versus 5 percent; Asians/ Pacific
Islanders are 1 percent versus 1 percent; and "Other"
are 5 percent versus 4 percent.
Women make up 46 percent of those polled and 52 percent of
the population. In the progressive sample, 49 percent of women
work outside the home; in a Zogby general population sample the
figure was 51 percent. Progressives tend, in numbers similar to
those of the general population, to be: married (54 percent versus
60 percent), divorced (13 percent versus 10 percent), single (21
percent versus 24 percent and widowed (10 percent versus 7 percent).
Some 3 percent reported they were living with a partner, a category
the US Census does not include. The progressive sample is very
slightly older than the general population, with real differences
only in the highest age group (37 percent are over 65, compared
with 25 percent in the 1996 US Census) and the lowest 7 percent
are 18-29, versus l3 percent in the census).
In two significant ways, however-education and religion- core
progressives are different from the general population. Only 2
percent of the progressive sample did not finish high school,
compared with 18 percent of the general population. Ninety-two
percent of progressives have at least some college, versus 48
percent in a 1997 US Census. Forty-one percent have a postgraduate
degree (a number so unusual Zogby statisticians ran it twice),
compared with 8 percent in the census.
These numbers suggest that if there is a class difference
between progressives and most Americans, the split is not about
economics but education (and perhaps culture). Interestingly,
this class difference shows up inside the sample group as well:
Those with the highest levels of educational attainment are the
most progressive, as that term was defined by the polling firm
for purposes of the survey; those with the least education are
the least progressive. Does this mean progressives are more educated
than conservatives? Or are "joiners" and leaders on
both sides of the spectrum more educated than non-joiners-implying
the existence of an elite political class that cuts across ideological
lines? This would be a useful direction for further investigation.
On the matter of religion, Protestants make up 34 percent of the
progressive sample compared with 44 percent of a 1996 voter exit
poll. Among this group, 19 percent of progressives and 22 percent
of the general sample say they are born-again Christians. Fifteen
percent of progressives are Roman Catholic, compared with 25 percent
in a 1996 general poll; 7 percent are Jewish, compared with 1
percent in the population; and 16 percent are "Other ' compared
with 30 percent in the population. Fully 28 percent claim no religious
affiliation, an option not available to the general population
sample. Finding ways to resonate more strongly with religious
Christians is an important challenge for a progressive strategy
that seeks to rely on this base.
There is one other important difference between core progressives
end the general population: voting habits. Some 93 percent of
the progressive sample say they voted in the 1996 election, compared
with only 48 percent of eligible voters nationwide. This argues
strongly for a strategy built around mobilizing core progressives,
a strategy that could work especially well in low-turnout Democratic
If the poll throws light on how urgently progressives need
to develop our public political philosophy-what is at its softest
called our "story" and at its hardest our "ideology"-it
also reveals the fact that on many issues, progressive leaders
could be a lot more daring than they are. "I'm glad to know
that sometimes we're not taking as much of a risk as we think
we are," said Fred Azcarate, national director of Jobs With
Justice. All in all, trusting the membership of progressive organizations
might lead us to a stronger politics than we have imagined.
David Dyssegaard Kallick was staff/consultant to the New World
Foundation and is a senior fellow of the preamble Center. A full
report of the poll results can be found at www.preamble.org.