In the current issue of the Atlantic, Peter Beinart makes an effort to revive a version of the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis, arguing that demographic change and the rise of Millennial generation is pushing the country to the left, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Beinart makes a convincing case that the country is moving in a liberal—or perhaps more accurately, libertarian—direction on many social issues, including criminal justice reform, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights (even if it is moving right, or not moving at all, on other social issues, like guns and abortion). He also persuasively argues that the Democratic Party has shifted dramatically to the left over the last several years, a trend we’ve been following closely.
But on the question of whether Americans as a whole are growing more confident in the ability of government to solve the nation’s problems, Beinart’s essay does not persuade. Any leftward realignment worthy of the name (and Beinart compares our current moment to the great realignments of the 20th century—the New Deal and the Reagan revolution) would have to entail a sustained shift in public perceptions of government, a new openness to the idea of the state taking on a greater role in American society. And there is little evidence that such a shift is taking place. From a Gallup poll released Tuesday:
When asked to choose among big government, big labor and big business, Americans overwhelmingly name big government as the biggest threat to the country in the future. The 69% choosing big government is down slightly from a high of 72% in 2013, the last time Gallup asked the question, but is still one of the highest percentages choosing big government in Gallup’s 50-year trend. […]
Half of Americans say the federal government poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms, and Congress’ job approval continues to languish — perhaps explaining why so many see big government as the biggest threat to the country.
Moreover, contrary to Beinart’s assertion that President Obama’s liberal programs have sparked “no public backlash,” the share of Americans naming government as the greatest threat to the nation’s future has on the whole risen sharply during the President’s tenure, and is now 16 points higher than it was in 2009.
This one Gallup trend doesn’t by itself mean Beinart is wrong. Polling can be a tricky business, and predicting the political mood of the country always involves guesswork and intuition. Moreover, Beinart is right that constituencies like Millennials and minorities are more liberal than the rest of the public (though the gap appears to be shrinking, and there are good reasons to wonder whether it will last). The poll is useful, however, because it highlights what is likely to be the most serious obstacle to a major leftward push in American politics: Americans’ rising individualism. Progressives will surely be able to make progress here and there—especially on social issues—but the country’s increasingly libertarian bent means that those on the left girding for social democracy shouldn’t be holding their breath.