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 points.

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 Party primaries.

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

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